Is YouTube Killing Video Originality?

The Atlantic Monthly recently asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I can’t answer that (I couldn’t finish reading the article), but I’d like to ask a parallel question: Is YouTube killing video originality?

The promise of web video was that cheap cameras, easy editing software and free online distribution would open up new vistas of creativity. The Hollywood gatekeepers would be tossed out and the masses would finally get to express themselves.

So what happened? Because it seems like we’re just seeing the same things, over and over.

Gabe and Max’s Internet Thing is a fantastic spoof of cheesy infomercials. But it was followed by Master the Internet, which is not. Now we have Kanye West doing another version of a hammy infauxmercial for hawking vodka.

Noah takes a picture of himself everyday, so Olde English spoofed the idea with a guy taking a picture of himself every day as his life deteriorates. Matthew Harding dances around the world, and now there’s a video of a guy dancing around Los Angeles… as his life deteriorates.

The Shining becomes a comedy, Back to the Future becomes Brokeback to the Future, and Batman fights not only himself, but also Hellboy.

Dora the Explorer gets yelled at over the phone by Alec Baldwin; a fast-food worker gets hit on by Demetri.

Need I go on?

Some of these are parodies; some are just recycling the same ideas. Some are actually quite funny; others are just…bad.

So why drag YouTube into all this? Well, because of its size, mostly.

There have always been spoofs and “borrowing” from existing sources. That isn’t changing with the web, it’s just becoming faster and easier, which is spawning more of it.

Parodying or revisiting a popular gag works because the audience already has a certain level of familiarity with it. People have seen infomercials, they know Back to the Future, or they were forwarded the picture-a-day. It’s much easier to attract eyeballs when people recognize the source material. It’s a lot harder when they have to learn something new, and who has patience online?

To be fair, thanks to YouTube, more people are creating and watching video than ever before — and that’s good. The issue becomes when people start creating for the playcounts. What’s the fastest way to rack up a million plays on YouTube, land an agent and get on Oprah? It’s not by making something new.