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Why people are glued to their phones watching video after video on YouTube

A cover of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ in the voice of Mario character Toad.

A cover of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ in the voice of Mario character Toad.  

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YouTube entered our lives some 15 years ago, but has caught our fancy in a big enough way only in recent years

As 2019 — arguably the longest year of all time — reaches its termination, it brings with it one of those riddle-like questions that people somehow get very confused about. Does the decade finish in 2019 or 2020? The majority of people have agreed amongst themselves that we’re entering the last month of the 2010s, after which a new decade begins: the 20s, or the 2020s.

But there’s also a small, loud, and wrong minority convinced that we have another year to go. For the sake of both convenience and accuracy, I’m going with the popular vote here — the decade ends in a month and a few days. It’s the standard birth principle: the day you’re born is not your first but your zero’th birthday. The same rule applies here.

Anyway, eight years ago, I chanced upon a curious little video during a YouTube spiral — where you open the website to watch one video and end up spending 13 hours on it. Called ‘Talking Animals,’ it was a series of clips from a BBC documentary. The video, parts of which still exist on the Internet, was basically just a collection of different animals doing their thing in the wild, with an English voice-over adding uproarious dialogues and a narrative to the seemingly random actions on screen. It was possibly the funniest thing I saw that year, and for many years after.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I found a YouTube video of a musician covering a song by Australian singer Sia, called ‘Chandelier’. So far, so ho-hum. Except that it’s sung in the toddlerish, helium-inflected voice of a Mario character called Toad. It’s a toad singing! And it is out of this world. I dare you to not crack up till you have tears flying off your face when the high-pitched chorus hits.

Outlandish

This is really what YouTube is. It’s memorable in the most outlandish of ways. Over the past few years, video (and audio) streaming platforms have taken over our consciousness. Netflix (and pirated streaming websites that keep changing their URL) opened the floodgates, and now we have a range of others as well, each with its own splendid collection ranging from trashy TV to water-cooler documentaries to artsy-fartsy cinema. But like Tendulkar refusing to retire for all those years, YouTube persists. It entered our lives some 15 years ago, but — in India, especially — it’s only over the last few years, since the now-erstwhile telecom boom, that it’s caught our fancy in a big enough way. The fact that it still has a free version and comes pre-installed in most smartphones helps a great deal, tilting the balance in its favour.

Walk into the real world on any given day — maybe take the metro or a local bus — and people of all shapes are glued to their phones watching free video after free video on YouTube. My nephew watches cartoons on it, my parents use it for cooking recipes, I watch on loop that video of two Indians cursing each other loudly in broken English on a foreign street before parting ways with a kind greeting and wave.

I have found new albums uploaded under false names a day before their actual release, sped up to 1.5 times the actual speed, which you then slow down and listen to. I’ve watched live, newsy events. Entire pirated movies. Live concerts from before cameras were invented. Grainy footage of historic sporting events. Premieres of songs and music videos. Meme videos and comedy. Literally anything you can think of already exists on YouTube in video form. And let’s not forget that it also has the most entertaining comments section of the entire Internet.

Arguably, then, despite all the new stuff we’ve managed to accumulate in the ’10s, YouTube remains top dog. It’s not without its problems, of course. It used to have an infuriating compulsory autoplay feature for years before it was belatedly made optional, and the absence of background playing in the free version has been a bone of contention for me for years. In the U.S., YouTube also has a white nationalist problem. And then there’s the fact that YouTube is owned by the same evil corporation that owns my behind, your behind, possibly even Zuckerberg’s behind. Google. But on and on it saunters. That’s just the dystopia we live in.

The author and freelance culture writer from New Delhi wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 3:18:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/technology/internet/why-people-are-glued-to-their-phones-watching-video-after-video-on-youtube/article30050759.ece

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