It's a YouTube world ... we just surf in it
Will Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of the website squash its independent spirit?
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"Google has one of the more successful track records with online advertising," says Kevin Howley, associate professor of media studies at DePauw University in Indiana. "No doubt, Google ... sees a way to make very big money on the YouTube phenomenon." That could be hard for a site that gets its identity from fans. "Apart from making the YouTube team filthy rich, this deal begs one very important question," says Prof. Howley. "Will the YouTube ethos survive in a commercial context?"Skip to next paragraph
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Amid the wild works of exhibitionists staging physical feats and elaborate parodies – or reposting bits recorded from David Letterman or "The Daily Show" – flow "most watched" shorts that spawn cult followings.
Consider "Numa Numa guy" Gary Brolsma, joyously lip-syncing to a Romanian pop song in a wildly popular clip originally posted in 2004 on Newgrounds.com but a YouTube hit last year.
Or "Bus Uncle," a grainy six-minute video of a man upbraiding a fellow Hong Kong bus rider for interrupting his cellphone call. It has drawn millions of views since its posting last spring, spinning off spoofs and catch phrases.
Some find little that is substantive among the rampant quirkiness. "YouTube is just another form of self-indulgence and immediate gratification that is enslaving ... teens and 20-somethings," maintains James Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton, Ohio.
But YouTube also can serve up rare film clips, wrote film critic Terry Teachout in his blog at ArtsJournal.com in July – adding that seekers would be required to do some dross-filtering to find gems.
Viewers have praised the innovation of a widely watched video by comedian Judson Laipply that traces the evolution of dance. The site rippled with debate last month over Lonelygirl15, a four-month experiment in filmmaking in which an actress portrayed a teen who poured out her thoughts in video segments.
It's not all improvisation art. This summer, a 23-year-old operative for the Democratic opponent of a Republican senator caught the lawmaker appearing to fight off sleep during a Montana farm-bill hearing.
Also this summer, a former engineer posted a 10-minute video asserting that a major defense contractor for which he had worked had left uncorrected what he viewed as security flaws in a number of refurbished Coast Guard vessels.
The real attraction of YouTube, like other Internet media, is "its ability to be unquantifiable, at least for now," says Chris Garvin, a professor in the College of Media and Communication (CMAC) at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who was interviewed before the deal. "That is the very reason the young FYI (Free Youth Internet) types are drawn to it," he wrote in an e-mail. "It is the ultimate outsider!"
It also aligns with a big-media metamorphosis. YouTube had aggressively pursued alliances – with NBC, Warner Music, Cingular, and Fox – aimed at fending off inevitable attempts to sue YouTube over issues that surround the posting of copyrighted music and video. Under Google it has already announced additional deals with Sony, Universal, and CBS.
"YouTube's success is one part media savvy, one part consequence of digital culture," says Howley. "[It] has charted a course that addresses the changing needs and preferences of big-media companies and media audiences alike."
Distribution has long been a big challenge for digital auteurs. "YouTube addresses this problem in a dramatic fashion," Howley says. At the same time, he adds, traditional producers of television programming are eager to make their content available online while retaining control over copyright and ad revenue.
Recalling Napster's experience with the recording industry, he says, YouTube "deftly walked the fine line between encouraging file-sharing among a growing user population and 'piracy'...."
The importance of this media convergence escapes no one. Ms. Salzman recalls the buzz that YouTube generated at the Cannes Advertising Festival this past June.
"Twelve thousand advertising-industry executives were talking it up," she says, "even heading to their rooms and computers to see it and experience it." It's not hard to imagine that they're talking now.