The death of Paul “Bear” Vasquez at the age of 57 won’t make many news headlines outside of Modesto, California, where he lived. But for a generation of digitally-literate individuals, his death – if they hear about it – will be mourned with regret.
To them, Vasquez is better known by the moniker he earned from a three-and-a-half minute video he uploaded to YouTube in January 2010 entitled “Yosemitebear Mountain Double Rainbow 1-8-10”. Vasquez had encountered a double rainbow stretching out over Yosemite mountain, and picked up his camcorder to film it. His narration – exasperated gasps, repeatedly saying, “It’s a double rainbow, all the way – woah”, before almost breaking down into tears was an early internet hit. It was seen by more than 45 million people on YouTube at a time when those numbers were unfathomable for a video sharing site that was only five years old.
Vasquez’s video was hailed by late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel as the “funniest video in the world”, and Kevin Allocca, YouTube’s head of culture and trends, said it was emblematic of “a new era of creativity, one driven by people like Bear who have something they want to share with us and people… who want to join in those experiences and create new ones of their own.”
Ten years on, Allocca’s dream of YouTube – and the sheer happiness and happenstance of early viral video success – has died alongside Vasquez. Now a 15-year-old media platform, and one that earns $15 billion in advertising revenue a year to boot, YouTube is a world away from the site embodied in Vasquez’s enchanted cries.
It’s a site where some of the earliest hits – from Charlie bit my finger or David DeVore, the seven year old whose lucid, drug-addled ponderings about life after a dentist’s appointment were shared around the world, to Antoine Dodson, whose vivid description of a crime was remixed into a song – would have little chance of surviving now.
YouTube has gone from a repository of quirky videos – a kind of dumping ground for the internet’s weirdest memes – to a fully-fledged business. Its stars are celebrities, and its reach is great enough that Hollywood stars such as Will Smith join it for a piece of the action. It’s a distributed, decentralised version of Netflix, where industrialised production takes precedent, and odd individuality is hammered out by reversion to the (often boring) mean.
Today, YouTube is bigger than ever, and in many ways the content it hosts is better than ever, too. Rather than oddball skits or home videos that accidentally go viral because of their complete insanity, you can log on to the platform and watch high-budget documentaries and entertainment, all for free. But for those who are logging on for the first time today, they’re missing the essence of what got YouTube to its position of power, and what those of us who saw its rise value most – the sheer kaleidoscopic wonder of being able to see all of humanity, with all its foibles and faults, through a windowed video screen.
Now, YouTube’s biggest names are often backed by corporations, or in the case of T-Series, the most subscribed-to channel in the world, they are literally a business themselves. Entire teams workshop and brainstorm ideas for videos that are engineered to go viral. Viewers still encounter entertainment, but it comes with the slightly sticky sheen of corporate interests. It’s for that reason that the death of Bear Vasquez hits harder for many: we’re not just mourning his loss, but the loss of what he represents, too.
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