It's summer again—that time of year when the kids get out of school, snow gets out of the forecast and families get out of Dodge. We're talking the traditional family vacation here, when parents and kids everywhere slather on sunscreen, slap on those funny Gilligan's Island-style hats and see a chunk of the planet they might not have seen before.
Oh, hey, it's not like there's anything wrong with that kind of vacation. They're all right for some folks, I guess. I've taken one or two myself. But this year, I've decided to say "nay" to theme parks, "nay" to the mountains, "nay" to exotic ports of call: I'm taking a naycation—a trip where not only do I not leave town, I won't leave my desk. I'm taking a trip via YouTube. After all, the whole world is on the video-sharing site these days. Why leave home at all?
You mock me now, but just wait 'til you're in Needles, Calif., shelling out eighty bucks for gas. YouTube is free—and you don't have to worry about your kids throwing up in the backseat either.
To Munich by Mouse
Once upon a time, YouTube wasn't quite as globe-encompassing as it is now. It used to be full of oddities—the equivalent of that "World's Biggest Ball of Twine" attraction you trundle past on the way to the Mall of America. If you wanted to see a dramatic gopher or a kid loopy from too many dental drugs, you could find it on YouTube. It was like America's Funniest Home Videos, only way more unpredictable. And if you dared type in the word "cats," well, you'd get an eyeful for sure.
But over time, YouTube has become something of an audio/video clearinghouse for … everything. An exaggeration? Not really. With YouTube, you can virtually go virtually anywhere, virtually do virtually anything.
Say I have a yen to "ride" Disney's Big Thunder Mountain roller coaster. YouTube not only readily obliges, it asks me where: "In Anaheim, Orlando or Paris?" If I want to prowl around the British Museum in London, YouTube has 11,400 videos to show me. If you're jonesing for an African safari, name the park, the animal, even the time of day, and YouTube will come up with something for you. Want to go see a Bon Jovi concert? (And by Bon Jovi I really mean Justin Bieber.) The NBA Finals? Monarch butterflies gathering at their Mexican wintering site? You guessed it. It's all online, centrally located on one giant Google-owned site: YouTube.
Naturally, there will be those who say it's not the same—those who are still tied to the whole "reality" thing. I can hear them now. "You don't feel the wind in your hair on YouTube," they'll tell me. "Your stomach doesn't drop when the coaster zooms downhill. You can't—"
Blah, blah, blah. Do you know how much Disneyland costs these days? If I want my stomach to drop, I'll eat a half-pound of gummi bears. If I want to enjoy the wind in my hair, I'll start using Rogaine and then go stand in front of a fan.
OK. So it's not exactly the same. It can be, though, a conduit for family bonding, much like a family vacation. When my family gathers, we sometimes whip out the laptop and show a video or two: a cool flash mob thing, perhaps, or an ancient basketball clip to prove to my son that, yes, Michael Jordan really was better than LeBron James. We view videos together as a family and, as such, they become a shared experience: Not as powerful as that time our tire blew out in rural Utah during a snowstorm, but at least none of us get frostbite from the keyboard.
It's educational, too. You can pull up Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats or MIT lectures on electricity and magnetism. And if you want to convince your agnostic neighbor that there really is more purpose to life than having really nice azaleas, YouTube has about 1,000 Ravi Zacharias videos on hand to help you. Why, you can even watch Plugged In's director, Bob Waliszewski, talk about movies on YouTube.
No Itinerary, No Budget
Want to learn how to hotwire a car? You can see dozens of videos that show you step by step. Want to follow in Miley Cyrus' footsteps and smoke salvia? There are clips that show you how to grow it, cut it, smoke it, and even what users look like afterward.
And now, suddenly, as I look around me, it seems that I'm not at Disneyland any longer. But it's so hard to tell the difference on YouTube!
Have a hankering to hear some majorly naughty words? YouTube features not just the ones you've heard of before, but also a whole host of words that have never before befouled your ears. At the movie theater you're supposed to practically be an adult before you get to listen to a stack of f-words. But with YouTube, that sort of language is easily accessible to even kindergartners who are willing to add a few years to their ages when they sign in.
The world is pretty much on YouTube now—even the parts we shouldn't or wouldn't want to see: Children beating each other up. Men and women stripping down and dancing seductively for their webcams. Drugs being sold and used. Riots in progress. Executions.
Which brings us to a sobering point of departure when it comes to the traditional vacation and a potential naycation. Most of us, when we hit the real road, choose to go to places we'd actually like to see. We set our itineraries to maximize our time and money. If we visit New York, we're likely to see the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building, check out the museums, maybe take in a Broadway show. Few of us pencil in time to visit a Brooklyn drug dealer or schedule a ride-along with a Bronx sewer inspector. Despite what we say, we don't want to see all of New York—just the stuff we think'll be fun or educational. If we literally saw it all, we might never survive the trip.
We know where we want to go (and where we don't), where we should go (and where we shouldn't). And most of us have gotten pretty good at navigating the real world—not straying into areas we know to be unsafe or unwise—be we at home or abroad.
Strange, then, that we don't always take the same sort of care when we're cruising through the Internet.
Just the Same, and Really, Really Different
Maybe we feel more freedom to travel to unseemly places online because it seems to be safer—a chance to experience a side of humanity we can't ordinarily without the overt threat of being killed or contracting some horrible disease. But is it safer? An online roller coaster ride might not be as thrilling as the real thing, but can the same be said of watching a sensuous online dance?
Do you want to know what the biggest peril of a trip through YouTube is? You have to work hard to get into, say, Iran or North Korea. You have to pay to walk into a strip club. You have to pack heat to brave the wilds of a drug lord's HQ in South Central. But on YouTube, all you have to do is move your index finger ever so slightly to search out some of man's darkest inclinations and bleakest habits.
It's an important thing to remember if, like me, you decide to go on a naycation—whether for five minutes or for a night on the town. YouTube can be a pretty cool place on the planet to visit. But there are many, many parts of it to which it'd be best to say "nay."