Video Vérité

Statistical surveys can be pretty boring. So when Aileen Carroll got an assignment to survey people for her Stat 217 class, she decided to do something interesting.

Her statistics group posed a simple question: If you asked several strangers to hold your hand as you cross a street in downtown San Luis Obispo, how many would actually do it?

"We just chose something that was kind of funky," said Carroll, a graphic communications major at Cal Poly. "And then we filmed it."

With Carroll filming behind her, classmate Ashleigh Droz asked random pedestrians to hold her hand as she crossed the intersection of Higuera and Osos streets. Some strangers agreed to do it; others didn’t. All of them were surprised and confused, which makes for some pretty uncomfortable — and amusing — video.

Unfortunately, their instructor wouldn’t let them show it during their presentation. "She said it was too long," Carroll said.

Luckily, the rest of the world can see the video — appropriately set to The Beatles’ "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and War’s "Why Can’t We Be Friends" — whenever they want. Because, like over 100 million other videos, Carroll’s short film, "Wanna Hold My Hand?," can be found on YouTube.

Video for all

In case you’ve been under a rock, YouTube is a video-sharing Web site that allows users to view, upload and share videos. Google, which now owns YouTube, and MySpace also feature videos, but YouTube still reigns in popularity and volume.

On YouTube, you’ll find it all — highlights from the NFL playoffs, clips of sleeping kittens, lectures about history and amateur movies — some of them good, many of them bad.

San Luis Obispo County has caught YouTube fever, as evidenced by numerous videos shot in downtown San Luis Obispo, at Hearst Castle, on Pismo Pier and at practically every other popular spot in the county.

This proliferation of videos both locally and worldwide can be attributed to a few things, said David Gillette, a Cal Poly English professor who teaches a course called New Media Art, which requires students to make a movie and post it on YouTube. First of all, cameras are everywhere.

"Most people have cell phones now that can record videos," he said. "They have still cameras that can record videos, and they have cameras built into their computers that can record videos."

Shooting video is now easier and cheaper than ever, and new editing software allows videos to be edited in more coherent and interesting ways without having to splice film. Sites like YouTube make it possible to share videos around the globe within minutes of recording.

Area users

A sampling of videos shot in San Luis Obispo County shows a variety of clips — from travelogues to dog show highlights to lectures from an energy summit to an audio clip of a woman phoning in an order of almond chicken to a local Chinese restaurant. (Not all videos are easily explained.)

Many of the videos were just posted for fun; others were for classes. Several were posted to promote something.

Patty Thayer, marketing and public relations director for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, learned of YouTube’s marketing potential during the Association of California Symphony Orchestras Conference.

The symphony had produced a six-minute video on "Everyday Etudes," a music-in-education program that promotes classical music instruction in local schools.

After showing the film at the symphony’s last concert of 2006, the video was posted on the symphony’s Web site for parents, educators and potential funders to see. "But then we thought: You know what? We can post it on YouTube and possibly get it out to a wider audience of people who are interested in good music education programs who might want to pick our brains," Thayer said.

Comedian Myk Powell also saw marketing potential. The Atascadero resident has been doing comedy for more than two decades. When he recently decided to pursue it full-time, he had to step up his booking efforts. So he posted some of his local standup performances on YouTube.

"I had a couple of people that wanted me doing casinos up in Washington and Oregon," he said. "So I put (the clips) on there so the booking agents would be able to look at them. It was an audition sort of thing — and I got the gig."

Talk amongst yourselves

While YouTube allows anyone to post video, it also fosters communication. For instance, an amateur songwriter might post a song he or she penned, and another musician might post their own version of that same song. Meanwhile, viewers frequently comment on videos they see, sometimes sparking conversations with other viewers.

"It’s a very communal thing," Gillette said, noting that people from around the world often have dialogues about a video they see. "The more we talk to each other, the less we shoot each other."

Most people who post videos online do so because they want other people to see them. But just like Hollywood, the YouTube world is a Darwinian one, where some videos are seen by millions while others go virtually unnoticed.

Carroll’s "Wanna Hold My Hand" might be more amusing than many of the most popular videos on YouTube, but it has been viewed by fewer than 300 people.

She’d like greater exposure.

"There are a lot of YouTube celebrities out there," she said. "That’d be kind of fun."

Attracting eyeballs

There are strategies for building a YouTube audience. The key search words attached to it are important (Knowing that sex is a draw in every medium, some even cheat, including words like "sex" and "nudity" in their keywords even if their video has no sex or nudity). And a posted video can link to other popular videos, but Carroll hasn’t had time to invest in such efforts.

While most YouTube videos languish in obscurity — save for a few views from friends and relatives — others catapult unexpectedly.

Last fall Wendy Eidson and her husband, Ted, posted a trailer for Eidson’s documentary film, "Real Men Knit," which initially had a decent but not remarkable number of hits.

"We’d check every now and then, and we’d get all excited when there was a comment or a couple of new hits," said

Eidson, who is the director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.

In the first month, several thousand people had seen the video, and there were about 50 comments — some posted by the Eidsons to get a dialogue started. "Then one day there were 42,000 hits," she said.

The video showing football players and other men knitting gained momentum quickly. And when YouTube decided to feature the video — placing it prominently on the site — the hits skyrocketed.

Eventually the cast of "Good Morning America," holding yarn and knitting needles, featured the video on their regular YouTube highlight segment (which the Eidsons have also posted).

"You can’t even pay for that kind of publicity," Eidson said.

To date, the trailer has been seen by more than 400,000 people.

The exposure didn’t result in huge sales, but it prompted more than 1,600 comments. Some of the feedback is simple ("I wish my boyfriend would knit me a sweater."), and others seem to have been written by teenaged boys ("Real men don’t make gay videos about knitting."). But many delve into a deeper discussion of sexism and gender roles in America.

"I never thought it was going to be a best-seller or make us a million dollars or anything," Eidson said. "But I really loved the idea of getting that dialogue going between the sexes and hearing all the different takes on it."


There are dozens of locally produced videos on YouTube. Here’s a cross-section of some of the more interesting ones (They can be accessed by typing the titles into YouTube’s search box):

"Roads to Romance — San Luis Obispo": In the 1940s, General Motors produced a series of short films advocating car travel. This 3-minute clip spotlights San Luis Obispo County. Vintage shots of San Luis Obispo, Morro Rock and Atascadero show that — despite development — the county hasn’t changed all that much in 60 years.

"Dragwater ‘Why’ video": Dragwater is an up-and-coming alternative metal band from San Luis Obispo. One of their songs was in a horror movie, "Headspace," and another was used in a NASCAR video game. This professionally made video, which the band hopes will one day air on Fuse and MTV, was filmed in Pismo Beach with the band members’ family and friends handling the acting. Themes of violence and drug abuse are juxtaposed against a raging bonfire, which symbolizes burning the past, said band member Sean Cannon. The 18-year-old videographer, who filmed this as a student, has gone on to work for the Interscope and Warner Bros. record labels, Cannon said.

"Mods": In the early ’90s, apparently, there was a minor mod movement in San Luis Obispo. This well-produced film about mod fashion shows lots of boppy hairdos, skinny ties and scooters in San Luis Obispo. And it starts with music from the The Who, recorded during their mod phase.

"Wanna Hold My Hand?": When Aileen Carroll got the assignment to do a statistical survey of people, she referred to a book she got from Urban Outfitters, "The Mission: A Change-Your-Life-Game," which offered a series of dares. One of the dares: Ask strangers to hold your hand as you cross an intersection. Wanting to see how many people would do so, student Ashleigh Droz took the challenge, although somewhat reluctantly. Set to music, the video features her holding hands with a series of strangers. It also shows Droz expressing hurt feelings as she faces a string of rejections.

"The Gumby Video": Not long ago, the San Luis Obispo Symphony conducted a concert and released a CD featuring the music of Joseph W. Clokey. Clokey’s adopted son — Gumby creator Art Clokey — is a Los Osos resident and friend of the symphony. This video features Gumby clips set to the symphony’s Clokey music.

"Reconnect": David Gillette’s New Art Media class made a somewhat strange movie that pairs modern technology with creepy people in robes. The tag line: "What if everyone around you disappeared?" The film is linked to a 16-minute making-of video.

"Bubble Gum Alley Fight": You’ll watch this one and say: "Why?" Two dudes in SLO pretend to have a wrestling match — complete with championship belts — in Bubble Gum Alley. If nothing else, you might laugh (or roll your eyes) at how silly it is.

"Mu, Featuring Merrell Fankhauser — Nobody Wants to Shine": Filmed on a ranch in San Luis Obispo in 1972, this is a song from the band Mu, which later moved to Hawaii. Fankhauser, who has since returned to San Luis Obispo County, also has several videos of himself online, including clips of him interviewing Beach Boy Mike Love and playing "Wipe Out" with Willie Nelson, who put aside Trigger, his faithful acoustic guitar, for an electric solo.

"Real Men Knit Trailer": At the beginning of this clip, a male narrator proclaims: "It’s time to make knitting the manly art it used to be. Because, hey — we’re the ones who invented it." The video is a trailer for "Real Men Knit," a documentary by Wendy Eidson. The most seen video out of San Luis Obispo County, this clip has garnered over 400,000 views and features more than 1,600 comments.

"Diet Coke Spoof": The Cal Poly Film Club made several videos in 1995, many of them commercial parodies. This one shows female office workers ogling a Diet Coke drinker’s gelatinous beer belly.

"Peeing at the Madonna Inn": Everyone has heard about the waterfall urinal at the Madonna Inn men’s room. But not everyone has ventured in to see it. For those who haven’t been there, see it in action as men and (curiously) women pretend to relieve themselves.