A Baltimore teacher is brutally beaten by a student and administrators respond with a call for hundreds of volunteers to help keep peace in the schools. A skateboarder is roughed up by a police officer at the Inner Harbor and the public reacts with outrage. Scenes of riots and oppression fuel a worldwide protest of China's conduct in Tibet. A chubby cell phone salesman in Britain becomes an international singing sensation after millions around the world view his performance of a single operatic aria on YouTube. Cell phone camera footage puts viewers uncomfortably close to last year's tragic slaughter at Virginia Tech.
The average daily number of online video site visitors nearly doubled in 2007, a preoccupation both troubling and inspiring. The ability of these video fragments to move public opinion and political leaders to action can't be underestimated. A video that carries the truth of an oppressive regime past censors is a uniquely powerful tool for promoting human rights. At the same time, we know, from long and sometimes painful experience, that reality can't always be understood at a single glance.
And so we ask, What happened in the moments before the school beating? What were the protesters doing as the police arrived? How well can the salesman really sing?
Still, in growing numbers, the public is piecing together these snippets of the world from the raw reality of online video clips. In January alone, nearly 79 million users watched over 3 billion videos on YouTube. Nearly half of all Internet users say they have visited a video-sharing site, up 45 percent over the last year, according to a study released this week by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Why do we watch? Social psychologists say those who do crave contact with the unfiltered reality of the lives of others. That same instinct powers such TV hits as The Biggest Loser and Survivor. That phenomenon is familiar in a different form - the curious crowds that gather near the site of a murder or other human tragedy.
And what about the person filming? Recent events show that many of the YouTube videos are less than random. Instead, they are framed, acted in and shot by people with a purpose, from impressing their friends to trashing the Olympics. Teenagers produce staged videos of fights or vandalism to boost their status and intimidate others, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pew Center say.
Last week, a woman's divorce war went live. She trashed her husband while conducting a tour of her New York apartment. The video, viewed online by millions, was followed by a Today Show report and a front-page story in The New York Times.
The reality of film or tape has long had a powerful impact on the public consciousness. From the Zapruder home movie of the Kennedy assassination to photojournalists' film of the bloody Tet offensive in Vietnam and the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, moving images replay on a loop in the American psyche. Now, at a time when almost everyone seems to have a cell phone camera at the ready, YouTube and other video sites are offering a more ubiquitous vision. The many caught in the act are less able to slide away, and those seeking the spotlight gain their moments of fame. But as we satisfy our voyeuristic appetites, remember: Truth is elusive. These video fragments are seldom an accurate reflection of reality.