YouTube traffic milestone: what it says about us

As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, YouTube now serves 2 billion videos a day.

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Billions and billions served. That used to be McDonald's claim to fame. Now it's true for YouTube. The video-sharing site just turned five years old, and it celebrated in style by announcing a new traffic milestone: two billion videos served. Daily.

The sheer bandwidth is mind-boggling: 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute. YouTube's audience now doubles the total viewers of US prime-time television.

YouTube is looking for more. The average person spends only "15 minutes a day on the site," co-founder Chad Hurley told BBC News – "compared to five hours a day watching TV."

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If we are what we consume, then critics could cynically look to America as the land of Big Macs and finger-biting videos. But looking only at the empty calories of our mental consumption misses the bigger story.

If a picture is worth a thousand words and video is worth a thousand pictures, then YouTube – by making it easy so easy to broadcast ourselves – has triggered a genuine communication revolution.

Just as Gutenberg's printing press was the crucial megaphone for the Protestant Reformation a half-century later, what advances in human freedom might YouTube accelerate? We've already seen how a single YouTube video of a protester shot in Iran by security forces can marshal the world's outrage over political repression. The rise of slim and cheap portable video equipment means more accountability for politicians everywhere.

On the flip side, the site's slogan – Broadcast Yourself – points to a mind-boggling rise in digital narcissism. When everyone is broadcasting, who is listening? Along with Twitter and Facebook, YouTube entrances us with self-promotional static. In a digital realm of unlimited abundance, count me as nostalgic for salience and scarcity.

It won't be long until YouTube announces some new logarithmically higher traffic milestone. When it does, don't be surprised. George Gilder probably won't be. Twenty years ago, in his book "Microcosm," he foresaw the power of ever-small chips with ever-larger capacities to boost bandwidth and magnify our creative potential. As he wrote:

“The central event of the twentieth century is the overthrow of matter.... The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brutal force of things.”

The first-ever YouTube video:

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