A viewer looks at the YouTube Web site on computer screens in New York, Aug. 17, 2006. YouTube is a video sharing service that already claims more than 100 million video views per day and more than 65,000 video uploads daily. (AP Photo/Cameron Bloch)It’s all too common for writers and analysts to characterize the internet as reponsible for pretty much everything that happens today, but it is true that new information technology is making significant changes in how we gain access to culture. Video-sharing services such as YouTube, for example, definitely constitute an important new channel for information and entertainment programming, and one that younger persons find particularly appealing.

Lots of people are visiting YouTube, as AP notes:

Officially launched last December, this video-sharing service already plays more than 100 million clips per day with more than 65,000 video uploads added to its mammoth inventory. And those rates are skyrocketing.

The significance, of course, is that as the cost of making motion pictures is now a minuscule fraction of what it was during the previous century (and is approaching zero), and the cost of distributing them is now essentially zero, everybody can get into the act. As the AP story puts it:

Where does it end? "As more people capture special moments on video," its Web site declares, "YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow."

YouTube (slogan: "Broadcast Yourself") isn’t the Internet’s only video-sharing service. But it’s the reigning brand, the talked-about phenomenon, and a mighty good example of the multiple roles now greeting yesterday’s couch potato. These are get-up-and-do-something roles as artist, journalist, pundit, self-promoter, exhibitionist, prankster, weirdo and wag.

Now you, too, can be a TV producer and a TV programmer. Scheduling? That’s in your hands on the receiving end, since clips are on demand, arranged in categories or searchable by various "tags." And you can be a distributor: E-mail any clip to your friends.

Ratings? Instant. Every clip appears with a running count of viewings, as well as how many viewers deemed it "a favorite." Not that anything is canceled for not being a hit. Unlike a network constricted by its two or three hours of prime time per night, the capacity of YouTube would appear to be boundless. No need here for one thing to be dropped to make room for another.

YouTube and other such sites constitute a quintessentially Omniculture phenomenon. In the Omniculture, everything happens, and now everything appears on video. AP notes:

So what can you see? Make no mistake, a 10-second video aptly titled "Bunny the Dog Rubs Her Butt Against the Ground" isn’t the stupidest, skeeziest or even briefest clip available. Nor is "Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot" the most whimsical. Or two pairs of fingers dancing to the tune of "Get Down Tonight" the most charming.

You find video testimony, as well. Katrina-themed clips from hurricane victims. Lebanese and Israelis supplying their images of war.

Meanwhile, broadcast images are being plucked off the air and granted an on-demand afterlife. The impromptu back rub that President Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-8 Summit last month? It’s right here, for screening anytime. So is co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck having a hissy fit on ABC’s "The View." A search of "David Letterman" turns up more than 1,000 clips.

YouTube and other such sites are even influencing TV programmers’ decisions. As I noted earlier on this site,

Forthcoming TV programs are increasingly appearing on peer-to-peer networks, evidently without the owners’ permission. Pretty much everything ends up on these file-sharing networks, so it’s no great surprise that yet-to-be-aired TV programs are turning up, but the downloads, and the underground publicity surrounding the programs, are actually affecting TV networks’ programming decisions, the Wall Street Journal reports:

. . . In June, a TV pilot called "Nobody’s Watching," which the WB network had passed on, was leaked to the video-sharing site YouTube. It generated enough of an audience online that NBC decided to pick up the show for development.

Half a million people watched the program on YouTube, which naturally caught the NBC programmers’ attention. This will surely become more common as the media recognize the value of free sites as testing grounds. As the AP story notes:

At about the same time, NBC and YouTube forged a strategic partnership that, among other things, lets NBC hype its fall shows on YouTube. What more proof do you need of new media’s appeal than when the mainstream media jumps on board?

NBC is learning one of the new rules YouTube has showcased with its free-for-all policy: Exposure, not payment, is what counts. Spreading it around is key.

And NBC, along with the rest of mainstream media, will have to abide by a new cultural reality as set forth by Chris Anderson in his current best-seller, "The Long Tail": "A once-monolithic industry structure where professionals produced and amateurs consumed is now a two-way marketplace, where anyone can be in any camp at any time."

This truly is a time of greater democratization of the communications media, comparable to the period in Europe immediately after the invention of the printing press. Nonetheless, the reality is that such new technologies are harnessed for political and social control as soon as possible. As with the invention of the printing press, the outcome will include both enjoyment and turbulence, and the world will change greatly.

If history is any guide, the democratization and liberty of the ‘Net will ultimately be harnessed by governments and corporations for their own benefit, but as with the printing press, there will be effects that they can neither control nor predict. And that is all to the good.