Feature on the YouTube phenomenon.
Jeff Hoffman and John Reid are obsessed with Dunkin’ Donuts. It’s a fixation many caffeine addicts – especially those who live near the Canton-based company’s headquarters – can understand. But Hoffman and Reid are from Florida, and their interest goes way beyond a daily afternoon craving for a large French vanilla with cream and sugar.
The University of Florida grads have visited more than 140 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises across the country, including the company’s flagship store in Quincy.
Three years ago, this fascination would have made them eccentric at best. Now, thanks to YouTube.com, a video-sharing Web site in which users can share footage of their lives with the world, it has made them minor celebrities.
The pair’s big break came when Hoffman, 24, posted a video montage on YouTube of photos he and his friends had taken on their cross-country coffee runs, including images from their claim-to-fame trip in which they visited 40 Dunks in one day.
Their video attracted more than 500 views – a pittance compared with the millions garnered by popular mini-flicks – but it was quirky enough to draw attention from media outlets in Florida and Boston.
Meanwhile, reps from Dunkin’ Donuts’ Florida public-relations agency came calling, too, and they are now considering enlisting Hoffman and Reid to help promote the chain throughout the Sunshine State via radio stunts and other grassroots methods.
“At first, all of our friends thought it was ridiculous what we were doing. Then our newspaper did a story, and people started viewing (the video) on YouTube, and they thought, 'Maybe they do have something here,'” says Hoffman. “People put their personal stuff (on YouTube) and people look at it, and people feel important and famous.”
Indeed, since the popular Web site debuted in February 2005, it has become the soapbox for the common man. With some simple software, a user can share with millions a page from his personal scrapbook – be it of visits to coffee chains, attempted skateboard moves or recently perfected Van Halen guitar rifts. And while not every poster gets this kind of celebrity status, as Hoffman and Reid can attest, YouTube exposure can make them just famous enough.
“Before, if you wanted to be known, you had to go though a distribution system. Now you can be famous in five seconds. It’s democratized the distribution of content,” says Sasha Norkin, a professor at Boston University’s College of Communications. “This is a way where, theoretically, everyone can reach everyone. And one would hope that quality would rise to the top, but I don’t think that always happens.”
Watching Hoffman’s homespun montage, it seems Norkin may be right. But YouTube, which boasts 70,000 new videos every day, must be doing something right. The site was purchased by Google in November for $1.65 billion and was Time magazine’s Invention of the Year in 2006. Its creators, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, were named People of the Year at this year’s annual Webby online achievement awards for “transforming the media landscape.”
Indeed they have.
Politicians are using YouTube to boost their campaigns: presidential candidate John Edwards is urging people to post videos in support of his policies, videos about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama became Web sensations and the U.S. military is using the site to show its view of the war in Iraq.
And police are posting security-camera footage of robberies in the hopes that someone will recognize the culprit.
Meanwhile, networks like NBC have used it to promote their programming, and companies like Coca-Cola have used it to supplement their marketing strategies.
There are, of course, less relevant uses for the site. Viewers can laugh at others’ misfortunes (botched bike stunts, science experiments gone wrong), marvel at their creative triumphs (animated or live-action films) or admire their otherwise useless skills (like beating an old Nintendo game in less than five minutes).
While it’s impossible to categorize every one of the 100 million-plus videos YouTube users have posted, it’s easy to highlight some of the wackiest sub-categories that have emerged in the past 1.5 years. Here are a few favorites, coming soon to a laptop near you.
- For the love
YouTube is filled with clips from countless amateur directors, animators and entertainers hoping to become professional directors, animators and entertainers. But not every creative clip is made by a poster dying to be the next Martin Scorsese or Matt Groening. Many performers simply want their creations to reach as many people as possible. If one of those views happens to be a network exec, great. But if not, they’re satisfied knowing they were able to give someone in Japan a laugh.
“YouTube was a godsend. It’s really a very fortunate circumstance that a site like that caught on for people who want to put longer segments on the Internet,” says Frank Possenato, co-creator of “Weymouth After Dark,” a cable-access show that he and his brother Joe post on YouTube to reach a wider audience. “It’s not as profit-driven. Most people are doing it out of creativity and out of love for what they’re doing.”
- Memory lane
Remember “Fraggle Rock”? If not, there are about 800 YouTube videos to remind Web surfers just how much they loved the Jim Henson show, which featured colorful Muppets called Fraggles when it was on TV in the mid-1980s.
Videos of the show’s theme (Muppets singing “Dance your cares away”) and episode clips have inspired viewers to post comments like “My childhood relived!” Similar message-board nostalgia can be found following everything from clips of old commercials – like Chef Boyardee’s Tic Tac Toes canned pasta and Snuggle fabric softener – to Mr. T’s “Treat Your Mother Right” video.
Think no ones watching these blasts from the past? The Mr. T. segment, in which the 1980s TV star raps (awkwardly and to great comedic effect) about respecting, yup, mothers, has more than 700,000 views.
“I’m a nostalgic person,” Possenato says. “Old wrestling clips, old commercials that you thought you’d never see again and you still know how it goes even though it hasn’t been on since the ’80s, I like seeing these moments.”
- Guitar hero
Mr. T., however, has nothing on Funtwo (real name Jeong-Hyun Lim), a 23-year-old guitar virtuoso from Korea. He filmed himself sitting in his bedroom and playing a rocked-up version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. Someone posted the video on YouTube in December of 2005, and it now ranks among the site’s 10 most popular clips ever.
There is an abundance of shredders who post video of themselves showing off killer riffs, but none has ever been hotter than Funtwo.
Many were awed by his performance; some believed it too good to be real. But seemingly everybody wanted to know: Who is Funtwo? The mystery landed on the front page of The New York Times, propelled an impostor to come forward, and eventually led to the unmasking of Funtwo (in the video, you can’t see his face; he looks down and a baseball cap is pulled over his eyes). With his identity revealed, he was invited to perform Canon at the Korean ambassador’s home in Washington, D.C. His video has been viewed more than 20 million times.
The bulk of shredders on YouTube, however, aren’t so famous. Rather, the buzz most musicians get after sitting down and ripping riffs from The Eagles, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Jimi Hendrix come in the form of message-board comments, ranging from congratulatory (“nice speed picking”) to critical (“kinda sloppy”) to vile and unprintable.
- Gamers galore
If Funtwo is the ultimate shredder, his counterpart in the gaming world would have to be the Angry Video Game Nerd. The AVGN, or James Rolfe, ridicules old video games like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Top Gun” for the Nintendo Entertainment System. His frustrations with the difficulty and stupidity of old Nintendo games – often in the form of profanity-laced tirades – spew from his mouth as he tries to land Top Gun jets on aircraft carriers or defeat TNMT enemies. His “nerd” character, which he started on the video game Web site CineMassacre.com, has taken off on YouTube, though some of his videos have been removed because of language.
But that hasn’t hurt AVGN’s popularity (there’s even an online petition to get them back on). Some of his clips have attracted more than 1 million hits. Of course, the AVGN has many followers on YouTube, but Rolfe and his disciples aren’t the only novelty acts that have YouTube’s gamer population hitting up the message boards. Just as popular are posters who take vintage games, like Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.,” “Contra” and “Double Dragon,” and beat them in record time – no audio commentary necessary.
How fast is fast? How about “Super Mario Bros.” (the original) in five minutes.
- Abracadabra explained
How does David Copperfield fly? Ask YouTube poster “ethannir.” His video, “David Copperfield Flying Revealed,” explains how the illusionist’s tricks are no more than simple acrobatics done on ropes that are too small for the human eye to see.
But Copperfield isn’t the only illusionist that has his craft exposed by posters. Criss Angel, the magician known for his A&E television series “Criss Angel Mindfreak,” explains his illusions on videos that end up on YouTube (mostly from a poster called “daoco”). With one simple viewing, an aspiring illusionist can see how Angel gets away with top-level tricks like levitation (hidden platforms!) or more entry-level stunts like making a toothpick vanish (Scotch tape!).
The videos can easily be found on YouTube alongside snippets from other top tricksters, including Penn & Teller, who give away their secrets on how to make a smoking cigarette disappear then reappear (misdirection!) or how to cut a person in half (hidden panels!).
The tricks exposed on YouTube are not all so grand, as the secrets to card tricks, making paper towels disappear and putting a bottle cap through a glass are all revealed.
But who really wants to spoil a good magic trick by learning how it’s done?
Judging by the hits, hundreds of thousands of us.