News that YouTube is being used to showcase a number of violent clips - from Mexican gangsters actually killing one another to kids smashing up fences in a craze apparently dubbed "fence-plowing" - brings to mind Kevin Kelly's wonderful web manifesto "I doubt angels have a better view of humanity". We should surely no longer be surprised when the web's vast wealth of metadata (RoughType) shows us that people do things or watch things that are seedy, unpleasant or downright murderous when we've known for as long as we've had news that the world contains people doing such things.
Alternatively, it brings to mind the spurious homily that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" - remember Bill Hicks' point that in the US, where everyone has a gun, 23,000 people died from handguns in one year and in England, where almost no-one has a gun, 14 people did? ("But there's no connection, and you'd be a fool and a Communist to make one.")
It is tempting to say that the effect of any tool, be it a website or a handgun, is merely to hold a mirror up to the people who use it. By this argument what is reflected back is not the fault of the mirror; Mexican gangsters are simply inclined to kill one another violently just as teenagers are inclined to hurl themselves through fences; and YouTube is merely the place they currently happen to record it. Adam Duritz of Counting Crows famously said that "sometimes the world seems like a big hole. You spend all your life shouting down it and all you hear are echoes of some idiot yelling nonsense down a hole."
So perhaps the only impact of these tools is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure" (Hamlet, III/ii). If so, Rich Skrenta's recent contention that successful businesses are beyond ideology - that, indeed, "ideology is the realm of nonprofits and failures" - is unproblematic. If YouTube and its ilk make us neither worse nor better than we were, then the angels' view remains the same as the view from the Google zeitgeist.
I'm not convinced. It isn't actually inevitable or even necessary for a successful (digital media) business to leave ideology behind. Sure, it scared the hell out of Wall Street (MarketWatch) when Craigslist's Jim Buckmaster said that the goal of his site was to help users, not maximise profits. Sure, it makes everyone who's just grubbing for the money look a little bit sordid and irresponsible by comparison, so the scramble for excuses is explicable. But an explicable keenness to look no more sordid and irresponsible than the next guy doesn't itself make the "everyone's doing it" defence true. Not least because not everyone is doing it and, as I argued last week, all the while digital is making business-scale returns harder to achieve.
Mexico's recent plague of gang violence seems fundamentally exemplary, and in a way that is hard to divorce from the existence of a universally accessible platform for displaying its results. It is equally difficult to divorce happy-slapping attacks that appear to have been carried out solely for the purposes of being recorded by mobile phone from their technological context. Guns make it easier for people to kill one another. YouTube makes it easier for them to gloat about it to a mass audience. It is still worth hoping that not all successful digital media businesses will leave ideology behind in pursuit of an increasingly elusive profitability.