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 TMZ.com, 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

WWW.OKGO.NET/VIDEO.ASP

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.

JUDSON LAIPPLY

WWW.TINYURL.COM/ KVRL7

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.

EEPYBIRD

WWW.EEPYBIRD.COM

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.

KYLE MACDONALD

WWW.ONEREDPAPERCLIP.BLOGSPOT.COM

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.

ALEX TEW

WWW.MILLIONDOLLARHOMEPAGE.COM

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.

ALEKSEY VAYNER

WWW.TINYURL.COM/K35R8

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.

BUS UNCLE

WWW.TINYURL.COM/Y4ZXP8

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.

LUCY GAO

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.

LONELYGIRL15

WWW.TINYURL.COM/LXHF4

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.

VINCENT FERRARI

WWW.TINYURL.COM/HCGTN

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.

CRAZY DAVE

WWW.TINYURL.COM/YMYXBY

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.

LEE HOTTI

WWW.LEEHOTTI.COM

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.

LITTLE FATTY

WWW.XIAOPANG.CN

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."

AMIR MASSOUD TOFANGSAZAN

WWW.TINYURL.COM/YH86T7

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".

HITCH50

WWW.HITCH50.COM

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.

HEADON

WWW.YOUTUBE.COM/WATCH?V=IS3ICFCBMBS

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.

SNAKES ON A PLANE

WWW.SNAKESONAPLANE.COM

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.

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