The Nipple That Launched a Million Google Searches - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Americans’ urge to share in the nip slip freakout foreshadowed one of our century’s defining developments — the rise of social media.

Nipplegate: If you’re reading this and know what I’m talking about, then, yes, you’re getting old. Because while it may seem like just yesterday, Sunday’s Super Bowl XVIII marks the 10-year anniversary of the Janet Jackson–Justin Timberlake split-second breast-flashing incident that will forever live on in infamy.

What’s far more interesting to recall, however, is the way we shared our collective “shock.”

That’s 10 years that “wardrobe malfunction” has been a part of our lexicon; 10 years to fulminate over the conspiracy theories that Janet and Justin actually planned to rip off her lacy, red bra cup and the black patent bustier, exposing her nipple (I mean, come on, he was singing, “I’m going to have you naked by the end of this song” at the exact moment of the bust baring); and come to think of it, has anyone really heard from Janet Jackson in 10 years?

What’s far more interesting to recall, however, is the way we shared our collective “shock.” Miss Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction wasn’t an immediate trending topic — this was pre-Twitter. It was even pre-YouTube. But in a 2006 talk to students at the University of Illinois, YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim told students at his alma mater that the nip slip actually factored into his thinking as he and fellow PayPal employees Chad Hurley and Steve Chen dreamed up the video-sharing site.

Back in 2004, ”What you would basically do to find a video is you would go on Google, type in what you were looking for and just hope you would find somebody’s directory with a bunch of files,” Karim recalled. Americans’ desire for a better platform for sharing video, what Karim called the emergence of a ”clip culture,” became readily apparent during that fateful halftime show, which ”only happened once and never again.”

The desire for a ’clip culture’ became readily apparent during that fateful halftime show, which ‘only happened once and never again.’

“For anyone who wanted to see it after that, well, they had to find it online,” he observed.

Headshot of man facing left of frame with FCC Logo sign behind him

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell.

Source Corbis

That and a second 2004 big talker that blew up the Web — Jon Stewart’s showdown with Republican talking head Tucker Carlson on CNN’s Crossfire – got Karim thinking, ”Wow, now to get the biggest audience maybe online is the way to go and not television.”

Not long after Karim’s speech at Illinois, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. 

Even without web tools like YouTube at our fingertips, there was still plenty of digital commotion surrounding Janet’s ripped-off top.

People went bonkers on TiVo — “Dude, did you just see that?!” — rewinding and rewatching the moment more than anything that had been broadcast previously in the service’s short 5-year history. 

Americans also took to Google (and Yahoo! and Lycos, remember them?) to look up the incident in record numbers, making Jackson the most searched term on the Internet back then, even if she’s since been usurped by the likes of Britney and Miley and the Kardashians.

The virality of Janet’s breast flash and people’s desire to share collectively in the experience surprised observers at the time. The BBC wrote that the online feeding frenzy over the halftime show was evidence of growing “interest in using the Web less as a shop and more as a collaborative tool to share images and experiences” — an utterly novel idea, keep in mind, 10 years ago.

Leave it to a nipple to unleash the power of social media. 

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