Most nights I like to drift off to sleep with Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). Watching bad movies along with Joel and the bots takes me back to the 1990s, when MST3K was a late-night comedy staple. For most of the 21st century, it was abandoned by both Comedy Central, a network it helped legitimize, and the SyFy Channel, the network whose cluelessness ultimately allowed it to wither. Getting DVD rights to so many movies was an impossible task, so unless you were one of the hardcore fans who traded VHS tapes by mail, it was pretty much impossible to see old episodes. But tonight, I can watch Tom Servo heckle Manos: Hands of Fate, Gorgo, Fugitive Alien II, or any of MST3K's 197 titles on YouTube.
It was 10 years ago this month that Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim registered youtube.com. At the risk of sounding old, it's difficult to remember what the web — and the world — was like back then. Bandwidth was at a premium, so that meant downloading a video could take quite awhile. A funny kid video passed around via email could, and frequently did, bring an entire company's IT infrastructure crashing down.
There was such an assortment of different video codecs floating around that you might not even be able to play the video it had taken all night to download. The bigger media companies were experimenting with something like streaming video, but it was usually buggy as a dumpster. Remember RealPlayer? I wish I didn't.
The first video uploaded to YouTube was of one of its founders, Karim, at the zoo. Its title was "Me at the zoo," and it set the tone for the site's early content. YouTube was originally marketed as "Flickr for videos," after the popular photo sharing site that doubled as one of the web's first social media experiments. For that was YouTube's biggest innovation: It allowed videos made by a normal person to be seen by anyone, anywhere.
For the first century of its existence, film and video production had been highly technical pursuits that required lots of training and infrastructure. Theatrical distribution and broadcast to a mass audience was the realm of only a select few. But digital video technology, which first started to trickle down to the hobbyists in the mid-'90s, changed that. If you had asked me as a filmmaker in 2005 if I wanted to shoot an actual film on film, I would say, "No, for the same reason I don't want to paint a fresco." But back in 2005, we were still dependent on the old film-era distribution infrastructure. Now, anyone with a smartphone can make a video and have it seen by the world in a matter of minutes.
The social change YouTube's democratizing of video distribution has wrought was unfathomable in 2005. As the saying goes, the generational dividing line is now whether you have spent more time listening to U2 or watching YouTube. Entirely novel genres have sprung up. Not even the most drug-addled science fiction writers predicted that famous cats would be making their owners millions of dollars, or that the most popular song of the century would be from a Korean pop singer named Psy who got famous by doing a horsey dance with obscure celebrities few outside Seoul could name.
And then there's the baffling phenomenon of the unboxing video. There are thousands of videos whose content consists solely of a pair of hands opening the box of a new toy or a "surprise egg," and they all have more views than anything you've ever uploaded.
Which brings us back to MST3K. The fan club that traded VHS tapes back in the '90s also happened to populate some of the earliest internet message boards. When YouTube started, they were among the first to digitize their aging VHS tapes and upload them to share. This caused all sorts of copyright issues and for a while led to YouTube limiting uploads to less than 10 minutes.
But these days, most of the old videos stay up, preceded by a commercial whose proceeds usually go back to the rightsholders instead of the uploader. Shout! Factory has started an official YouTube channel populated by HD transfers of the shows, but I'll probably keep watching the old ones in all their grainy glory. They remind me of the bad old days, when video sharing meant you had to, as the MST3K closing credits extolled, "keep circulating those tapes."