The Truthiness of Youtube

February 4, 2009 6:05:09 PM PST
Can you trust a YouTube video? No, of course you can't believe everything you see on YouTube. But sometimes seemingly cheap, hand-held videos have an apparent authenticity that's convincing.

Lately, a number of clever videos on the site have played with reality with the ulterior (and sinister!) motive of selling you something. Say it ain't so!

The effect of these videos is that those little 4-inch-by 6-inch YouTube screens can feel like a world unto their own. Stephen Colbert already coined the term "Wikiality" for Wikipedia's shifting version of reality; now it's time to coin the term YouTruth.

Take Kobe Bryant. Sure, he's got some "skillz," but they do not include leaping over a moving Aston Martin or dunking over a pool of snakes. But he's shown performing precisely those feats in a Nike ad campaign that plays off our high expectations for Bryant's athletic prowess.

Hundreds of thousands have watched the videos on YouTube. They are smart in that they teeter on the line of believability just enough to fool some.

Then there's the clip created by the ad agency Element 79. In it, a baseball is hit hard just foul against the outfield wall in left field during a minor league game. As the announcer calmly calls it foul, the ball girl chases it down, scales the wall and makes a highlight catch.

The spot was created for Gatorade (the sports drink has the tiniest of cameos) but both the ad agency and Gatorade - who chose not to run with the commercial - have said they don't know who put it online.

(It should be noted Gatorade is following its competitor PowerAde in this trend. That drink-maker had a 2005 campaign featuring LeBron James, Michael Vick and Andy Roddick performing outsized feats in their respective sport.)

A standard YouTube entry is the home science experiment (like Mentos plus diet Coke equals "fountain" soda). Over the past few weeks, millions have watched young people make corn pop with just their cell phones.

The video is a hoax to exaggerate the power output of mobiles and stealthily advertise a Bluetooth headset from Cardo Systems. If you want popcorn, you still need your microwave.

There are many more videos purporting alien encounters, magical wizardry and impossible illusions. Part of the fallout from all these fake videos - however artfully done - is that no one believes anything they see on YouTube. The pseudo-found footage has eclipsed real footage.

So when a video crops up that tells an unbelievable story about a pet lion named Christian, our instinct is that it's too good to be true. More than a million have watched the video about a lion cub who was adopted by two British guys in the `70s. They were eventually forced to give up the lion and left him at a sanctuary in Africa.

When they later returned to visit Christian, they were told he would probably not recognize his old parents. But as the video shows, Christian not only recognized them, but ran to them and hugged them (and without mauling them).

But this ridiculously heartwarming story appears to be fact. You can read an article about the tale on the Daily Mail's Web site, directly linked here:

YouTruth can, at least occasionally, have a happy ending.