'Christmas Treats': The Year of the Upload

Did you see "A Special Christmas Treat"?

No, it's not a holiday movie. It's a "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring Justin Timberlake that became an instant classic. The subject of the boy-band ballad Timberlake and "SNL's" Andy Samberg performed? An ode to the holiday treats they're offering their girlfriends. These treats can be found in well-decorated gift boxes, strategically placed in front of their midsections.

If you didn't catch the skit on television, you can join the 2 million other people who watched the uncensored version on YouTube. That might not surprise you, but the fact that NBC made that version available on its Web site, and on YouTube, is a true sign of the times.

When it comes to online video, everyone wants to capitalize on the reach of the Internet. We're all making up the rules as we go along, and we're all caught up in the phenomenon.

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In 1981, MTV debuted on the air with "Video Killed the Radio Star." And a quarter-century later, 2006 was the year that video -- shot in new ways, stored in new ways, seen in new ways -- really did change lives.

Embarrassing or sensational moments have been "caught on tape" and shown on TV for decades. But lately, "tape" is so … five minutes ago. Today's images have been captured on digital cameras and cell phones and Tivos, and they no longer have to turn up on television to have an impact.

Instead, these images are on the Internet, on Web sites like YouTube, MySpace and Google -- 100,000 new clips each day, uploaded by an estimated 5 million contributors. The result is a freshly stocked cyberscreening room, open to anyone with a desktop or a laptop.

Bob Garfield, a columnist for Ad Age magazine and co-host of NPR's "On the Media," says he believes the Internet "will be the single most democratizing element ever to touch humankind.

"I think the Internet … it's fire," he added. "The digital age is revolutionizing the world as we watch in ways that I don't even think we can begin to grasp now."

Viral Video

The result of this revolution? Viral video: clips that get passed around to millions of people, like jokes or the common cold. Clips that make you laugh, make you wonder or make you mad.

It was a cell phone that captured university security tasering a UCLA student inside the campus library, and video of a controversial LAPD arrest, posted on YouTube by a lawyer, resulted in tens of thousands of viewings and tangible results for the suspect.

Viral video has also spelled doom in the political sphere. When Republican Sen. George Allen was caught making an alleged racial slur, the video raced around the Internet, torpedoed Allen's re-election campaign, and helped cost the GOP the Senate.

And it wasn't just news that made the upload explosion -- it was entertainment, a heaping buffet, with clips to suit any palate.

Enterprising uploaders defied copyright laws to share long-lost clips of top pop stars or rock bands in their glory days.

Teenage girls served up random, shaky-cam hilarity from their birthday parties. Teenage boys offered bone-crunching wipeouts on skateboards and BMX bikes.

Conspiracy theories and celebrity flakes, boxing knockouts and booty-shaking, expert lip-syncing and embarrassing light saber work: All of it found a home, and an audience, on the welcoming worldwide Web.

Garfield says that "YouTube has created a bottomless reservoir for those of us who like to gawk. And … it is a gawker's paradise now."

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