What is YouTube, exactly? We know the particulars: it was founded a February 2005 by a couple of guys, Chad Hurley and Steven Chen. It serves up user-created or user stolen videos to anyone who comes to the YouTube website. The numbers are sensational: 100 million views a day.
But that doesn’t really answer the question. I mean, what is YouTube? (These speculations are always tricky, a little shapeless and difficult to do. It used to be that thinking about the future was hard. Now it’s thinking about the present that’s the challenge.)
Let me offer a "starter thought" and see where it takes us. I think YouTube is not about entertainment, it’s about information. Or it’s not about information, it’s about intelligence. To put this another way, YouTube is not the future of Hollywood, it’s the future of the magazine. Actually, it’s the world post-magazine.
All of us are now trying to stay within shouting distance of a contemporary culture busting out in all directions. The cost of falling out of touch is substantial. Not knowing about YouTube in, say, August of 05 was perfectly okay. No harm, no foul. Not knowing about YouTube in August of 06 is really a good way of destroying your credibility…as an anthropologist, an analyst, a marketer, an educator, a librarian, a parent, a teen. Well, there is almost no one in our culture who can now afford to say, "YouTube? No, I’m sorry I haven’t heard of that."
This is a special problem for an anthropologist like me. I invested heavily in the 1990s to get in touch with contemporary and popular culture. Pursuing an education at the University of Chicago and then tenure in Canada meant that I missed most of the 70s and the much of the 80s. Off planet, out of touch, inclined to say things like "John Travolta? No, I’m sorry, I don’t recognize that name."
Once I had a hard time of it even after "graduation." The problem was always staying in touch. Movies and music. What was the best plan here? Go to lots of movies? Buy lots of CDs? Spend a fortune in time and money keeping up? Not really. Better to stay in touch with people like Leora Kornfeld and Dave Dyment who could be relied upon to give gentle, whispered council, like listening to a trusted financial advisor who puts things right with a few, carefully chosen words.
What I needed was 1) the wash on the internet, a tide that could be depended upon to deliver new key words and early(ish) notice (i.e., "Panic! at the disco"), and 2) YouTube, a place that can give me a more, mostly visual, information. Ok, now I have it. My self training gave me that foundation, and YouTube provided most of what I need (i.e., the video "I write sins not tragedies") to place this in a larger context. It didn’t matter that the quality of the video is sometimes abominable. I just needed a general idea. Most of all, I need costless access. I don’t have to buy the CD. I don’t need to hunt down information. A couple of clicks and I know.
This is what magazines used to do: keep me in touch the things I needed to know. But what has brought the once mighty Time to its knees is precisely that there is no way that a single paper based publication working even on a weekly interval to give me the notice I need. There are too many things out there, moving too quickly, and too many things in here, colliding too often, for a single editorial perspective to serve. As usual, the middle falls out. What I want is key word notice plus raw feed follow up.
And this is what is wrong with the notion of the "branded channel" recently announced by YouTube. The idea, if I understand it, is that YouTube will invite brands to pay for the privilege of creating customized channels. The business model, never easy to spot in these matters, is, I think, this: I will watch ads (i.e., endure branding) if you, the brand, serve an editing, winnowing, filtering function for me.
But isn’t this what just died? If we know anything about millennials it is that they know how to work information sources extremely well, and that they have formidable editorial powers of choosing and combining what it is they want to know. Ironically, YouTube is recreating the magazine it just killed. Branded channels, that’s what magazines used to do. YouTube works best as the raw feed of contemporary culture. Brand channels, this is what just got disintermediated.
Anonymous. 2006. Advertising in search of revenues look to web’s latest heroes. Financial Times. August 23, 2006.
Anonymous. 2006. Paris Hilton to promote YouTube website. Financial Times. August 23, 2006.
Panic! at the Disco. 2006. I writes sins not tragedies. On YouTube here.
I had an illuminating dinner with Debbie Millman a couple of days ago and, the "periscope" comes, indirectly, from her.