Why YouTube works

YouTube is incredibly popular. Add in other services like Google Video, and you have a genuine phenomenon. People are marching in droves to the web to watch video. Why is online video taking off now? Part of the answer must be because most people have broadband now. I doubt that is the main cause, though. YouTube has made three main innovations:
  1. Making it incredibly easy for users to contribute videos
  2. Making a central location to find video clips, with lots of good ways to find them (browsing, searching)
  3. Giving the Internet a way to link to videos, and giving television clips a way to exist on the Internet.
The first two points are fairly clear, but the third could be the most important. That last point can best be explained by thinking about who who really benefits from YouTube. The users that post video and now have access to thousands of viewer obviously benefit, but I would argue they are not the big winners, because they don't usually make a lot of money from their 15 minutes of fame. The real beneficiaries are the commercial TV stations and production companies that find their content pirated on YouTube. Piracy is always a big concern, but it seems that long, full-episode videos do not work very well-not so much because of bandwidth but rather usage patterns. In my experience, most people bounce around YouTube and similar sites looking at a moderate number of shorter clips, rather than sitting down for an evening and watching Schindler's List. So the majority of the commercial content seems to be clips from shows. Shows that can be broken down into smaller segments see the biggest benefit. Comedy Central and Cartoon Network are two very good examples of commercial producers with content perfect for this medium. Let me illustrate. Before there was any good way to get video off the net, you might have seen this conversation: Person 1: Dude, did you see the Daily Show last night? Person 2: No, I missed it. Person 1: Oh man, they had this guy on who built a UFO welcome center, it was hilarious. Person 2: Oh, okay. Person 1: Uh, yeah, you really would have had to see it, but it was funny. [Person 2 wanders off unconvinced, with virtually no chance of seeing the clip on repeats] Fast forward to the rise of peer to peer filesharing: Person 1: Dude, did you see the Daily Show last night? Person 2: No, I missed it. Person 1: Oh man, they got on John McCain's campaign bus, it was hilarious. Person 2: Oh, okay. Person 1: Yeah, here, let me see if I can download it. [Person 1 types in "daily show" into p2p client] [P2P Client returns list of gibberish, everything from "Mr Show" to "Daily Ripz MPEGZZ.avi"] Person 1: Uhh... [Person 1 tries more searches, finds a video named daily_show_mccain.avi] Person 1: Here it is, this is hilarious [daily_show_mccain.avi is really porn] Person 2: Yeah, I have to get going... Fast forward to now, with the advent of YouTube: Person 1: Dude, did you see the Daily Show last night? Person 2: No, I missed it. Person 1: Oh man, they got this Senator who's raving about how the Internet is a series of tubes, it was hilarious. Person 2: Oh, okay. Person 1: Here's a link to it - or - Person 1: I have it posted on my Myspace page - or - Person 1: just do a Google search, there's a link to it on every blog. - or - Person 1: Just look for it on YouTube Person 2: That's hilarious! I love the Daily Show. I'm going to watch it more often now and purchase the products of their advertisers! Now here's the part where we get to two signs that traditional commercial content producers just don't get it. First sign: some of them are scouring these video sites, demanding videos be taken down or threatening lawsuits. I could see maybe going after whole episodes or whole movies, but those don't really work that well in the medium anyway - anyone both bored enough, cheap enough, and with low enough standards to watch a whole movie streamed like that isn't going to give you money any time soon anyway. Second sign: Most of them have never bothered to even put their stuff online. Even though Cartoon Network and Comedy Central have video clips you can't easily link to them, blog about them, stick them on your Myspace page, etc. In a lot of cases, you can't even search - you have to go to their home page, click on whatever weird name they came up with for their video clips section, then browse through lists of clips. This is the third innovation on YouTube and virtually every video content producer has missed this for the past 10 years. Almost every attempt to put video online has been difficult to use, hard to find (doesn't show up in searches), locked into some crappy format intended to deter copying, etc. They never really worked as part of the web. Online video has always felt forced, tacked on to the web rather than integrated into it. I can understand how so many web sites, TV shows, and video producers did not realize this before YouTube, but at this point it's pretty clear. Yet even now very few traditional video content producers are doing this! If Cartoon Network and Comedy Central made clips from their shows available, somewhat permanent, easy to link to, easy to put on blogs, etc... they could get a similar benefit and drive traffic to their sites as well. That is not to say that simply dumping a channel's clips on the web would be enough to unseat YouTube. Keep in mind the first two innovations-a successful online video site must make it easy for people to add content and interact, and it must have a wide breadth of content as well.

  1. Keep in mind that YouTube still does not “work as part of the Web� for a blind or a deaf person, since captioning and description are pretty much never present. (On YouTube it becomes trivially easy to post separate open-captioned and/or -described versions, with no messing around with closed-captioning data formats that really don’t work well online, either.)

    Joe Clark
    September 7th, 2006 at 5:59 pm
  2. Some of the big corporations are still retarded about this. Fox and Viacom keep taking down clips and annoying prospective customers, instead of cheering over the free advertising. They’re dinosaurs.

    Jim Mooney
    November 20th, 2007 at 2:53 pm
  3. [...] a few years of Youtube showing the world how to do video on the web, lots of traditional broadcasters and studios have started putting their content online. Part of [...]

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