YouTube, the jewel of the Internet

YouTube, the jewel of the Internet

General Douglas MacArthur’s retirement speech. A speech on three Caravaggio paintings by a National Gallery curator. Several hours of forest noise to fall asleep. All 13 episodes of Civilization. Clip of how Gavi is arriving at Barcelona. An interview with Saul Bellow on Italian Swiss TV. A review of the DeLonghi Dedica coffee machine. A Tame Impala concert I missed in Hackney last summer. Gore Vidal makes his way through Venice for 90 minutes. A guide to the five tones in spoken Thai.

Charles Sagans Cosmos. Someone drives an hour in my old Los Angeles neighborhood. A documentary about the Meiji Restoration in French. How to repressurize a boiler. Academic philosopher Anthony Quinton explains Wittgenstein. Martha Nussbaum explains Aristotle. An American expat eating bnh cuon in Hanoi. A British expat who eats prawns pad kaprao in Bangkok. Versions of The Orpheus from the opera houses of Barcelona and Zurich. A discussion of how close China was to industrialization during the Song Dynasty. Four parkour runners appear to beat the tube in a race from Moorgate to Farringdon stations. A 158 minute interview with Emmanuel Macron. How to use an Indesit washer dryer.

The above is a basket of goods from the great souk we call YouTube. I pay ten pounds a month for these videos. I could stand the ads and pay nothing.

Verdi would have said you can have the universe if he could keep Italy. You can have the internet if I can keep YouTube. It has a greater wealth of content than Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime combined and squared. It wraps culture high and low with the promiscuity of a Clive James essay. When the amateur in me starts a language learning project, getting into the work is imperative. For the mundane life like fixing an LG soundbar it’s even harder to do without it. Before visiting a city, a YouTube channel will give me an insight into the texture of street life in high definition. And all praise to the moderation algorithm. On such an open site, it should be easier to come across vile things.

I defer to no one when it comes to distrust of social media. I like that Facebook is bad, that Twitter is unusable, that TikTok is in trouble with Western governments. I don’t know what a Slack is. In time, I want these columns written in pen and read to a grateful audience by a city crier from the top of Primrose Hill.

It’s just that YouTube is the least celebrated product of the digital age. (I had to look up the founders.) It’s not perfect. Content creators claim that it demonetizes them for trivial reasons. If Twitter’s tone is twee leftism, parts of YouTube are led into the offended alt-right register. There’s a lot of dating advice there like me-Tarzan-you-Jane. But these flaws of arbitrary power, strange policies plague many platforms. The question is what haughty things they offer in return. In the case of Twitter: immediate but unreliable news. In the case of YouTube: an intellectual resource that you simply cannot get to the end of.

By giving so many people a creative outlet, I suspect YouTube cures more human angst than it feeds. Even so, the real heroes of the site aren’t the ones making original content. They are the ones who publish the old analog age programming. Without this act of cultural salvage, some of the funniest things ever caught on camera would be languishing in broadcast vaults, difficult or expensive for the public to access.

You can see James Baldwin discussing William Buckley in 1965. Or a Richard Feynman lecture on photons to an audience in Auckland in 1979. Or Jackson Pollock 51, a short film made a human life ago, in which the artist paints on glass, behind which is the camera, so that you yourself appear to be the canvas. It’s a historical artifact: a film to which some credit its disillusionment with the drip technique, its alcoholic relapse, even its demise. And there it was, on YouTube, free for the world to watch as a cat stuck in a cat flap.

Email Janan a janan.ganesh@ft.com

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