Ten or more years ago, the best example I could give you of a subset of people who wasted large chunks of their time at work fiddling with personal publications was the hardcore music “fan ‘zine” set, many of whom worked at Kinko’s simply for access to the copiers, computers and paper so crucial to their output. In recent years, that subset has expanded exponentially to include enough of the contemporary workforce that employers often now utilize office monitoring software to keep their employees off of their blogs, their Friendster and Myspace pages, and so forth. No doubt that when Michel de Certeau wrote of la perruque (basically a French idiom for “stealing from the workplace”) in The Practice of Everyday Life he had no idea how fittingly it would describe 21st century Internet usage. The concept fits so perfectly for the vast amounts of time wasted everyday at an employer’s expense that one can imagine ads for the aforementioned software quoting de Certeau directly on the box: “LA PERRUQUE IS INFILTRATING ITSELF EVERYWHERE!” And now that the broadcast of web-based blogs has replaced the narrow niche of the photocopied ‘zine [and further, that what was once “subculture” has simply become “culture”], passively and/or aggressively, we’ve become de Certeau’s “very ordinary culture” of subversives engaged in “economic diversion”, stealing company time (and bandwidth) when we think no one is looking. The list of enabling vehicles for these “uses and tactics” grows with each new Internet phenomenon: my new favorite diversion is YouTube.com.
Even if you’ve wasted very little of your precious time on YouTube, you know what lurks there: fuzzy homemade videos of skinny emo boys punching each other in the crotch; infinite clips of half-naked 13-year old girls lip-synching to “My Humps” while rolling and shaking their own not-quite-developed humps to crappy off-camera boom boxes; shaky handheld footage of groups of guys beating the hell out of other groups of guys; stupid TV and movie parodies, re-edited with help from TiVo and iMovie; pixilated blooper reels of cows shitting on news reporters, monkeys attacking talk show hosts, and even a killer whale squashing a kayaker (fake, by the way). YouTube and its colleagues, like Putfile and Google Video, are the future (or at least the present) of a new democratic visual archive. If eBay is America’s yard sale, then YouTube is our A/V closet, and it looks a lot like an amalgamation of the Faces of Death series, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jerry Springer, American Idol auditions, home made child porn, and the kind of footage previously only found at flea markets and thrift stores. It’s a mess, just like everything else.
But like so many closets, if you dig deeply enough you’re sure to find something interesting. Buried within the endless supplies of Numa song remakes and shitty “sponsor me” skateboard videos are some real gems: a friend of mine sent me this link (http://www.youtube.com/?v=F4wi_-oP-0E) to a clip of two Russian teens who can apparently run, jump or climb over anything, Jackie Chan-style. Or this Internet nugget (http://www.youtube.com/?v=L854AFW7GhU) mashing up a song from the Avenue Q musical with animation from a World of Warcraft video game. Or best of all, replacing the old ‘zine, with its poorly photocopied pictures of the Misfits or S.O.A. [to which my heart is still loyal, I might add] is an amazing, disorganized, and often equally amateurish archive of off-beat, early, or hard-to-find punk and hardcore music concert videos that people have culled from their private collections and posted to the site. If you’re willing to wade through the thousands of videos like “Alyssa and Patty Dancing Hardcore” or “Hardcore Kid on American Idol”, you’ll find a seemingly endless vein of videos by the Monks, Black Flag, the Misfits, Negative Approach, Bad Brains, Youth of Today, Naked City, Bikini Kill, Napalm Death, S.O.A., Void and so many more.
Due to the giant square pixels, overly compressed audio tracks, and various watermarks, these are certainly not archival quality pieces in online museum—but it’s all free. Like so many other inventions in the new economy, there’s no charge to host or to download the content. It is only a matter of time before some big institution steps in and messes with the site (like Napster or Myspace), but for now, it’s an interesting look into our collective psyche. Just whose psyche it is might up for grabs, though. I can’t speak for the volumes of weird homemade videos of kids dancing in their rooms or causing a scene at the mall, Jackass-style, but the music videos are obviously posted by fans—people who’ve spent a lot of time or money to collect rare videos of their favorite bands. Unlike on eBay, where collecting means hording away from everyone else, on YouTube, collecting means sharing. You can’t “keep” any of what is posted there; videos stream from the server, so you never download any actual content. And links often go bad, especially if the artist is well known (oh Prince, damnitall, please just let the world watch your 1985 American Music Awards clip whenever they need a lift!). But the specialist stuff is out there, if you’re willing to search for it. Judging by the number of hours so many have logged onto the site, apparently people are very much willing.