YouTube, Hilarity, and the Historian's Motherlode (*1)

A re-write of a piece I posted here a couple of years ago, and then re-wrote for Medium. _________________

A couple of years ago, someone I follow at Twitter (Adam Penenberg, to be precise) posted a link to an unintentionally hilarious but fascinating YouTube video from a 1994 episode of the “Today Show.”

The clip features the program’s then-anchors, Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel, and “sub-anchor” Elizabeth Vargas, pondering the “internet” and the use of the @ symbol. They don’t get the latter, and they know the former is something big, but they’re not sure what.


Hilarious, right? “What is the internet anyway?” “Internet is, uh, that massive computer network that’s becoming really big now.”

Indeed, the first time I saw this clip back in 2011, my quickie, knee-jerk Twitter response was “Howling!”

But I’m a historian, and even as I tweeted, I was already enjoying another, richer response to the clip: “Ooooh . . . . The possibilities!”

Think about it. The three anchors hosted what was then, and still is, one of the most popular news programs on television — “popular” in that it commanded a huge audience and so carried considerable heft. Every morning, millions of people tuned in to the “Today” show.

So you’d think that these three well-known, well-paid journalists would be, ya know, clued in on that thing called the internet, which was already changing every. single. aspect. of human existence.

(And was already being enjoyed by a large swath of fairly ordinary people. I mean, this was 1994, for god’s sake. By that time, even I, who was not particularly interested in techno-stuff, had owned a PC for more than a decade and I had an email account.)

And yet — none of those three had the foggiest. (*2)

Translation: one of the most profound moments in human history had begun, but had not yet been noticed by what we now call the “mainstream media” (MSM). (*3) (*4)

As a historian, I gotta tell you: the clip was a motherlode. (*5) It tripped my brain’s ignition switch and said organ began spewing questions.

And questions, my friends, are what we historians use to frame our work. They’re our footings and studs.

For example:

Why were the people launching this pivotal moment so far off the radar of mainstream journalists? (*6) And why was mainstream media oblivious about their work? (Those, by the way, are two quite different questions.)

How, if at all, did MSM’s ignorance of the extent/breadth/depth of the techno-shift shape the early history of the internet-and-web?

Did MSM’s obliviousness inadvertently foster internet/web pioneers’ fascination with/insistence on the much used/abused “information wants to be free” paradigm? (*7)

When, how, and why did Gumbel, Couric, and other journalistic powerhouses (and mock them all you will, but in the 1990s they were powerhouses) finally catch on? Who or what tipped them off?

And once aware, how did they, as journalists, then “shape” the story? How did their version of “what happened” differ from the narrative put forth by the internet/web pioneers?

I could rattle off questions indefinitely, but I’m not planning to research or write about any of this, so I’ll stop. (Hint to historians, grad students, etc.: Free topic! Have at it!)

But this example illustrates how historians go about their work. We react to a fact/moment/event by thinking: “Hmm. What’s up with that?”

And then our brains let rip with questions, and we start hunting for answers, and next thing we know, motherfuck, five, six, seven years have passed in pursuit of those answers. (*8)

It’s worth noting that the fuel that feeds and inspires those questions is the long-view, big-picture that is the historian’s mindset. Historians see life — i.e., the day-to-day weirdness of the human animal — in a Picasso-ish way: from simultaneous, multiple perspectives, and those perspectives are always elongated. We analyze life in terms of “time.” (*9)

And for better or for worse, we apply that point of view to damn near everything, including, in this case a seemingly trivial-bordering-on-silly YouTube video.

Here’s hoping that some other historian watched that clip and enjoyed the same reaction I did.


1: For those who are wondering: no, I don’t write only and always about how historians do what they do. I’m using the topic to familiarize myself with Medium and its possibilities. My plan is to soon begin posting essays related to meat, food politics, and the like (because I just finished writing a history of meat in America and that’s The Big Stuff that’s on my mind).

*2: At the time I saw the clip, L. A. Lorek posted a Twitter link to a1994 article she’d written about the internet. Great companion piece.

3: Light bulb! Is this one reason that internet- and web-saturated folks today are so dismissive of said “mainstream media”? Can this clip help historians make sense of the history of that stance?

*4: That’s not necessarily a criticism, you know? We humans are rarely hyper-aware of Change with a capital C. (Although in the case of the YouTube clip, it’s telling that the three anchors didn’t “get” what the deal was with the www address being flashed on the screen. Someone at NBC “got it,” and enough so that the network already had a website. Again, that’s a useful and fascinating piece of information.)

*5: The Youtube clip falls into the category of a “primary source.” I wrote about those here.

*6: Obviously, some media were aware of what was going on. Indeed, some were founded specifically to report/record it; think, for example,Wired. But — apparently the anchors of the most popular daytime TV news program hadn’t gotten the memo.

*7: Oh, the “information wants to be free” thing. Oh oh oh. The phrase is part of a statement that Stewart Brand made in 1984. Been used and abused ever since. Now THERE is a topic that deserves a serious historian’s serious attention.

*8: If we’re lucky enough to have the time and wherewithal, we write a book about what we’ve learned; we tell the story of “what happened.” And if our luck holds, we publish that book for a large audience.

*9: Frankly, it’s a bit of a curse. The teensiest, most random, and apparently trivial thing becomes fodder for my reverse-telescope, time-focused lens. Maddening. (Although I wouldn’t give it up.)