23/12/2014 23:37 GMT | Updated 22/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Search Me: The Joy of YuleTube

At the close of 2014, there may be good reason for thinking that during this year digital technologies took more from us than they added. No technology is ever neutral in function; it is how technologies are used that determines whether or not their impact is positive or negative. For example, in the case of digital technologies, we can bring pleasure and joy to our friends and families, even bringing us together through deeper understanding of each other, in the most innocent or simple of ways. Digital technologies allow use to connect with the better aspects of our world, ourselves and our pasts.Curiously, our ability to do so is a result of how the processes of searching online are evolving so that now YouTube is helping define Christmas in a way that we could not have conceived even a year ago.

The personification of data is growing. There have been many developments in 2014 in terms of how young people learn about their world and discover themselves. Firstly, they listen to each other, even in those often feared anonymous forums, where honesty and self-expression seem possible away from the cruelly exposing tools of hackers. Indeed, the hacking of Sony attests to the value of ephemeral apps such as Snapchat and anonymous forums.

Secondly, they search for information in ways that makes the Google search as fusty and dry as dragging down from the shelf an old Encyclopaedia Britannica. Personal expression via a video blog, comment or review means that YouTube, Facebook, Amazon or Yahoo Answers are often a more meaningful source of information for them, which they learn to evaluate as an academic might a learned monograph. Young people may search first via YouTube, even for sensitive information about health, in a manner that I have only recently understood. This process is difficult to grasp but we must if education (including health information) is to stay meaningful to young people in the digital world.

But of course young people are not just passive recipients of information, nor are the rest of us; we add to what is there. In this process, we are not just creating new content, we share memories and moments from the past using the whole world of recorded media, which we believe defined us. This may be a song we loved, a video, a text or sporting moment. We are now learning about the lives of others more richly than before, because the technology allows many more to share their experiences without needing the skills of the poet, composer or journalist, and that is liberating.

In past decades, as Christmas approached, the bumper edition of the Radio or TV Times would be thumbed through to identify those standout moments when a whole family could come together, to debate the decline or not of, say, music or society, and each generation of the family would be represented in the debate. The 'box of delights' that was the television, as the late, great Dennis Potter recognised enabled those not schooled in the 'tyranny of the printed word' to find their voice, learn and share, and Christmas was a special moment for that. It is no surprise that the successes of either 'Gogglebox' or more distantly 'The Royle Family' capture the importance of our lives with the television. But the 'box of delights' is rather more now, with connected Smart TVs and streaming devices such as Amazon Fire TV in many homes, in addition to smartphones, tablets and laptops allowing access to such a galaxy of content. No Radio or TV Times could capture all of it, so the march towards searchable, personal recommendations continues. And for young people television as we knew it is nowadays YouTube, iPlayer or Netflix. We are then no longer collectors of content, but streamers, adding, as well as receiving, and the scale of what has been added, indeed given, is awesome.

It was this level of giving that recently blew me away, as the level of human thought and industry, through adding to sites such as YouTube seemed so extraordinary, we could have been building another Tower at Babel. Whilst there are of course reasons to be concerned about certain content the way it can then bring people together is unprecedented.

At a recent family gathering to celebrate Christmas we sat again at the end of the evening in front of the television, for those few moments just before bedtime, when old Christmas songs have their moment again. Only this time, a streaming device allowed us to define what was played, and YouTube was searched instead of channels. Suddenly a competition started, like trying to find a Googlewhack, but this time it was singers and bands, across the decades, from the 1950s onwards, that were the goal. Songs from the corners of the mind emerged for all, informing everyone as to how music had evolved over the years, and what those songs had meant for that person. And YouTube created further links to other songs and clips, never failing to find at least one version of every song. Suddenly the past was alive, the generations not just connected again, but interested in the lives we have lived, and what the soundtrack was. The feeling of gratitude towards those that uploaded the more obscure clips and tracks was immense, and even towards the industries that enabled our access to them. It was worlds away from expressions of protest and outrage, and reminded me that so often whilst the protesters protest, it is the silent work of many that make this world a greater place, as they give something because they want to. Perhaps YouTube has been quietly acting in that way, bringing cheer to those that believed modernity had erased a past they loved. It is not so; we can still remember our personal good times, and together.

Have a very cool YuleTube.