YouTube Grows Up -- But What Does It Mean?

Bob Garfield Explores the Implications of the Video-Sharing Revolution

By Published on .

Editor's note: This article is simultaneously being published in the December issue of Wired magazine


Look, before you even get to the second paragraph, try this: Click and watch the YouTube.com "boom goes the dynamite" video below.
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Boom Goes the Dynamite
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Evolution of Dance
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Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Everyday for Six Years
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Numa Numa
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Sweet Tired Cat


It's just a little outtake from a Ball State University campus-TV newscast. It features a courageous but overmatched freshman named Brian Collins presenting the worst sports-highlight rundown in human history, culminating in the worst sportscaster catchphrase ever conceived: "Boom goes the dynamite." It is horrifying. It is cruel. It is hilarious.

Or play "evolution of dance," which has gotten nearly 35 million views in six months. You wouldn't think "Ohio motivational speaker's grand finale" would equal "mesmerizing," but Judson Laipply's seamless sampling of footwork to 30 songs, from Elvis to 'NSync, pretty much is. Or try the accurately titled "Noah takes a photo of himself everyday for six years." A time-lapse documentary of Noah Kalina over 2,356 days, it's a little thin on plot, but it nonetheless racked up more than 3 million views in six weeks. You'd better also see "Numa Numa," which stars a chubby young man in his New Jersey bedroom lip-syncing to an insipid but weirdly fetching Romanian pop song. Or, what the hell, live dangerously. Try "sweet tired cat" and watch a drowsy kitten dozing off. The clip, which was viewed nearly 2 million times in two weeks, is 27 seconds of such concentrated cuteness that you might actually have a stroke and die. It's that excruciatingly adorable.

And, as it turns out, extremely valuable. Google -- as you may have read in every publication, online and off, in the entire freaking world -- just paid $1.65 billion in stock to be the cute little kitty-cat's home.

The price tag for YouTube, just to put the investment in perspective, is what Target paid for 257 Mervyns department stores and four distribution centers in 13 states, and just a bit more than WPP Group paid for the Grey Global Group advertising network with 10,500 employees in 83 countries generating $1.3 billion in revenue. Those, of course, are both profitable enterprises with vast fixed assets. YouTube's fixed assets pretty much consist of a video interface and a cool retro logo. So why is it worth nearly six times the gross domestic product of Micronesia?

This story will definitively answer that question.

Well, maybe not exactly answer.

But explore.

OK, guess.

The desire to create and share
But that guesswork begins in a very special, very poignant, and potentially very lucrative place: the hitherto futile aspirations of the everyman to break out of his lonely anonymous life of quiet desperation, to step in front of the whole world and be somebody, dude. A recent Accenture study of 1,600 Americans found that 38% of respondents wanted to create or share content online. Aha! Suddenly the inexplicable "Numa Numa" begins to make sense. He could, so he did. And so have lots like him. It's said that if you put a million monkeys at a million typewriters, eventually you will get the works of William Shakespeare. When you put together a million humans, a million camcorders, and a million computers, what you get is YouTube.
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This is the third installment of Ad Age Ad Review columnist Bob Garfield's "Chronicles of the Media Revolution" series in which he explores ongoing technological upheaval across the media and marketing industries. His two earlier installments are:

Inside the New World of Listenomics
How the Open Source Revolution Impacts Your Brands
Bob Garfield's "Chaos Scenario"
A Look at the Marketing Industry's Coming Disaster

Garfield's weekly columns and daily blog can be found in the Bob Garfield section of this AdAge.com website.
ALSO: Comment on this article in the 'Your Opinion' box below.



And there they are, in the bedrooms and dorms and cubicles of the world, uploading their asses off, more than 65,000 times a day on YouTube alone.

"If you aren't posting, you don't exist," says Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, a new-media consultancy. "People say, 'I post, therefore I am.'"

Constituo, ergo sum. An interesting formulation that may well represent a new rationalism for the digital age. But for the moment, let's not put Descartes before the horse. Let's just get the measure of a phenomenon in progress -- because Google has recently bet the equivalent of 257 Mervyns stores that the rise of video-sharing is more than just the latest rage. To YouTube's new owners, "Numa Numa" represents nothing less than cultural, sociological, and economic transformation -- including, but not limited to, a reallocation of the $67 billion that advertisers spent on TV in the U.S. last year.

Don't sell Google short
That upheaval would require a couple of things to fall into place: (1) a business model to convert what is basically an overgrown fan site into an actual advertising medium and (2) a tectonic change in the worldwide media economy. But don't sell Google short. Not long ago, all it had was a search algorithm and a cool logo. Now, after reinventing online advertising, it has revenue of $9.3 billion a year and good reason to believe that neither of those daunting prerequisites is out of the question.

Until about five minutes ago, remember, almost all video-entertainment content was produced and distributed by Hollywood. Period. That time is over. There was a time when advertisers could count on mass audiences for what Hollywood thought we should be watching on TV. That time is all but over. There was a time when broadband penetration was too slight and bandwidth costs too prohibitive for video to be watched online. That time is sooooo over. "The era of the creepy blue light leaking out of every living room window on the block is now officially at an end," says my pal and occasional colleague Steve Rosenbaum, founder of video-sharing startup Magnify.net and one of the inventors a decade ago of citizen video. "The simple, wonderful, delirious fact is that people like you and me can now make and share content."

Delirious or not, it's a fact that Buzzmachine.com's Jeff Jarvis believes has changed the meaning of TV. "Just as our kids don't understand the difference between broadcast and cable," he says, "the line between TV and Internet TV is about to disappear."

'Exploding TV'
Jarvis calls the phenomenon "exploding TV," and YouTube is exploding faster than anything else: from a standing start about a year ago to more than 100 million video streams a day. It was on YouTube, not "Saturday Night Live," that the world fell in love with "Lazy Sunday." It was there that we found ourselves smitten, intrigued, and ultimately betrayed by LonelyGirl15. And it is there that more than 65,000 videos go every day, their creators posting what they think are video clips but that are also improvised explosive devices laying waste to the old order. Hit Upload Video ...

Boom goes the dynamite.

Chad Hurley says he doesn't remember. It's two weeks before the announcement of the Google acquisition, and he has just flown the red-eye to New York to make his case to Madison Avenue. He's turning right around in a few hours; he's stuck in yet one more conference room, and his eyes have the vacant look of someone whose body has a one-bar wireless connection to his nervous system. In a word, the dude is fried. Never mind that he's the co-founder of the Next Big Thing and poised to be a total tycoon; the question on the floor seems to have him stumped: What was the first video uploaded to YouTube by someone other than himself or YouTube co-founder Steve Chen?

He insists he can't quite recall, you know, the $1.65 billion moment.

"I think it was a few people from Stanford," Hurley offers. "People in a dorm room doing weird things."

Weird things? What kind of weird things, Chad?

"I don't even remember," he says. "That was so long ago."

A simple plan
Yeah. Way back in May 2005. But you can scarcely blame the 29-year-old if it's all a bit of a blur. In the intervening year and a half, YouTube has hosted many millions of clips -- all because Hurley and Chen wanted a utility like Flickr for sharing videos. In a garage in Menlo Park, Calif., they built a simple interface and a one-click way to embed videos on other sites. It was a serendipitous innovation, coinciding with the MySpace phenomenon and yielding what Hurley calls "this" -- as in, "It's all turned into this." Slouched wearily in his stackable conference chair, he seems a little bewildered, but maybe it's more like bemused. Ain't as though he has no explanation for all this. You'll find it in the company slogan: "Broadcast Yourself."

"Everyone, in the back of his mind, wants to be a star," Hurley asserts for probably the quadrillionth time, "and we provide the audience to make it happen."

Lots of people can now watch themselves on sort-of TV, which is pretty fun in itself. The bonus is that others want to watch them, too. Third-millennium humanity has demonstrated an interest in sifting through millions of pieces of crap produced by total strangers to discover a few gems -- some accidentally entertaining ("Boom Goes the Dynamite"), some breakout performances from the previously obscure ("Treadmill Dance"), and some explorations of a new art form crackling with genius (Ze Frank, Ask a Ninja, and the guys behind LoneyGirl15.)

Throw in the uploaded TV commercials, such as Nike's Ronaldinho spot showing the Brazilian soccer star miraculously volleying against the crossbar. Add to that some professional content either stolen from or surrendered by Hollywood. Altogether, this stuff constitutes a bottomless reservoir of short-form video content for others to siphon off if they choose. Which they do, millions of times a day, from pages all over the Internet. That's the demand side of the equation -- monkey see, monkey use -- foreshadowing the future of media, already in progress.

Forget "exploding TV." The name for this thing is Monkeyvision.

Monkey business
Eh? Monkeyvision. Pretty good, huh? How nice it must be to have big, slick magazines coining catchwords for the phenomenon you created. Even that's cold comfort, however, if you can't build an actual business around it. Which is why Hurley went to New York: to explain to advertisers why they should give him money to broadcast themselves. The bad news for his entourage is that advertisers have been broadcasting themselves for decades and would very much prefer the status quo. The good news is that the status quo isn't long for this world.

Without being overly simplistic or melodramatic, the state of the Old Commercial Broadcasting Model can be summarized like this: a spiraling vortex of ruin. Fragmentation has decimated audiences, viewers who do watch are skipping commercials, advertisers are therefore fleeing, the revenue for underwriting new content is therefore flat-lining, program quality is therefore suffering ("Dancing With the Stars," Q.E.D.), which will lead to ever more viewer defection, which will lead to ever more advertiser defection, and so on.

In late October, NBC Universal announced a cut of 700 jobs as part of a $750 million retrenchment plan, which includes a moratorium on 8 p.m. comedies and dramas due, presumably, to advertisers' waning interest. Nearly a year ago, perhaps reading the writing on the screen, Viacom spun off CBS Corp. to protect the growth of the parent company. And CBS itself, madly trying to cultivate online distribution channels, put fall premieres of shows such as "Smith" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine" on Google Video. NBC used Yahoo to premiere "Heroes" and AOL to offer sneak previews of its "Twenty Good Years" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And the brand-new CW Network celebrated its debut by posting "Runaway" and "Everybody Hates Chris" on MSN free. Counting cable, dozens of networks are now making programs available online.

Likely victims
The networks say these are measures to promote the broadcast versions of their shows. The overwhelming probability is that the opposite is true, which bodes poorly for those invested in the status quo. One victim is local affiliates, which get a big chunk of their revenue from selling commercial space within network programs. The Internet, needless to say, bypasses them.

The digital revolution is equally terrifying to Madison Avenue, which has been footing the bill for "Gilligan's Island," The New Republic, "The Family Circus," Rush Limbaugh, "TRL" and The Wall Street Journal forever. Until now, advertisers have underwritten mass media to reach mass audiences. Indeed, they've paid increasing premiums for the opportunity as audiences have shrunk, because even in a fragmented media world, the largest fragment -- network TV -- is the most valuable. But now they realize that they are losing not only mass but critical mass.

They see the old model collapsing before them, and they have $67 billion to spend and no idea where to spend it. Because, at least until recently, the Internet has lacked both the riveting content and ad-space inventory to absorb it. But what if there were a means to approximate the reach and mesmerizing power of TV online? What if there were a medium with not only the grip of TV but the vast scale to absorb all those ad dollars? And what if, as a bonus, the medium were able not merely to command eyeballs for marketers but to target content especially relevant to what the marketer is selling?

In short, what if there were a missing link between the old model and the glittering new one? What would happen then?

Actually, that's an easy one: Procter & Gamble would be ecstatic. Blood would flow in the gutters of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. And Regis Philbin would be out of our lives forever.

Can it thrive?
Oh, and someone would strike it filthy, stinking rich -- and not the piddling few hundred million Hurley and Chen just earned, either. We're talking real money. Some of it would be dispersed along what somebody once referred to as the long tail of video-sharing Web sites: Bolt, Dailymotion, Grouper, Guba, iFilm, Magnify.net, Metacafe, Photobucket, Revver, Veoh, VidiLife and many more. Presumably a chunk would be commanded by Yahoo, AOL and MSN (which in September launched Soapbox in direct competition with YouTube). And, yes, as of October, YouTube is definitely the front-runner in the struggle to be the alpha male of Monkeyvision. But even 100 million daily streams and $1.65 billion into the evolution of this species, how it will actually thrive is a mystery.

"If anybody tries to answer that question, they are guessing," says Jennifer Feikin, director of video and multimedia search partnerships at Google. Before the YouTube acquisition, she says, Google Video was tinkering with ways to target ads to relevant content. In one approach, posters were asked to close-caption their videos using a Google tool, and the text was mined for metadata. It's an ingenious experiment -- but only an experiment, because, after all, Feikin says, "we are at the very, very beginning of online video."

Yes, and so formidable are the challenges that it's not hard to make a case that the beginning is already the beginning of the end.

As somebody once said, 100 million people can't be wrong. They can, however, be useless. It turns out that success is 1% inspiration, 99% monetization. "They've got the audience," says John Montgomery, CEO of MindShare Interaction, a digital-media arm of WPP Group. "In order now to monetize what they've got, they need to figure out a revenue model. But it's a very, very hard thing to do around user-generated media."

Terrifying list of unknowns
Of course, that's Google's problem now, and it's no easy banana to peel. Monkeyvision presents a terrifying list of unknowns: First, there's the basic question of where, exactly, to put the ads. Prior to the acquisition, YouTube refused to sell ads appended to either end of a video -- like a TV commercial -- on the grounds of safeguarding the viewer experience. Indeed, many accept as an article of faith that a pre-video commercial is fatally intrusive. "There may be a user out there who likes a 30-second preroll," says Tod Sacerdoti of PostRoller. "If you find one, have him give me a call."

As for Sacerdoti's so-called postroll ads, even the most self-satisfied marketer wants to know who in the world would stick around to watch -- or, more to the point, who can prove that anyone did. This leaves as available ad real estate only the space adjacent to the video window -- which is great for whoever is hosting the video. But, as Sacerdoti points out, a significant portion of YouTube videos are embedded elsewhere, mainly on individual MySpace pages. "Everyone talks about streams per day as YouTube's metric of success. But the vast majority of those streams are not on their website. In order for YouTube to monetize that traffic, it has to monetize those streams." Which YouTube (denying the "majority" characterization) also has insisted it will not do.

Advertisers do have another option: Wait until their commercials make it onto YouTube and hope they go viral. YouTube actually encourages this -- so long as the free posts are accompanied by paid versions. This, the company says, stimulates the viral effect. Perhaps. But as MindShare's Montgomery notes, for advertisers "the most successful way of using YouTube" -- posting ads for free -- "is a way in which YouTube doesn't make any money."

Which may suit the users just fine. One of the biggest obstacles to advertising success is the damage that success could inflict on the YouTube experience, till now an oasis of relative noncommercialism in a world of brand inundation. The Google deal has already spawned bitterness at the grass roots, where some are dubious that GooTube will retain its soul. "I think it's the beginning of the end of YouTube as we know it," wrote a poster named SamHill24. Another, Link420, declared simply, "It's over!!!! YouTube is screwed."

The small matter of copyright
The second big issue is the nightmare of protecting intellectual property. As eager as Madison Avenue is to push stacks of chips online, in the back of its mind is Napster. It, too, was a peer-to-peer revolutionary -- one killed aborning by copyright-infringement issues. Nobody wants to invest only to see the fledgling industry paralyzed with litigation, regulation, or legislation. And it is not an idle fear.

A lot of those upload monkeys have a nasty habit of posting clips from TV shows or enhancing their clips by adding music tracks -- which, of course, are somebody else's property. "When we started," says Steven Starr, founder and CEO of competing video-sharing startup Revver, "more than 90% of the content was illegal. We took down many, many thousands of pieces of content." Revver's business model is as an oasis for original content, so it built into its infrastructure human and electronic means to sniff out copyright infringers. But thanks in part to its explosive growth and its free-for-all philosophy, YouTube had until recently been at a loss to manage the situation, relying on safe-harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to insulate itself from liability. Until it actually installs a newly developed copyright-infringement sniffer (coming soon, YouTube says), the best it can do is take down individual clips in response to a rights-holder's complaint. And to demand -- futilely -- that users follow the rules.

So what about "Evolution of Dance," for instance? To put together this medley, did Laipply license 30 songs? "Don't know," replies YouTube Senior Marketing Director Julie Supan. "You'd have to ask Judson." In the next breath, though, she suggests that the brief music excerpts fall within the bounds of fair use.

Indeed, thus far it appears that no record company has demanded the video be pulled down. But speculation abounds that copyright holders have just been waiting for someone with deep pockets, such as Google, to acquire YouTube, whereupon the lawsuits will fly.

Patient litigants?
Another possibility is that potential litigants are simply being patient. They understand YouTube's value to them as a marketing tool and are waiting for a technological solution. This fall, YouTube struck deals with Warner Music Group, CBS, Universal Music Group and Sony BMG not only to detect copyrighted material and, if necessary, remove it but also to make much of it available to amateur video makers in exchange for a split of ad revenue.

So big media lawyers may or may not remain at bay. That has no bearing, however, on the potential grievances of the greater Monkeysphere.

"What about the rights of the content creators?" asks Max Kalehoff, blogger and VP- marketing for Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "YouTube is basically going under the assumption that there's this community in place to blindly create content on YouTube's behalf without much in the way of compensation." Already, some of YouTube's most provocative creators -- Ask a Ninja and the LonelyGirl15 team, to name two -- have signed on with Revver, which shares ad revenue with content creators. Hurley acknowledges a similar arrangement could become part of the YouTube business model. In the meantime, will the hits keep coming? And once the ad revenue starts generating profits, will some aggrieved Monkeyvisionary file a class-action suit for a slice of the pie?

Let's just suppose that, contrary to Planck's Constant of American Economic Life over the last few decades, such litigation never happens. YouTube's problems are still far from over, for the greatest obstacle facing Monkeyvision isn't jurisprudence. It is prudence itself. Given the anything-goes nature of the Web, the 65,000-uploads-a-day question is: Will advertisers risk associating themselves with violence, pornography, hate speech, or God knows what lurks out there one click away? "Advertisers and brands are enormously risk-averse," Magnify.net's Rosenbaum says. "The question now is how the raw and risky is made safe and comfortable. It's not a little question. It's a big question."

The case of the vivisected cat
For instance, if you are, say, Meow Mix, and you bought ads adjacent to cat-related videos, how surprised and disappointed you might be to learn you have sponsored a YouTube video uploaded by someone named mrwheatley and titled "exploding cat." Or the one from qu1rk89 titled "exploding cat." Or this one: "ma907h eats dead cat," which shows a guy ... oh, never mind. As Cory Treffiletti, VP-media services for interactive agency Real Branding, grimly observes of the metadata describing a YouTube video, "Right now it consists of only a few key terms the user selects. And there's no blank to fill out for 'cat vivisection.'"

Magnify.net tries to address this problem by exploiting the distributive quality of online video; it enables Web sites to build community channels -- for, oh, say, cat lovers -- that ask members to rate each video against various quality and suitability criteria. Advertisers could tap this data to place their ads alongside only appropriate clips.

YouTube, which has only the uploaders' descriptions of their videos to work with, is so far standing pat. Supan insists that YouTubers have done an excellent job of policing their own space, although she acknowledges that one sketchy video can "rise up" to haunt all involved. "You know what?" she offers. "That is the nature of this environment . . . The fact is, we cannot control content on our site."

Out-of-control content. That is hardly music -- licensed or unlicensed -- to Madison Avenue's ears. And with a $177 billion total domestic ad budget at stake, nobody wants to be monkeying around. Which may be why the YouTube pilgrimage to Madison Avenue has so far not resulted in any sort of huge windfall. "They're not making fast decisions in some cases," Supan says. "They really have to develop a sort of new model for themselves."

So there you have it. For all the aforementioned reasons, you'd be forgiven for wondering how clearly Google thought this thing through. The numbers do evoke a sort of '90s déjà vu. Could these guys have anted up nearly six times the GDP of Micronesia because they were afflicted with micronesia, a small case of memory loss about, say, the insane multiples squandered on fiber capacity just before the telecom crash? Eerily enough, $1.65 billion is just what Racal Telecom fetched from Global Crossing.

Killer app or dead end?
Ah, yes, the titans of yore. GeoCities. Prodigy. Netscape. But hold on; we're speaking of the missing link here, and the defining nature of missing links is that they go missing. They are, by definition, transitory. They evolve, change the future, and disappear. Is YouTube some interim killer app, languishing on Darwin's death row?

Nah. In one form or another, YouTube will survive. And prosper, despite everything, for one overriding reason: 100 million streams a day. "The only barrier to creating a YouTube competitor is that so many people are already on YouTube," Denuo's Tobaccowala says. "What it has going for it is its sheer size. In a fragmented world, there is a need for community and a need for massness."

Whoa. Massness? Could the irony be any thicker? The old model is a flaming ruin, disintegrating into nothingness, and what rises from the ashes -- in the vast, distributed, exploded, long-tailed galaxy of the Internet -- is a mass medium? A general-interest destination? YouTube as the new boob tube?

That may not be Jarvis' idea of the glittering future, but it certainly is Hurley's. "We think people want an entertainment destination," Hurley says, not only without bombast but more or less listlessly as his latest interrogation winds down. "Everyone else wants to see what everyone else is seeing and enjoying."

But of course. That. What Uncle Miltie and the Super Bowl and "Survivor" have always offered is something to talk about at the water cooler, at the nail salon, or on IM. "Did you see that horrible sportscast? 'Boom goes the dynamite!' What is that supposed to mean? . . . Wait. You haven't seen it? Ohhhhmygosh! I'll e-mail you the link."

"It goes back to something primal," says Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. "There's still a desire to have a shared cultural context. We hunger for things we can discuss."

So if you're searching for the missing link, you need search no further. It turns out to be the ability to fashion rudimentary (digital) tools to feed a not merely national but global conversation, even if that conversation is about a portly lip-syncing New Jerseyite. Why advertise next to some sad sack's weird shenanigans?

Simple. Because it's not just shenanigans.

It's monkey business.
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