By Eric Adler, The Kansas City Star, Mo.
Apr. 12–Every generation has its cultural touchstones — those shared media moments on radio or TV that help define individuals as part of an age:
Franklin D. Roosevelt and the “day that will live in infamy.”
The Beatles rocking “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“The Brady Bunch.”
The last episode of “Seinfeld.”
Media experts say that, for the first time, there exists a generation whose collective memories are being created as much by what they experience on their computers, particularly on the video-sharing site YouTube, as what they see on TV or hear on the radio.
They say that as the Internet becomes increasingly ubiquitous and portable, with easy accessibility on cell phones, the greater the influence of computer culture is likely to become.
“I think that two out of three of the kids in my grade know who Fred is,” Phillip Woolley, 11, a fifth-grader at St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School in Kansas City, said of the antic character whose 35 short online videos rank as among the most watched on YouTube.
With titles such as “Fred Goes Swimming” or “Fred Goes Off His Meds,” the episodes have been watched more than 250 million times.
“Everybody I know knows him,” said third-grader Ruby Rios, 8.
For the uninitiated: “Fred” is a fictional hyperemotional and hyperarticulate 6-year-old with an Alvin & The Chipmunks voice. He is played by the character’s creator, Lucas Cruikshank, a 16-year-old high school student from Columbus, Neb.
Cruikshank created the character in 2006, using his mother’s video camera. He posted his videos on YouTube.
What makes Internet culture so powerful, experts say, is its “viral” nature — one person finds a Web site or YouTube video and passes it on to friends, who tell other friends ad infinitum.
The result is that Cruikshank now has an agent, a merchandizing deal for “Fred” T-shirts and the like.
As an Internet “star,” Cruikshank now makes thousands of dollars each month, some estimate more than $100,000 a year, in advertising partnerships, a YouTube official confirmed.
Just as TV moments eventually supplanted those created on the radio, so it is with the Internet, said David Bushman, the television curator at the Paley Center for Media in New York, formerly the Museum of Television & Radio. The center recently changed its name in recognition of the Internet’s growing cultural influence.
“These YouTube things that people are coming across and spreading virally are the equivalent of the ‘Mickey Mouse Club’ or ‘Sesame Street’ or ‘The Rugrats’ of a different generation,” Bushman said. “That is what kids 10 years from now are going to be talking about.”
The list of Web-based touchstones includes:
–The Potter Puppet Pals: Literally, a Harry Potter puppet show on YouTube that has gotten close to 100 million views.
–Charlie the Unicorn: An animated unicorn heads on a quirky adventure with his unicorn friends. Close to 50 million views.
–The “Star Wars” Kid: One of the first Internet videos to go viral. A home movie of a portly high school kid with a bow staff making believe he’s a Jedi with a light saber.
And for older Internet users:
–LOLCats: An Internet version of the famed “Hang in there” poster of a cat dangling from a tree branch. People send in photos of their cats with snappy tag lines written into what has developed as its own LOLCats language.
–JibJab.com: Animated political satire that went viral in 2004 during the George W. Bush/John Kerry presidential race.
–What the Buck?: An Internet series in which host Michael Buckley gives snarky comments on popular culture.
–Stuff White People Like: A satirical Web site that explains the tastes of the mass culture.
–XKCD, Dinosaur Comics: Web-based comics familiar to millions of online readers.
None of this is to suggest that TV’s influence on popular culture or shared memories is waning. Far from it.
In March, a study conducted for a Nielsen Co. board by Ball State University’s Center for Media Design found that adults, on average, are exposed to video screens — TVs, cell phones, GPS devices, computers –about 8 1/2 hours a day.
TV still accounts for 99 percent of all video consumed.
Whereas children ages 8 to 18 spend about four hours per day in front of the TV, they spend about one hour at their computers. But those statistics are several years old. Experts suspect computer time is growing.
“TV still dominates,” said Vicky Rideout, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and the director of the foundation’s program for the Study of Media and Health. “But there is no doubt that the water-cooler conversations in high school today are just as likely to be oriented around ‘Did you see that thing on YouTube last night?’ as ‘Did you see that thing on NBC last night?’ ”
Jason Scharnhorst, 12, a sixth-grader at Pleasant Ridge Middle School in Overland Park, recently passed on to his friends a YouTube video titled “Ninja Cat Comes Closer While Not Moving.”
“It’s pretty big,” said Jason, who estimated he spends an hour or two each day online. “Me and my friends tell each other about funny stuff. Search this. Search that.”
Paxton Pruneau, 11, a fifth-grader at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, said she and most of her classmates talk more about the Internet than TV.
“I don’t know, you talk about a show on TV once,” she said. “Then you don’t really talk about it again. On the Internet, it’s still funny after a really long time.”
Notably, some segments that initially receive scant attention on TV find greater influence on the Internet. Example: Bon Qui Qui.
Originally aired on the Fox show “Mad TV,” the skit centers on an irascible girl named Bon Qui Qui who has customers hauled off by security as they take orders from her at a fast-food burger restaurant. On YouTube, the segment has gotten more than 12 million views.
The skit was familiar enough for Paxton’s fourth-grade classmates to re-create the skit to broad recognition at her school’s variety show.
“There are things that everybody would know,” Paxton said. “Bon Qui Qui, for sure.”
Mary Madden, a senior specialist at Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, said that because the Internet is so interactive and interpersonal, its influence on defining shared cultural moments will only strengthen.
Ninety-three percent of young people ages 12 to 17 use the Internet daily, she said. It has “become central to the daily lives of teens.”
More than just a place to read or watch content, the Internet is a means for personal connection, she said.
“This idea that you and I have that we communicate online through text or e-mail or instant messaging is completely different to kids. I may send you an e-mail that tells you I’m upset. A teenager may send a video that expresses how she feels, or post a song.”
That personal relationship with the Internet will only make their connection to shared experiences stronger, Madden said.
Said Bushman, the Paley Center curator: “In terms of these mass shared experiences, who knows what’s going to happen as people my age and older fade away.
“I have a 10-year-old daughter. She is on the computer a ton. If it was up to her, she would be on it even more.”