If it’s in Wired, it’s official, and so I’m proud to admit that all the time I spend hunting for YouTube clips at work is making me about 9% more productive. Finding videos on YouTube is a skill that I hone in my spare time, and I try to bring it into the office as often as possible — at least, within the bounds of professional propriety (I wouldn’t want to juice my productivity with too much video-watching; that would be unfair). This isn’t just following the latest memes or viral videos that pop up on my Twitter feed. This means going out and doing research; knowing how to game the YouTube search engine to find what I want; and figuring out when it’s time to go farther afield, to the lesser-known but also lesser-policed corners of the online video world. In happier days, I would use a certain c-word to describe what I was doing, and be able to mean it without any trace of irony or pre-emptive definition.
But in any case, my year in productivity-destroying videos took me from pirated TV clips to freely released documentaries, from historical curios to slick, modern-day advertising. Some of it felt like the online equivalent of dumpster-diving, when I found treasures that meant a lot to me but were viewed by only a few hundred others. These included days’ worth of concert recordings from several European jazz festivals that were aired on a German arts channel and a rip of the opening sequence from one of my favorite childhood games, Darklands by Microprose. Some of it was the re-discovery of videos I’d long forgotten about, such as the 1980s Dating Montage or Sara Carlson’s bizarre, bird-inspired choreography from the opening credits of the Italian variety show Al Paradise. And some of it was, indeed, viral video-watching: Phil Davison’s speech to the Republican Party of Stark County, OH; Nicole Lang and Chrisophile Konstas’s “Pimento Cheese, Please!”, as seen on The Hairpin; the Pronunciation Manual’s not-so-subtle subversion of the Pronunciation Book project.
Maybe the one thing that I re-watched the most, though, was of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s 67-yard touchdown run against the Saints back in last January’s NFC Wild Card Game. It’s not even that I watched one specific clip over and over. I watched versions of the same video with the TV commentary replaced by Steve Raible and Warren Moon’s radio call, and with all commentary replaced by just the crowd noise (many of them, of course, have been taken down due to copyright claims). I watched amateur videos filmed from right on the field and high in the stands. I watched videos of people watching the play on TV and on their computer, and one clip of Marshawn Lynch himself watching the play in the NFL Films archive. I’ve probably seen that same minute or so of football at least 200 times by now — another 20 just while writing this paragraph.
In past years, I would have spent more time looking at great football runs, or maybe even great sports plays, in general; now, though, I put my much effort into looking for as many camera angles, reaction shots, and commentary overdubs as I can for a smaller subset of moments. It’s not just for Marshawn Lynch that I’m doing this, either. I’m finding that my favorites list tends to have fewer of the web’s 100 funniest viral videos or whatever, and more videos that hew to my specific interests: food-related adventures, old PC games, recordings of live music, and yes, plenty of Seattle Seahawks videos. I rely less and less on the “similar videos” column and more on users with similar interests and the various search engine tricks I’ve picked up over the years. So my favorites list is as rich and growing as ever, but I suspect that it won’t do much for anyone but me.
This was emblematic of my year in web consumption in general. I pruned my Twitter feeds to only those that were truly of value to me rather than the trendiest or most popular ones (goodbye Anthony Bourdain and Alton Brown; hello, Gurgling Cod, The Old Foodie, and a ton of local restaurants). I dropped about half of the blog feeds from my Google Reader — older webcomics that had finally caught on but that I hadn’t laughed at in a while, music blogs whose recommendations I’d stopped paying attention to in a year or so.
So this was the year that my internet horizons shrank drastically, that I became less concerned with cool and cutting-edge and more concerned in cultivating a little patch of cyberspace (do people still use that term? do I still care if they do or not?) where my interests alone lived and thrived. After all, it’s easier than ever to retreat into your own little bubble — the virtual equivalent of your own headspace — thanks not only to the rise of limited-interest blogs, Tumblrs, Twitter feeds, and YouTube user channels, but also to the well-intentioned yet slightly sinister algorithms behind most of the web. How easy it is to have the web go from a vast and scary cultural smorgasbord to a comfortable and cozy retreat, where the stream of food-related factoids is never-ending and Marshawn Lynch scores touchdowns ad infinitum…