YouTube's Great Influence, for Good and for Ill

You wouldn't think that a computer professor's lecture on dying and the violent beating of a teenage girl by a bunch of cheerleaders would have anything in common.  But they do.  And its name is YouTube.

Internet video is a powerful medium.  It can make regular Joes and Janes into instant celebrities or at least drive headlines for a news cycle or two.  Remember the high school student who called the school superintendent to ask why school hadn't been cancelled on a snowy day and got a tongue lashing by the superintendent's wife?  The audio tape went viral on the Internet and the student's story was covered by every morning news program the next day.  Or take the music group OK Go, whose YouTube video in which they performed a song on treadmills led to a radio hit? And of course there's the Obama Girl.

This week every morning network news program has reported on the cheerleaders who beat another teenage girl senseless.  Reporters covering the story said the vicious cheerleaders videotaped the 30-minute beating so they could post the video on YouTube.  They craved Internet celebrity.  As of this writing, that video is the fifth most viewed on YouTube today, with more than 58,000 people checking it out.

And then there's Randy Pausch.  The video of a lecture he gave at Carnegie Mellon University in September of 2007 has almost one million YouTube views as of this writing.  It has spawned a book that is on sale today and is the subject of a Diane Sawyer Primetime special tonight on ABC.

Pausch, a 47-year-old father of three and computer science professor, is dying of pancreatic cancer.  His YouTube video is a recording of a “last lecture” he gave as part of a speaking series at Carnegie Mellon.  Professors there are asked to give a one-hour “last lecture” of things they'd want to say before they die.  For most it is an exercise in creativity.  For Pausch it was the real deal.

In an interview about the Primetime special on, Pausch said he never intended the lecture to be recorded.  His speech was something he wanted to say to his young children who may not remember him as their father when they grow up.  The youngest is 18 months old.  But his message of living positively, of striving to achieve dreams, has resonated with millions of people.  Some reports on the viral video effect of Pausch's lecture estimate that it may have been downloaded six million times.

According to a 2006 article in the journal Entertainment and Sports Lawyer, YouTube, which was started in 2005 by two guys in a room above a pizza shop, is now an “Internet destination” with more than 70 million videos being viewed by millions of people around the world.  The article was talking about the copyright impact that videosharing presented and speculated that the impact of viral video would be long felt.  The authors were right.  YouTube made a mark on the 2008 political landscape with CNN/YouTube debates held in the fall of 2007.  The videosharing idea has clearly taken hold in the culture.

In fact the YouTube concept has inspired other videosharing sites, some of which seek a niche market, like GodTube.   The most recent addition to the videosharing landscape is the Media Research Center's, which launched April 2.

Clearly the Internet and internet video have far-reaching impact and cultural significance.  And like all media it is a two-sided coin.  While Internet videosharing clearly has the power to benefit society and inspire good, like Pausch's “Last Lecture,” the flip side is also true.  In the quest for celebrity some people will go to disgusting lengths, like beating someone senseless, to use YouTube to promote themselves. 

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.