What’s old is new again (virally speaking)

August 27, 2008

They told us in journalism school that it all boils down to the basic elements: who, what, when, where, why and how. But can something be considered newsworthy if one or more of the five “W’s” doesn’t immediately come into play?

Well, sort of. Take Christian, for example, the lion raised in London by two Englishmen, released back into the African wild at his entrance into adulthood. Christian’s reunion with his former owners in a poignant Internet video has touched the hearts of millions in the past month.

The catch? The events happened nearly 40 years ago.

It’s the when and the why. Why has this story been treated like a new, current event, when it is, in fact, decades old? Emotionally speaking, people love a good tearjerker that tugs at the heartstrings; Christian’s tale reaffirms that the bond between man and beast is closer than we think, and the differences between us and our animal brethren few. Plus, there’s always been a timeless quality to heartfelt tales. We know what the outcome will be, but we seek them out because they remind us of our vulnerabilities, our need for human connection and interaction. So, it doesn’t matter when they take place.

Rationalities aside, there’s another explanation. Technically – or rather, virally – speaking, part of the phenomenal YouTube success owes itself to the proliferation of “viral videos”: those little video tidbits posted online innocuously, randomly, only to become a surprise hit, literally, the world over. Think “Star Wars Kid” and all its variants. (By the end of last week, the Christian video generated over 20 million hits, not to mention the dozens of alternate videos made by other Internet users, and coverage on the “Today” show.)

The video clip of Christian’s reconnection with his caretakers was culled from a 1970s documentary titled “Christian, the Lion at World’s End.” But, because it is another unfortunate example of a thought-provoking movie that time has forgotten (at least at the hands and eyes of the mainstream), it is treated like new “news” when reintroduced to the light of day.

Personally, I think it is great when old, rare film gems are revived and embraced by a new generation. But is this an example of the public’s dependence on the media to present them with the aural, visual and literary, neatly and conveniently packaged, when people can dig deep and seek such stuff out themselves?

Christian’s story has been renewed thanks to the power of technology. But that shouldn’t prevent us from looking towards other areas of inspiration, even if it is a dusty book, old scratchy, out-of-print LP, or anything else not deemed popular at the moment.

After all, there has to be an old VHS copy of “Christian” somewhere at a video rental store that is catching someone’s eye right at this very moment.

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