Earlier this month, in a New York Times essay reflecting on 2006 as the year “brought to you by you,” arts critic Jon Pareles wrote, “The songs on music blogs are chosen not by companies desperate for profit, but by individuals with time to spare, and if the choices often seem a little, well, geeky . . . who but a geek would be spending all that time at a computer?”
Well, actually, everybody.
Another figure who scribbled a MySpace-themed song this past year was NYC-based comedian and Daily Show contributor Demetri Martin. Martin’s acoustic mock-lament “I Got 9000 Friends” aired on Comedy Central last winter at the close of a Daily Show “Trendspotting” segment about social-networking sites. Back then, the mainstream line on MySpace was that the News Corp. property was predominantly a scary haven for child-molesting perverts. Martin fired back to Jon Stewart: “On the down side, [social-networking sites are] loaded with sexual predators. On the plus side, they’re also loaded with sexual prey.”
While The Daily Show mostly covered the Internet when it produced amusing news, Stewart’s protégé Stephen Colbert — one of 2006’s defining entertainment figures and something of a ballsy hero to anyone with a brain — treated the Web not only as another pop-cultural niche to joke about, but also as a means to make The Colbert Report interactive. Colbert already had his own personal experience with viral popularity: back in April, when he’d hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in the guise of his staunchly conservative Bill O’Reilly–satirizing alter ego, he “supported” President Bush with a roasting monologue of bons mots like, “I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound — with the most powerfully staged photo-ops in the world.”
A clip of Colbert’s speech ended up on YouTube minutes later; in less than 48 hours, the video had attracted 2.7 million views.
At that point, YouTube was about only four months old. Officially launched on December 15, 2005, it would soon become an unfettered public-access channel and the poor-man’s TiVo. This was largely thanks to Saturday Night Live’s “Lazy Sunday,” an unexpectedly hysterical faux-rap video featuring Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg wasting away the Sabbath by getting high and going to see the Chronicles of Narnia. That particular digital short was YouTube’s big breakthrough, essentially establishing both the site and Andy Samberg’s career. From that point on, YouTube could make people famous — people like OK Go and Funtwo, the mysterious guitar player.
Instead of treating the Internet’s potential as a rival, The Colbert Report used the Web as an ancillary — a tool not just to report about, but to analyze and to manipulate. Last July, for instance, Colbert proffered the neologism “Wikiality,” a compound of “reality” and the community-built online encyclopedia Wikipedia, denoting “truth by consensus.” And to illustrate Wikiality’s potential, Colbert staged this in-character prank: he asked his viewers to sabotage Wikipedia’s elephant-related entries, altering them to read that the population of African pachyderms had doubled in the past six-months, a joke for all those crazy-lefty endangered-species activists. By all accounts, Colbert’s plea mobilized the masses, since by the next morning, Wikipedia’s server had crashed, various elephant-related entries were locked, and a particularly meddlesome user called “StephenColbert” had been blocked from editing the site.