Review of the year: The internet

We're all under the microscope now

William Cardenas can thank YouTube for saving his bacon. In August, Cardenas, a 23-year-old kid from Hollywood, was picked up by two Los Angeles patrol cops and booked for resisting arrest. They claimed he was a gang member wanted for handling stolen goods. The judge who heard the case at a preliminary hearing in September believed them, consigning Cardenas to pre-trial custody.

A few weeks later, though, the tables were turned. An amateur video of the arrest surfaced on YouTube, the quintessential new-generation video-streaming website, and a new story emerged. The footage, taken by a resident near where the arrest took place, shows Cardenas flailing helplessly on the ground with the knee of Officer Patrick Farrell pressed on his neck. Cardenas gasps: "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" Farrell responds by punching him repeatedly in the face.

The video had an electrifying effect, not least because of its echoes of Rodney King's videotaped beating at the hands of four white patrol cops and the chain of events that led from there to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately opened an inquiry into the LAPD's behaviour in the Cardenas case. The LAPD went into damage-limitation mode as the chief, William Bratton, described the footage as "disturbing" but urged people not to jump to conclusions. The stolen goods charge against Cardenas was dropped, apparently for lack of evidence. The courts promised a new hearing to decide whether the felony charge of resisting arrest should stand or be thrown out.

Cardenas himself leapt out of obscurity to tell his side of the story, describing how he was treated in hospital for a black eye, a split lip and other injuries and denying that he was a gang member at all. He evolved, in other words, from a nobody at the mercy of an unforgiving criminal justice system to part of the pop cultural landscape and an object of public sympathy. As he himself put it, in one of his television interviews: "Without the video, it's their word against my word." With the video... well, at least he has a fighting chance.

The internet continues to cause difficulties for law enforcement in LA. Soon after the Cardenas tape, a year-old video surfaced on YouTube of a transient on Venice Beach getting pepper-sprayed even after he had been handcuffed and bundled into a patrol car. And then the blogosphere was treated to video footage taken on a mobile phone of an Iranian American student at the University of California in Los Angeles getting "Tasered" over and over by campus police after he failed to produce a student ID card in a library.

These are incidents with enormous implications, not only for the LA police but for all of us, and for the conduct of modern life. It is growing ever harder to cover up public acts, either by spinning them or pretending they never happened, for the simple reason that at any moment those acts might be recorded and disseminated with little more required than a USB plug-in and a few clicks of a mouse.

In the United States, the 2006 mid-terms are being talked of as the first YouTube election - not only because that was one platform on which campaigns were both waged and followed, but also because YouTube altered the course, and possibly the outcome, of at least one pivotal race. George Allen was cruising towards a second six-year term as a Republican Senator from Virginia, and was even contemplating a run at the presidency, when, at a summer campaign event, he turned on a volunteer videographer working for his Democratic challenger and called him "macaca", a clear insult and an apparent reference to the fact that he had dark skin. With his indiscretion quickly exposed to all, Allen couldn't live down his "macaca" moment from then to polling day. In 2006, the foolishness and incompetence of political candidates gained national exposure and, often, ridicule.

President Bush himself got caught up in the YouTube phenomenon. At the end of April, the television satirist Stephen Colbert gave the keynote address at the annual White House correspondents' dinner and roasted the President - and the press corps - in the guise of his screen persona, a forthright but clueless right-wing television talk-show host. The room went deathly quiet as Colbert delivered his barbs. One attendee, Richard Cohen, later wrote at great length about how unfunny Colbert was. But then a video of the speech went viral on YouTube, earning Colbert lavish praise as not only the funniest political satirist in America, but also the bravest. Nora Ephron, the film director, said the speech was proof that it was "possible for a comedian to utterly kill and bomb at the same time". In the internet age, it now is.

There is almost no sphere of life that isn't being affected by user-generated internet content of all kinds, whether it is videos on YouTube or photographs, personal messages, and networks of friends hooking up on MySpace and its rival sites. Sports fans can now access their favourite action moments, and use the pause button on YouTube's Flash video technology to agonise about referees' calls. Music fans can watch live clips, with stereo sound. Businesses are finding innovative uses for the new outlet almost daily: in the United States, estate agents take video footage of properties they're selling and upload them for public consumption.

The media landscape is being transformed. Who needs to watch a late-night chat show or comedy programme when the good bits will be posted on a video-streaming site within hours? YouTube boasts 100 million video viewings a day - numbers to intimidate even the most robust of network stations with sure-fire hits to lure advertisers. That helps to explain why Rupert Murdoch, who sat out the first round of the internet revolution, was so quick to snap up MySpace, or why a consortium of media moguls, including Murdoch, is planning to set up a rival site to YouTube, which has itself just been bought by Google. Intellectual property lawyers will be kept busy for years, as sites either try to assert copyright over certain material or clamour for the right to broadcast whatever they can find, regardless of ownership.

We can also expect a transformation in the relationship, as we understand it, between private and public space. YouTube may be only one year old, but the change has been going on for some time. A couple of decades ago, a night out was just a night out. It didn't matter too much who got drunk, or made a clumsy pass, or started a moronic argument; by morning it was all forgotten. A year or two ago, that sense of responsibility-free down time was already compromised by the ubiquity of BlackBerrys and other wireless devices. Fewer sights are stranger, to someone who came of age in the 1980s, than a darkened dancefloor packed with 25-year-olds fingering their glow-in-the-dark BlackBerrys and taking regular breaks from dancing to fire off an e-mail.

Now, the sense of interconnectivity has intensified. Go to a bar in New York or Washington or Los Angeles catering to college-age customers, and you'll see them obsessively recording everything on mobile-phone cameras and pocket video recorders, to be uploaded to MySpace, YouTube or some other site the next morning. Everything has become a communal experience, or has the potential to become one.

That's not always a comfortable realisation, especially for the generation that remembers life before the internet. When Michael Richards, the comic actor best known for playing Kramer on Seinfeld, hurled a stream of racist invective at two black hecklers during a stand-up routine in Los Angeles, he might have assumed the indiscretion would be soon forgotten. Indeed, management at the Laugh Factory welcomed him back the following night. But then footage of the incident aired on the entertainment-based streaming site, it became a national scandal, and TV stations showed his "nigger" tirade again and again.

It is no coincidence that Los Angeles is the origin of many of these new trends. It is, after all, a city where visual imagery holds a rare power - whether as a check on reality, or as a way of creating a mythological alternative to it. Now LA is being super-saturated by that imagery, first because digital video technology is everywhere, and second because of the ease of uploading that video to the internet. And where Los Angeles leads, the rest of the world is rapidly following.

The change has come in two stages. The first, 15 years ago or so, was the emergence of mass-market camcorders and rolling television news. (Before, film footage of signature events - like the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination - was a rarity and a fluke.) The Rodney King beating was, of course, the signature moment of that era. Without the video footage, there would have been no trial of the four cops who beat King, and no acquittal to trigger the LA riots a year later. Nobody would have been inspired to set up new video-conscious watchdog groups like Copwatch. Peter Gabriel wouldn't have set up his group Witness, which distributed video cameras to human rights activists around the world to shed light in dark places.

At the time, the King affair felt like an earthquake, even if by today's standards it seems quaint and slow, like dial-up in a broadband world. George Holliday, the amateur videographer who shot the footage from his balcony, first tried to take it to his local police station. Then he knocked on CNN's door, but got no reply. It took him a couple of days to find a taker - the local television news station KTLA - and for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice. Holliday, in other words, was at the mercy of someone else's editorial decision-making. In the internet age, the journey from recording to public airing is much quicker. As there are no obstacles to publication, the footage is often much more raw. The Holliday tape may have been blurry and hard to follow, but it is a model of clarity compared with the partial views and cacophony of voices that show up on YouTube.

For some people, this lack of quality is an issue. The LAPD argues that citizen videos offer only a partial view of what might be a complex situation. The LAPD has started installing its own video recording devices in patrol cars so that it can, in some cases, offer a contrary view of the same event.

In many ways, these developments are healthy. It is better that the power of the media be dispersed among ordinary citizens as well as held by public agencies and big conglomerates. A few years ago, it was fashionable to bemoan the diminishing importance of the written word and the rise of the image as the defining force of our culture. The film director Godfrey Reggio (of Koyaanisqatsi fame) once argued to me that it was impossible to engage critically with images. He might feel differently if he saw some of the police brutality videos, with their cacophony of voices, partial views and off-camera screams.

Isn't a critical intelligence exactly what it takes to make sense of those images? Forty years ago, Michelangelo Antonioni explored the uncertainty of visual knowledge in Blow-Up, as his photographer protagonist magnifies a single image over and over in the hope that it might reveal a murder being committed in a London park. The joke, of course, is that a remade version of Blow-Up for the digital age would be a 10-minute short - all that developing and magnifying and examining could be achieved in seconds on a computer.

Still, the nature of what we see, and what the imagery tells us about the world in which we live, remains as complicated and mysterious now as it was in 1966. It's just coming at us a whole lot faster, and from every conceivable direction.

They came from cyberspace...



OK Go were an under-achieving, second division college-rock act until the inspired decision was made to record a pair of videos on a camcorder and allow them to be widely disseminated via the internet. The second of these featured the members of the band performing precisely choreographed movements on four treadmills; it has just been nominated for a Grammy.



Better known as "the Evolution of Dance guy", Judson Laipply is a stand-up comic whose closing routine features him dancing his way through 50 years of pop music in just under six minutes. Since its posting on YouTube in April, it has become the most watched video on the site, with more than 36 million hits to date.



Dropping a Mentos mint into a bottle of Diet Coke might seems like an innocuous and slightly pointless act, but in fact produces a six-foot high low-calorie jet of soft drink. Americans Fritz Grobe & Stephen Voltz secured a number of US TV appearances after posting their experiments online.



On July 12, Macdonald succeeded in his year-long internet-documented quest to trade his way up from a red paperclip to a house. His first swap was the paperclip for a fish-shaped pen; 12 months later he traded a speaking part in a forthcoming Hollywood movie for a farmhouse in Kipling, Saskatchewan.



Tew, a 21-year-old student from Wiltshire, decided to sell advertising space on his website for $1 per pixel, and eventually earned more than $1m for the 1,000x1,000 pixel page.



Most of us would apply for a job enclosing a CV and a covering letter; Yale student Aleksey Vayner chose to direct and star in a ludicrous seven-minute film entitled "Impossible is Nothing", which detailed his philosophies of personal development and contained footage of him demonstrating karate, tennis and ballroom dancing. He became an overnight sensation in October - for all the wrong reasons.



When Hong Kong resident Elvis Ho Yui Hei tapped fellow bus passenger Roger Chan Yuet Tung on the shoulder and asked him to keep his voice down on his mobile phone, he wasn't prepared for the torrent of abuse that followed. Neither was he aware that another passenger was recording the incident.


Gao was this year's victim of e-mail forwarding. After using her work e-mail to invite friends to her 21st at the Ritz with hilariously precise instructions (eg "When asked, 'How can I help you, Sir/ Madame?', you reply, 'I am here for Lucy's birthday party at the Rivoli Bar'"), the invitation spread like wildfire in the City, and later the world's press.



The video diary of a teenage girl called Bree, detailing clashes with her parents and the unwanted romantic attentions of a friend, accumulated 24 million views on YouTube before viewers became suspicious about its veracity; eventually Bree was revealed as a fictitious character played by a New Zealand-born actress. Despite this, the diary has continued, and its popularity is soaring.



Back in June, Ferrari attempted to cancel his account with internet service provider AOL and recorded the ensuing phone call with their customer service department. The AOL representative's resistance to Ferrari's request made for astonishing listening; the rep was eventually fired.



This woozy mobile phone footage of Dave Mills driving a tractor, getting irritated with the slow pace of his dad driving the vehicle in front, and finally overtaking with whoops of elation, ended up being broadcast and subsequently repeated by popular demand on a Sky Sports football show.



Many people have regretted uploading personal details and pictures to the internet, but few errors of judgement have been seized upon so enthusiastically as Lee Hotti's messageboard posting of a picture of himself and his lookalike friends at a New Jersey party. Defaced versions of the picture spread like wildfire; Hotti was unrepentant. "If you wanna start somethign (sic) u better be ready to deal with us," he typed, hurriedly.



A gallery of pictures of Qian Zhijun, a chubby Chinese teenager from Shanghai, had been circulating the internet since 2003, but it wasn't until this year that the wider world became aware of the first Chinese internet celebrity. And his talent? For his head to look reasonably amusing when superimposed on to the bodies of major celebrities. His favourite? Russell Crowe, from the movie "Gladiator". He now aims to carve out a career as an entertainer, although, as he candidly pointed out: "I can't sing and dance very well."



The 19-year-old student from Barnet became the target of a revenge website after a disgruntled eBay customer claimed that he had been sold a faulty laptop. The facts of the sale are virtually impossible to decipher, but a "vigilante" blog set up in Tofangsazan's name - with nearly 4 million hits to date - was described by the teenager as turning his life into "a living hell".



A blog featuring the travels of two Canadians, Scott Macdonald and Matt Fidler, who aimed to hitchhike to all 50 US state capitals in 50 days. They arrived at their last destination on 28 November, without having paid for a single ride. Their journey was followed enthusiastically by US media; the resultant publicity helped them with the trickiest parts of the trip: getting Alaska and Hawaii ticked off the list.



It's a marketing dream; your advert gets picked up by internet users, forwarded, played, replayed, guffawed at, parodied and reposted. HeadOn, a homeopathic remedy for headache relief, hammers its message home by repeating, three times "HeadOn - apply directly to forehead". It's kitsch, it's repetitive, it's mysterious (the advert doesn't state what HeadOn does) and strangely hilarious.



Although box office figures didn't live up to expectations, the film starring Samuel L Jackson accumulated unprecedented hype on the internet, which was largely down to the collective disbelief that there was to be a film made about snakes on a plane entitled "Snakes on a Plane". Songs, posters, images, video, fan fiction and fake movie trailers were all created by hundreds of bloggers.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing