In a famous medical study, scientists hooked the pleasure center of a lab rat's brain up to a self-controlled switch. The rodent practically wore out the button by repeatedly pushing it — to the exclusion of even feeding itself.
I exhibit similar behavior whenever I go to the YouTube website. Lately, I've been compulsively clicking my mouse to rerun The Easter Bunny Hates You, which, as far as I'm concerned, is 112 seconds of bliss. The short film's plot solely consists of a guy in a white bunny suit chasing down people and whaling on them with violent creativity, like forcing cellophane Easter basket grass into one victim's mouth. For a one-joke clip, its camp action-movie vocabulary is pitch perfect. I can't get enough.
YouTube.com doesn't always originate material like The Easter Bunny Hates You, but since its start just over a year ago, the self-described "digital video repository" has become a one-stop shop for the funny/strange ephemera of the World Wide Web.
Former PayPal employees developed YouTube as an easy means to upload, view, and share video, but it's not the only such site on the Internet. Google Video serves a similar function, and later this year Microsoft will introduce a comparable project called Warhol (named, no doubt, for the 15 minutes of fame video-sharing promises). At this moment in the zeitgeist, however, YouTube can claim the greatest popularity, with users uploading 20,000 to 35,000 new videos and watching 20 million to 30 million clips every day.
That's not to say you'd want to see all of them ... or even most of them. Much of YouTube consists of cute babies, wacky animals, and sports injuries, like a World's Funniest Videos show programmed by its audience. For better or worse, YouTube facilitates video blogging, so young people with webcams can expound on, like, whatever. In-person journal entries can spawn international fans and mean-spirited replies, leading to staggeringly inane and petty feuds.
Beyond their own navels, YouTube's youthful contributors seem fascinated with exactly the kind of pop-culture phenomena that you'd expect: hip-hop, Star Wars, porn stars, the internet itself, etc. Perhaps the most prevalent, self-produced micro-genre finds students lip-syncing to pop songs. If YouTube has any breakout celebrities, they're probably The Back Dorm Boys, two Chinese college students who stage wryly funny, one-take videos of themselves miming such tunes as the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." It's like watching their dorky but somehow graceful hijinks through a two-way mirror in the students' dorm room.
YouTube organizes its clips by such criteria as Most Watched, Most Discussed, and Highest Rated, and at the top of the heap you'll frequently find the likes of Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox's slap-fight homage to the martial arts choreography of the Mortal Kombat video game. With exceptions like "Guitar" (a shy headbanger's virtuoso, heavy-metal version of Pachelbel's Canon), they're silly and amateurish. Yet the best clips capture the authentic exuberance of youthful goofing off, along the lines of the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night.
YouTube's audience received a big boost in December when it posted Saturday Night Live's "Lazy Sunday," Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg's gangsta-stye rap about such lily-white pastimes as checking out The Chronicles of Narnia. YouTube received five million views before NBC asked the site to remove it, suggesting that mainstream media hasn't decided whether the free publicity is better than losing control of copyrighted material. Britain's SkyOne channel granted YouTube permission to air the re-creation of The Simpsons' title sequence with live actors, currently another favorite.
Anything on YouTube, or in the greater pop culture landscape, can inspire instant imitation, commentary, and revision. Sometimes you can't tell the difference between frivolous satire and cutting, artistic deconstruction. The spate of Brokeback Mountain parody trailers has probably peaked (my favorite was "Brokeback to the Future," which found forbidden passion between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd's Back to the Future characters). One ingenious faux-trailer promotes Titanic Two: The Surface, an eerily plausible tale of Leonardo DiCaprio's heartthrob unthawed from a block of ice and becoming a present-day fugitive — thanks to clips of Leo's other movies.
The output on YouTube suggests that, for lack of a better word, geek culture is taking another evolutionary step. In his book A Year at the Movies, Kevin Murphy, a former writer/performer on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, divided creative bohemian-types into "fanboys" and "punks." Fanboys (and fangirls) show exhaustive, fanatical admiration for J.R.R. Tolkien, Star Trek and any other pastime that lends itself to obsessive study. Punks tend to be musicians and other would-be artists with more raw energy and spirit than talent or learning. In Murphy's estimation, punks "win" by putting their creativity and passion out into the world, instead of losing themselves in insular, closed-off worlds.
On YouTube, however, the fanboys and punks may be the same people. They're taking their obsessions and aiming them outward. They embody the punk "do it yourself" credo while proving to be close observers of pop trends. They may not be staging an aesthetic revolution, but they're coming up with playful new ways of looking at the mass media.
At least, until the next cool distraction comes along.