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Happy Birthday, YouTube!

BY Editors | Friday, February 15 2008

Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac" reminds us today to wish YouTube a happy third birthday. The domain was registered for the first time February 15, 2005. It made its public debut at the end of the year and by mid-2006 was one of the fastest growing sites online.

A point to ponder this Friday: The 2008 presidential election might have been a vastly different race except for the August day in 2006 when Virginia Senator George Allen, considered one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, looking straight into the camera held by a 20-year-old staffer, S.R. Siddarth, of his opponent's campaign and uttering what was to become the most famous slur of the YouTube era. "This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia, and he's having it on film and it's great to have you here and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come." Then Allen looked around at the audience, paused for a beat, and proceeded to complete his political suicide. "Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Siddarth, a senior at the University of Virginia of Indian descent assigned to track Allen, had struck gold. Macaca, as America would come to learn in the coming days, was the name of a long-tailed Asian monkey and an obscure racial slur. The video hit YouTube and quickly went from there to CNN and local TV news stations. Allen spent the rest of his losing campaign offering one apology or another. On Sean Hannity's radio show, for instance, he said, "I take full responsibility. I'm not offering any excuses because I said it, and no one else said it. It's a mistake. I apologize, and from heart, I'm very, very sorry for it."

The power of the moment wasn't just the words--which connected with the latent fear among voters that Allen was a racist--but in the video of him saying it. If Siddarth had merely had a tape recorder, the tape probably wouldn't have had the same impact and it certainly wouldn't have if it had just been a written summary of what Allen said. Well-laid networks developed in advance by Jim Webb's Senate campaign helped to spread the story, underscoring how critical the relationship is between campaigns and new media today. The story was churning online and gaining attention long before the TV networks picked up on it thanks to the relationships the Webb campaign developed.

The irony of the moment is that Allen, who went into the race with a vastly stronger operation and piles of cash, probably would have won the race if he'd spent the final four months of it lying on a beach not campaigning. It was only his actions on the campaign trail, captured on video and uploaded to the web for all to see, that kept him from reelection. The loss moved Allen from the role of presidential heir-apparent to presidential after-thought, landing him on the scrap heap of failed ambitions. As a popular former governor and senator, Allen would have been a formidable
presidential candidate and as the only top-tier social conservative in the race, he might easily have found himself the front-runner in terms of money, support, and organization.

We might never have seen the battle of recent weeks over the "real" conservative in the GOP nomination race if only George Allen had kept his mouth shut and YouTube hadn't existed.

Anyway, Happy Birthday YouTube!