YouTube is the Closest Thing We Have to a Time Machine
Family home movies used to be footage people tortured their friends with whenever they had a get together. The only thing their friends wanted to do was get drunk and watch football, but there went Brent, pulling out the VHS of his wedding reception, or his oldest kid being potty trained, or that time they all sang karaoke in Brent and Meredith’s old apartment before one of the neighbors called the cops on them for being too loud. Of course, Brent’s friends weren’t going to complain about watching the videos for the umpteenth time. They were just going to grin and bear it until Brent finally got the message, stopped telling lame jokes, and they could switch the cable back on and find a game or a decent enough edited-for-TV movie playing on one of the channels.
Eventually, those old home movies started to collect dust over the past twenty years. Families came to the realization that other people they knew didn’t really wanted to see those moments they captured that were so special to them. Unless, of course, those pulling out the old videos was requested because there was a curious (usually new) cat in the fold who wanted to know more about the times before they came along.
While YouTube was a thing back in the early 2000s, people weren’t uploading videos the way they do today. Back in 2007, when I first started using YouTube regularly, there were things I wouldn’t even bother searching for because I knew I wouldn’t find it there. Even as early as 2015, I’d be looking for a particular vid — like a random clip from Saturday Night Live or MADtv that I remembered but hadn’t recorded back in the day — and they would be nowhere to be found on YouTube. But something happened with YouTube between 2018 and 2019 and people started uploading any and everything to the app that they could think of. From long forgotten commercials from the 1980s and 90s, to clips from old shows along with some full episodes of others, you can find practically anything you’re looking for on YouTube at this point.
People seem to record every breathing moment on their phones now, but there’s something about seeing random captured moments from way back when that reminds us of how precious so many snatches in time truly are. When a lot of these moments were caught some twenty, possibly thirty, years ago, everyday people recording themselves wasn’t exactly common. Well, twenty years ago maybe, but I think a lot of us can admit that having captured images or videos on your phone in the year 2001 doesn’t quite measure up to the quality and quantity to which people record their lives now. There are times when I look at certain couples with Instagram accounts that blew up because they have cute kids, and I feel sorry for their kids in a way because they don’t know what it’s like to not have so many of their private moments uploaded to social media. Sadly, because of their parents they’re not going to know what should be kept to themselves and what should be shared. But that’s another story for fifteen to twenty years from now.
When I was growing up, we had grainy, impersonal footage from the yesteryears, so it was easy to feel detached form the people who were being filmed. For clarification, I was born in the early 1980s, so whenever I saw live footage from the 1970s and earlier, it was of famous people or people associated with some type of “fame” in a way so that I viewed them as dissociated from those that I considered “real” people. I know that’s messed up, but I’m sure that’s the way the average person viewed those types of things as well, both then and now. However, somehow my family mistakenly got a VHS tape sometime during the mid to late 90s of a family’s personal home footage, and watching it was surreal. It was interesting to see how people who were so far removed from us lived and talked to one another, how their lives played out so naturally, same as ours, yet so differently. I should also mention they weren’t rich people, not flamboyant in any way, they were just regular people. If anything, they seemed just as poor as my family. But as I said, they were very different from us, which was what had made it interesting. Don’t worry, we realized it was a breach of privacy and burned the VHS since we didn’t know them, but that was our first glimpse of how social media would come to be in our lives so many years later.
I do believe that was the basic concept behind reality TV shows. While your friends and family who knew you so well weren’t necessarily interested in seeing your home movies, people who didn’t know you at all would be interested. Eventually, it was understood that the families that got the most attention for that sort of thing were actually interesting in some way, but I think it remains true — and YouTube is proof of that — that nearly anyone can amass a small following, even if it’s just a thousand people, because those outside your bubble tend to be curious.
The thing that prompted me to write this weren’t the repetitive, sometimes inane, YouTube comments that pop up under a lot of old videos that literally say, “YouTube is the closest thing we have to a time machine.” But it was an actual video I saw day before yesterday of a group of men sitting around playing UNO on the night Princess Diana was killed.
The night was in 1997, and the person who was recording these people in someone’s house obviously wasn’t doing it because they thought, “This is something I’m going to upload in about two hours so all my followers on Insta can see.” When people do that, a lot of times, the people who they’re recording — even when it hasn’t been rehearsed or scripted — know their actions are going to be uploaded onto social media, so a certain level of acting is then applied, and the reactions tend to be fake to some degree. When people were recording random bits of their lives back in the twentieth century, the majority of them likely thought nobody outside of their loved ones, or those close to loved ones, would ever see the footage. Unless someone knew they were auditioning for a role via VHS, or they were just acting because they liked it or they were sharpening their skills in front of the camera, those old recordings weren’t really intended for mass public consumption, therefore when you caught people reacting to things, those reactions were genuine.
I remember where I was and everything on the evening Princess Diana died. I’m not going to lie and say I was devastated when I heard about her death, because I really didn’t know about the impact that she’d had on so many people until after her death. I wasn’t a UK royal family junkie growing up, so I’m going to be frank; other than knowing Prince Charles and Princess Diana existed, I really didn’t know much about them, their roles in the world, or the British Royal family. The only thing I knew was that they’d had two children, they’d both been unhappy in the marriage, they got divorced under much scandal, and when Diana died, she’d been engaged, and it was rumored that she’d been pregnant. I mostly felt bad that it seemed she’d been trying to move on with her life and start anew and she’d been murdered senselessly. And yes, even back then, up until this day, I still see what happened to her as a murder rather than an accident.
Years later, and after much learning about many things including the late Princess Diana, I actually feel bad about the way I reacted — or I guess I should say my non-reaction. I was staying at my older cousin’s house at the time, and it was her who had been watching the news and she’d been shocked and utterly distraught about it, but I really hadn’t been, and it showed. I probably shouldn’t feel bad about what I didn’t know back then, but I do, and seeing that old footage of those men reacting took me back to a place in time when I was fourteen years old, and my mind goes beyond the night that Diana died. I think about the things I loved back then, mostly. Thankfully, I don’t dwell on the negative stuff, but I remember the things that were good (even though I know there was a lot of bad things happening and surrounding me). Simply seeing those guys through the lens of that camera — which screamed of the 90s — along with their clothes and the interior of the house they were in, I just felt a wave of nostalgia along with their obvious shock and pain at the news.
The thing about seeing old footage, you tend to feel differently about the events. Unlike the first time I heard the news of Diana’s death, I actually felt myself tearing up this time around, knowing that she’d left behind two young boys and so many people who’d looked up to her, who she’d influenced, and the potential she’d had to do so much more wonderful things.
Since late 2019, there are so many things I’ve found on YouTube that have been educational as well as things that had transported me back in time to memories buried in my head, connected with emotions that I continue to carry with me. But the greatest and best mode of time transportation on YouTube is, and probably will always be, music. Other people’s home movies are one thing, but music is proven to touch that part of our brains that spark certain feelings.
Stepping back into the past can be good or bad, painful or euphoric, helpful or harmful, but at least the time warp is possible and easily enough to access for many of us.