These days, anyone can become a celebrity on YouTube.
From a Justin Bieber video that boasts more than 515 million views, to baby animals playing, videos of almost anything can be found on YouTube. This popular website has been called a “cultural phenomenon” by multiple sources since it was launched as a video-sharing website in 2005. Any registered user, from celebrities to pet owners, can upload videos to be viewed.
Like all forms of new technology, YouTube has made an impact, but to what end?
YouTube can be used in the classroom, to enhance a lesson or explain a concept. The site is easy to access, and it is simple to share videos by re-posting them on other social media outlets, like Facebook. Videos frequently “go viral,” meaning they become enormously popular, gaining thousands to millions of views in days.
One recent viral video is “Friday,” a music video starring a young teenager named Rebecca Black. The video has received widespread criticism for its content, quality, lyrics, and even Black's talent as a singer. However, the video has also received over 101 million views and turned her into an instant celebrity.
Virtually every teenager, parent of a teen, or teacher has had this song stuck in his or her head at one point or another since its debut. For youth ministers and catechists who seek to engage the culture and meet young people where they are at, this raises the question: what spiritual, intellectual, or social benefits could possibly come from a song, in which the most profound lyrics are: “Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday/Today is Friday, Friday”?
The Internet has the uncanny ability to give fame to unlikely people, including young teenagers. In spite of the fact that Rebecca is a 13-year-old girl, many of the comments that are posted on the video for “Friday,” and reviews and criticism from bona-fide celebrities, are down-right cruel and derogatory towards this young girl. Black told The Daily Beast, “Those hurtful comments really shocked me. At times, it feels like I'm being cyberbullied.”
We can draw a valuable connection between the massive popularity and criticism surrounding “Friday,” the problem of cyberbullying, and the impact that YouTube has on our society. While Black is being harassed, mocked and parodied by any number of personalities, “Friday” is still on YouTube. She was offered the opportunity to remove the video from YouTube, and turned down the offer. She stated that she did not want to give her critics that satisfaction. “I want to show people there’s more to me than they think,” she asserted, before recording a stripped-down, acoustic version of her song.
As adults who serve as role-models for our children, or the teens we work with, we need to resist the pressure to mock Rebecca Black, and those like her. It is tempting to laugh along with a group of teens, especially in our desire to connect with them on their level, or even make comments at the expense of a YouTube celeb. We need to remind ourselves, and our teens, that public figures have the same human dignity that we do.
Maybe we can even learn something from the stars of viral videos. We can learn to persevere in the face of criticism, to pursue our dreams in spite of popular opinion. Isn't it frequently seen as “unpopular” to be Catholic, to spend time helping others, to refrain from swearing, or getting drunk on the weekends? Instead of criticizing Black's talent, we should be highlighting her optimism and strength.
Pope Benedict XVI has spoken numerous times about the power of the Internet as a tool of evangelization. Last year, the Pope encouraged Catholics to use the Internet as a means of spreading the Gospel, saying, “Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for two thousand years. Rather than for, albeit necessary, technical resources, we want to qualify ourselves by living in the digital world with a believer’s heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet’s incessant flow of communication.”
As the role of the Internet continues to expand, and more resources become available, it can only benefit us to take Pope Benedict's words to heart and use the various trends and viral videos that popular culture presents us with as an opportunity to witness to the Truth of Jesus Christ.