Born on the Internet: YouTube, video sharing for the soul

Thursday, October 15, 2020 - 3:54pm

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It’s hard to imagine a time when watching videos on the internet was not a simple, unified process. I certainly can’t, my youth allowed me to skip the era of downloading the latest 240p movie trailer from the Pirate Bay using dial-up internet, feeling the joy and anticipation of the prize waiting for you in forty-five minutes — wait, no now it’s twenty, but now it’s an hour, well maybe just sleep and watch it when you wake up. By the time I discovered the joys of watching videos, the whole process was much simpler: go to YouTube.com. 

Oh, YouTube circa-2010, a wonderland of emerging content creators pioneering a field that seemed at once impossible and tantalizing: people were being paid to make videos for a living. These were the proto-influencers, spending their days making comedic videos with their best friends, raking in the cash. Some channels like Rocket Jump Productions were pumping out Hollywood-level videos, while others got popular by parodying a popular song. This was the golden era of YouTube, the era of Ryan Higa, Shane Dawson, Ray William Johnson of =3 and, most importantly to my life, Smosh. 

The power duo of Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox shook the world with their Pokémon theme song lip-sync and found success week in and out with skits and parodies. These two teens from southern California suddenly found out, not only that their voices mattered, but also that people wanted to hear them. Whether it was Food Battle, Boxman or one of their million parodies or “if BLANK were real” videos, audiences craved the content Smosh put out every Friday, and I was right there with them. I still remember following the launch of Smosh Games, bringing in a whole new crew and jumping into let’s plays, the new hot thing on the video-sharing site. Fall 2012, New Jersey ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, and there I was, on my phone using my Dad’s data hotspot to watch the latest “Boss Fight of the Week.” 

Thanks to recommendations, I roamed around the gaming side of YouTube, stumbling through Pewdiepie and TobyGames to find JonTron and PeanutButterGamer. These videos weren’t merely wastes of time for me, they were my vice. A video while I ate a pre-homework snack, a few episodes of the Completionist before bed, it didn’t matter if I knew the games they were talking about, I was intoxicated by what they were doing. After years of viewing, I wasn’t content on staying to the sidelines — I had to be a part of this somehow.

So I bought a recording device and a microphone and roped my best friend into starting a YouTube channel with me. The wistful, ignorant blessing of youth. Late one August day we sat in my basement, Audacity running on my rundown laptop, and played “Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga” on the Wii U. It only got better from there.

Snow, rain or shine, whenever I could gather my friends to record, all crammed onto my small couch in my basement, we would do it. Now, don’t get around thinking I was popular: We capped off at 80 subscribers and never grew from there. Frankly, I’m still surprised knowing people watched four high schoolers struggle to tell jokes and fail at playing “New Super Mario Bros. Wii.” Some of them were friends, some were strangers, but they all gave us a chance. I gave my all into this channel, convincing a friend to edit the videos while I was learning the ropes, or having another one essentially be our brand manager as I ran new show ideas by them on a nearly daily basis. I paid an artist for assets, learned how to (barely) use Photoshop and tried, and so very badly, but inevitably failed, at sticking to a schedule of two videos a week. There was nothing that would stop me from being the next Pewdiepie, y’know that except I wasn’t Swedish and the YouTube algorithm doesn’t benefit small channels in the slightest. 

In the end, my gaming channel was me and three other people, all of whom are now some of my absolute closest friends, spending four years goofing around and playing games together. We were never successful, we were absolutely the furthest thing from it, but that never stopped the process from being a blast. Every recording session was an excuse to spend hours with friends, either failing at getting through World 9 of “NSMBW” or playing “The Evil Within” at 2 a.m., and looking back now, I could never ask for anything more. YouTube gave me the chance to try something new and insane and find a passion for creation while doing it. It allowed me to learn skills I use to this day, it bonded my friends into a family and above all else, it let me live a dream. I may not have ever reached the heights of SkydoesMinecraft, but that didn’t matter to me. I’m grateful for the experience I had.

When YouTube was at its best, it wasn’t a vehicle for Late Night Show clips or dozens of useless advertisements. It was the Wild West, inviting people from all over to throw their hat into the ring to be the next big thing. The only bad idea was one you didn’t try. People rose and fell overnight, but everyone put their hearts and souls into it and, most importantly, had fun doing it. 

I miss the old YouTube. Sure, I go on the app daily and still subscribe to people putting out quality content, but it’s different. Now, people rely on sponsorships and Patreon so they can do the thing they most enjoy— somehow it became a true job to do what you love. I’m lucky to have found YouTube when I did, this magical, mythical place that encouraged everyone to lie about being 18 and take a shot. Make that let’s play. Do that make-up tutorial. Write that long, wholly unnecessary essay about why “National Treasure” is a classic and deserves a third movie. Everyone had the platform to do whatever they wanted, it really put the you in YouTube. 

Let’s all take a moment to take a deep breath and remember that terrible, funny, sincere viral video or favorite Smosh song (I’m partial to “Firetruck!”) and remember a lighter, weirder time on the internet. Think about if Dr. Seuss beat William Shakespeare in that epic rap battle. Pour one out mentally, or physically if you’d like, for what was and then get back into life a little happier and a little more fantastic than before.

M. Deitz can be reached at mdeitz@umich.edu.

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