YouTube, along with Second Life, Flickr, Wikipedia, and MySpace, has emerged as one of the key reference points in contemporary digital culture -- emblematic of the move towards what people are calling web 2.0. As Newsweek aptly put it last year, web 2.0 is "putting the we into the web." Elsewhere, I have argued that web 2.0 is fan culture writ large, fan culture without the stigma. Nobody is telling these guys to move out of their parent's basement -- though some of them have started multimillion dollar companies out of their parent's basements. What separates these companies from the dotcoms which fueled web 1.0 is the emphasis upon participation, social networking, collective intelligence, call it what you want. What distinguishes them is that their content arises bottom up from the community of users.
One by one, these insurgent companies are being absorbed into the surviving digital giants (as has happened through Yahoo's purchase of Flickr or more recently, Google's purchase of YouTube) or by old media companies (as in Rupert Murdock's takeover of MySpace). With each new buyout, there is renewed speculation about what happens to the "we" --what becomes of the communities that made these activities and services so attractive in the first place.
Today, I wanted to share two really interesting responses to the buyout of YouTube and what they might mean for the future of participatory culture
The first comes from John McMurria, a professor from DePaul University, who is doing some of the best contemporary writing on media policy. McMurria is one of a number of young and established scholars who writes regularly for Flow, a academic webzine about television and new media that is part of a larger effort to tap the power of new media to reinvent what scholarship looks like.
In the past, McMurria has written interesting pieces about some of the pressing issues facing the Federal Communications Commission, including the nature of indecency, the impact of convergence, and the concept of a la carte programming. In his most recent post, he takes on YouTube.
His essay starts with this vivid description of how the YouTube community responded to the news:
Between the millionaire founders who promised their continued allegiance to "the community" and the cultural commentators who lamented the loss of an idealized space outside the global totality of commercial culture were the millions of YouTube users who responded to the Google acquisition. In the five days after the YouTube founders uploaded their announcement video, users played the video 1,837,554 times, posted 6,989 written comments and uploaded 84 video responses to it. The comments ranged from those who worshiped the YouTube creators for their vision and entrepreneurship to those who feared that Google and commercialization would destroy YouTube. Users called the founders "filthy rich dorks," asked to borrow money, and demanded they should get a piece of the pie -- as user PrinceofGraves put it, "I'm still broke and miserable -- so this is less than meaningless to me." Others debated whether Google was evil or not, admonished the founders for illegally profiting from copyrighted material, and worried that advertisements would inundate the site. The video responses were equally varied. But unlike cultural critics who imagined YouTube as outside commercial popular culture, many used popular cultural references and icons to craft their commentaries, including a video of Darth Vader flipping them off.
This is an issue I raised here a few weeks ago. At the heart of the Web 2.0 movement is this idea that there is real value created by tapping the shared wisdom of grassroots communities, composed mostly of fans, hobbyists, and other amateur media makers. I have often celebrated these efforts as helping to pave the way for a more participatory culture -- one that will be more diverse and innovative because it expands the range of content we can access. Yet, as I suggested here a few weeks ago, there is a nagging question -- if these grassroots efforts are generating value (and in fact, wealth) and their creative power is being tapped by major corporations, at what point should they start receiving a share of revenue for their work?
We have all seen major media companies telling us that file-sharing is bad because it takes other people's intellectual property without just compensation. So, why are these same companies now taking their audience's intellectual property for free? Do we understand their profits primarily as a tax to support the infrastructure that enables their distribution?
I am still struggling with where I stand on this issue but as McMurria notes, the purchase of Google for such astronomical sums of money certainly ups the ante for those of us who are grappling with this issue. (David Edery has taken up the debate held here with Joel Greenberg and written some further thoughts on this issue which are worth reading.)
As McMurria's thoughtful essay continues, he examines more deeply the claims made about YouTube as a community and whether it really is enabling the democratic participation and cultural diversity we are claiming for it. What interests me about YouTube is the ways it creates an "impure" culture, one that brings together very different kinds of cultural production into a shared space:
1. YouTube functions as a meeting place for different subcultures, fan communities, and other forms of participatory culture, enabling the crosspollination of formal practices, themes, and ideas. I see this crosspollination as likely to accelerate the speed with which cultural innovations get picked up and deployed at other social sites.
2. YouTube participants are monitoring mass media and rescuing content that deserves greater attention than it has received -- see here the circulation of Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance, Stephen Colbert's Washington Press Club talk, or some of Keith Oberman's commentary on the Bush administration and the war, all of which were seen by many more people on YouTube than on television.
3. Grassroots content circulating on YouTube is being pushed upward through a combination of old and new media into greater and greater public visibility -- the movement from blogs to A List blogs (Boing Boing) to major web publications (Salon, Slate) to niche television (Daily Show, Letterman) to mainstream television (The Early Show) to advertising. This is such a powerful illustration of how convergence culture works.
4. YouTube is forcing major media companies to opt in or out of participatory culture -- with companies like MTV Networks enabling certain content to circulate through this channel or several major Japanese media companies deciding to yank their anime-related content off last week.
In each case, YouTube is a powerful illustration of the interplay between different forms of cultural production which Yochai Benkler discusses as Network Culture.
But, McMuria reminds us that while YouTube is relatively open to all kinds of grassroots participation, it does not necessarily deal with them all in an even handed manner. He writes:
A glance at the top 100 rated, viewed and disused videos, and most subscribed channels reveals far less racial diversity than broadcast network television. Most were US uploads with some non-US sports and Japanese popular culture...While Google's acquisition of YouTube and its deals with old media corporations including CBS, Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, NBC Universal and Warner Music Group have meant that, in the words of one active video maker, "the Wild West feel of YouTube is already slipping away," we might also recognize that just as the democratic frontier myth of America's Wild West has obfuscated the exploitations upon which the nation was born, the mythic idealizations of electronic frontiers such as YouTube also obfuscate the ways in which video culture has reproduced, or at least has failed to excite a concerted challenge to, the inequalities that persist in our American culture. Perhaps we might think about the difference between what it means to be a YouTube community and what it would take to use the YouTube video sharing technologies to help expand the movement for racial and economic justice.
This brings us back to the issue of the Participation Gap. Who gets to participate? What factors leave some groups more comfortable participating than others? And if they do participate, what factors shape how their contributions get valued or responded to by other members of their community? I am still touched by some of the things Jane McGonigal wrote about the misogynistic discourse that confronted LonelyGirl15 :
Each lonelygirl has roughly 1000-4000 comments, and the level of hate, mean-spiritendess, crudeness and often downright misogeny of the majority of them is impossible to ignore. I want to be very careful that we don't fetishize the participation aspects of this experience that was had by a very few who may have intelligently, passionately and seriously investigated and responded to the texts and the media objects, with the mainstream experience of and participation in this project.
How might this "mob rule" influence how comfortable certain groups are in posting their work in this forum? I am reminded of the research that shows that basically only middle and upper class people go to museums and other public institutions, even when they open their doors for free, because the barriers are not exclusively economic but speak to issues of cultural entitlement.
I am not certain that McMuria's methodology here -- looking at the highest ranking videos -- is the best way of determining what constitutes participation in the era of YouTube. After all, this amounts to using a broadcast paradigm -- how many eyeballs -- to measure success in a medium which is marked by audience fragmentation and niche culture. Perhaps there are some subcultures that attract majority interests and others that serve their own community here. Of course, should this be a case, then it would also raise questions about the value of diversity -- whether it should be assessed in terms of its impact upon the subcultures that generate this amateur content or in terms of its ability to crossover and speak to a broader range of publics. The very nature of YouTube -- its scope and scale -- makes a real assessment of its cultural diversity a daunting task but McMuria's essay certainly leads me to want to dig deeper into this question.
The second response comes from Comparative Media Studies graduate student Geoffrey Long and was written as part of the newsletter we share with the members of our Convergence Culture Consortium. Long came to CMS as an experienced designer and storyteller, someone who is deeply interested in the ways that technological change will impact the ways we produce, share, and consume stories. I first heard from Long when he responded to an essay I wrote for Technology Review about transmedia storytelling and we engaged with an extended and stimulating e-mail correspondence before he applied to our graduate program. Long is now hard at work (or at least is supposed to be hard at work) on a thesis which deals with Jim Henson's film projects (from The Dark Crystal to Mirrormask) as examples of transmedia entertainment and promises to be groundbreaking research. Here, though, he takes up the question of exactly what Google is buying when it purchases YouTube and explores more generally the value(s) associated with web 2.0 companies.
GOOGTUBE: TV 2.0, OR BUBBLE 2.0?
By: Geoffrey Long
That does it. I am the bane of the technology industry.
I am not a superstitious kind of guy. If I spill some salt I don't toss a pinch over my shoulder, I love black cats, and I have no great problem walking under ladders (unless there's someone on top of it dropping a can of paint). However, when I first read about Google buying YouTube, I literally groaned out loud. I spent the first dotcom boom (Web 1.0?) earning my bachelor's degree at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, cramming in tutorials on web design between doses of Joyce and Falkner. Some of my friends dropped out of school to go work in the industry, and I followed their adventures with a mixture of envy and silent superiority. Sure, I thought to myself, they're driving around in their shiny red New Beetles now, but I can go play once have my degree. I was so excited when I graduated, standing there with my newly-minted degree clutched in my hand, eyes bright and confident the offers would start rolling in. I was so proud to be a member of the class of 2000.
Yeah. We all know how that turned out. Now a second wave of high- tech excitement is sweeping over the media, I'm able to see the end of my time at MIT without a telescope, and I'm plagued with a crazy sense of deja vu. Sure, some lessons have been learned --strange how none of the new media darlings officially end in ".com"! -- but when you read about a deal as massive as Google buying YouTube, it's hard to fight off that feeling of "Here we go again." 1.65 billion dollars! If there was such a thing as a million-dollar bill, Google would have just forked over a whole suitcase full of them. How in the world can Google justify spending that kind of money, which is reportedly 1% of their entire market cap?
The deja vu is strong, but there are more differences at play here than it seems. In truth, there may be a very real place for GoogTube, and there's a chance -- a chance! -- that Google just walked away with a bargain. Let's explore some of these reasons, using as our guide some new possible advertising slogans for the emerging GoogTube network.
GOOGTUBE. BECAUSE SOMETIMES HUMANS ARE STILL BETTER THAN MACHINES.
It's possible to see the YouTube acquisition as a kludge, a stopgap solution until Google can get its own video search services up and running. There aren't a lot of places where humans are still steadily beating the machines hands-down, but the deceptively complex process of video search is one of them. So far Google's mighty machines are unable to sweep through a video clip and recognize that this mess of pixels is actually a picture of two frat boys dropping a roll of Mentos into a 2-liter of Diet Coke. Show the same mess of pixels to a human being, though, and they can start to classify the clip using taxonomy tags such as "Mentos" and "Diet Coke". Show it to more than one human and you start to accumulate looser tags, such as "chemistry", "explosion", and "morons". Part of the joy of YouTube is typing in a search parameter and just seeing what turns up.
GOOGTUBE. NOT JUST MENTOS AND DIET COKE!
A second reason for the purchase can be seen as the value of YouTube as a brand. For all the more that YouTube is trumpeted as a pillar of user-generated content, my recent attempt to find independent animation clips on the site was thwarted by an avalanche of pirated Naruto clips. Both YouTube and Google know that this is dangerous territory. (If you kick over some leaves, you can still find little bits of Napster littering the ground.) However, Google has the prowess to turn this liability into an asset -- something that YouTube has already demonstrated as a possible path to profitability through their recent contract with CBS.
Everyone knows that what music was to Web 1.0, video is to Web 2.0 -- and the media companies are all bound and determined to not let Apple run away with the market again. This is good and bad. While it's laudable that no one company should exert that much control over a developing media form (or at least a developing media delivery mechanism), the problem with TV on the Internet is that it's insanely difficult to find all the shows you want to watch. Apple's iTunes Store provides a one-stop shop for music -- if you want a particular album, it's almost a sure bet that you can find it there. Video, however, does not yet have such a reliable clearinghouse. Apple is getting close, but it still has a number of companies to get on board, and its new movie download service is having trouble signing other studios due to heavy pressure from retail competitors such as Target and Wal-Mart. Microsoft has a huge one-two punch in the works in the form of its Zune handheld coupled with its [name] online video service, but if there's going to be a third "network" giant emerging in this space (a CBS to Apple's NBC and Microsoft's ABC), GoogTube is likely to be it. Google has the clout to close deals that YouTube alone might not be able to swing, and -- perhaps more importantly -- it has a proven model for how to monetize on what is otherwise free content.
GOOGTUBE. ADWORDS FOR TV.
I used to edit an online 'zine, so I can tell you how much of a revelation Google's AdWords system happened to be. By analyzing the content on the page to dynamically deliver relevant ads, Google changed the game. Now, apply the same reasoning to a system that dynamically inserts targeted ads into video clips instead of text ads into websites. Google on its own couldn't do this -- but coupled with YouTube's existing community of happy little folksonomy taggers, implementing such a system becomes a walk in the park.
What's likely to happen is that certain clips or shows are uploaded by the content producers with certain "seed" keywords that tell the Google system which ads to dynamically insert into the clip. As more people watch it and add their own tags, though, the selection of ads appropriate to the clip narrows to become more relevant. Another option, which is even more exciting, is the possibility that GoogTube will serve up the Holy Grail in targeted advertising: ads dynamically inserted into the clip based on the preferences and demographic data that each user has already provided in their user profiles.
GOOGTUBE. BRIDGING THE USER-GENERATED CONTENT GAP SINCE 2006.
Personally, if YouTube had to be sold I'm glad it was Google that signed the check and not Microsoft. This is because Google has already displayed a cunning willingness to work with the blogosphere in their AdWords program -- which I'm hoping will extend to a willingness to work with the independent content creation market. Google already has the perceived corporate culture of supporting grassroots -- or "user-generated" -- media, whereas if it had been Microsoft attempting to implement these kinds of programs, the general air would have been one of fear and corporate ownership. Dealing with Google, despite its massive size and scope, still feels like dealing with an "indie", approachable company, versus Microsoft's vast and horrifying monolith. Content creators are therefore likely to approach Google for advertising partnerships in ways that Microsoft could only dream about. Google could connect smaller advertisers with independent content creators, tapping into advertising niche markets such as book publishers, comic shops, conventions, local musicians, local bars, and so on - the same advertisers who use the textual AdWords system.
On the flip side of that, Google also has enough clout to strike deals with major advertisers. This means that YouTube could serve as the missing link between major advertising companies and independent content producers. Google could theoretically create a middleman program that matches up indie creators with major advertisers to fund different stages of development for new properties, based on the success of those creators' previous small projects, or solely on the need of content for niche markets. The C3 group has been chattering amongst ourselves for months about how a big company like Target or Wal-Mart could finance an entire season of a show like ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT or FIREFLY which has a passionate following but not enough numbers to warrant a precious slot on prime-time TV -- but GoogTube has no such time constraints. If Google steps in as both delivery service and an advertising go-between, GoogTube could become a future home for all kinds of niche shows delivered to very specific, passionate, influential and extremely valuable eyeballs -- extending both existing franchises and new projects from existing or emerging content creators.
1.65 BILLION CHANNELS AND NOTHING ON?
These are only some of the ways that Google can possibly justify its purchase of
YouTube. There are others, of course, and the blogosphere is on fire this week with
people arguing both sides of the debate. As someone who enjoys both video delivered
over the Internet and creating content myself, I'm excited to see how this whole thing
shakes out. Sure, there are also 1.65 billion ways in which this could just be a signal
of the Web 2.0 boom imploding even faster than the first one -- but much like the first
time around, lessons are being learned and the field is changing in ways that will be
felt for years. Even if GoogTube tanks, there are dozens of companies springing up to
explore this new frontier. Here are just a few of them, and how they're selling
- BRIGHTCOVE. "Brightcove is an Internet TV service."
- VEOH. "Internet TV is the next step in delivering video to consumers everywhere, providing millions of channels of programming for viewers and millions of channels of capacity for broadcasters."
- SMALLCARROT. "Small Carrot delivers user generated movies for small screens."
- FIREANT. "FireAnt delivers a rich media experience through a simple to use, unified viewer that lets you watch all types of content without having to worry about which format it is (QuickTime, Windows Media, Real, Flash, MP3 and more)."
- DABBLE. "Dabble's mission is to help you find and collect videos from all over the web, no matter where they are hosted."
- VIMEO. "Vimeo is for sharing video clips that you've created. It's very easy to use, and filled with interesting people."
- DAILYMOTION. "Dailymotion is about finding new ways to see and show the world."
- GROUPER. "Grouper is the best place on the web to WATCH, SHARE and CREATE video."
- PODTECH. "PodTech Network is a growing network of audio and video podcasts for influencers and leaders in the global technology and media industries."
- PODSHOW. "Welcome to PodShow, where you get to choose what you listen to and when and where you listen to it."
- RADIOTAIL. "RadioTail's podcast ad network, advanced metrics and dynamic ad serving technology ensures that advertising in podcasts will reach the right audience and deliver a great return on investment".
- BLOGBURST. "BlogBurst is a syndication service that places your blog content on top-tier online destinations. You get visibility, audience reach and increased traffic, while publishers get a wide range of new coverage to broaden their reach and increase page views."
- SOCIALROOTS. "SocialRoots is a social media agency connecting media creators with new audiences and opportunities."
- BLOGADS. "We're the blog advertising specialists." www.blogads.com
- FRUITCAST. "You love publishing your podcast, but did you know you could make some pretty good money from it as well?"
- THE DECK. "The premier advertising network for reaching web and design professionals,
The Deck serves up millions of page views each month and is uniquely configured to
connect the right marketers to a targeted, influential audience."
-ODEO. "Odeo is a creative way to record and share audio - and it's free." www.odeo.com
So would I spend $1.65 billion on YouTube? I don't envy the execs who had to make those decisions. If they pull it off, GoogTube will deliver years of entertainment (and billions of dollars in revenue) from a hat trick of content creators, advertisers, and consumers. If they don't pull it off, it'll be entertaining to watch them crash and see who rises to take their place. One way or the other, there will definitely be something on.