Whether it’s music videos, lectures, ice buckets or just funny cats, this online phenomenon is increasingly ruling our lives.

YouTube: The Beginnings

An unassuming young man stands in front of some elephants at San Diego Zoo. “Um, the whole thing about these guys is they have really, really, really long trunks…” he rambles self-consciously into the camera. “And that’s pretty much all there is to say.” It’s hard to believe that when this banal clip was uploaded to a new website called YouTube on April 23, 2005, it would launch a world-changing phenomenon. The young man was YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, who along with co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, saw a hole in the internet for a service that allowed people to share personal videos easily. It caught on spectacularly and within a year was showing 25 million videos a day. Ten years on, more than one billion users visit the site every month, watching six billion hours of video, with 100 hours of film uploaded to the site every minute. The billions of videos now on the site, uploaded by everyone from bedroom geeks to multinational corporations, range from cute cats to presidential addresses—with almost everything in between. And, from its mumbling beginnings, YouTube has fundamentally changed much of how we work, rest and play.

 

YouTube As Showbusiness

YouTube has allowed numerous amateur music reviewers, animators, movie makers, teenage lifestyle advisers and others to make films that get seen by a wide audience. “TV and film used to just be pushed out to a passive audience,” says Don Tapscott, author of seminal best-seller The Digital Economy. “Now everyone can become involved in the creation of culture.” But YouTube has also created a lucrative alternative entertainment industry. It’s now far more watched than any TV network, and its Partners Programme gives video creators a share of the more than £3 billion advertising revenue earned by the website each year, according to how many views they’ve had. Thousands now make a living through everything from amateur relationship advice to comedy shorts. US comedy duo Smosh made up to £3 million last year, for instance, while Swedish video-games reviewer PewDiePie earned around £5 million, with 3.69 billion views (and counting).

Where once they had to work as TV runners, slog around the club circuit or go to drama school, people break into the traditional media and entertainment industries through YouTube too— Justin Bieber being the most famous example. Impressionist Terry Mynott, star of Channel 4’s Very Important People and The Mimic, was a roadie for functions bands when he started putting films of his impersonations of everyone from Captain Kirk to Ian McKellen on MySpace, then YouTube. They got up to 300,000 views, were Tweeted by the likes of Derren Brown, secured Terry an agent and a TV career. “YouTube is like The Cavern Club,” he says, “It takes us back to a time where young acts could perform locally and be discovered. Except it’s now so local, it can be their bedroom. We all know a clip we’ve found with, say, some man playing a beautiful cello somewhere obscure.” 

It used to be up to TV executives, pluggers, and professional reviewers as to who would get enough exposure to become a star. But, says industry analyst John Blossom, author of Content Nation. “On YouTube, the public does the work of making things hot, though views, ‘tribute’ cover versions of songs and remixes.” Korean singer Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, for instance, went to No.1 in 30 countries, thanks largely to becoming a YouTube cult—with two billion views and counting. YouTube plays now even count towards Billboard Hot 100 chart positions in the US.

 

YouTube on Politics

YouTube has provided a great platform for the “little man” to expose government wrongdoing and mobilise political change—particularly in countries where free speech is limited. Syrian rebels have used it to spread awareness of their uprising against President Assad. Russian punk band Pussy Riot screened their February 2012 protest against Putin in a Moscow church through YouTube. And footage of the first January 2011 demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Cairo, were on the site, galvanising support for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, well before the mainstream media cottoned on.

“YouTube is making it much harder to be a dictator,” says Don Tapscott. “It’s also harder to be a racist, say, or homophobe.” Many indiscretions, from drunk women insulting black passengers on trains to US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney saying that half the US population don’t take responsibility for themselves, have been filmed on mobiles, put on YouTube and brought embarrassment, political damage or even criminal charges for their perpetrators. Of course, YouTube gives wide exposure to controversial or less savoury political views, too, such as extremist propaganda, or Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif making the case, direct to a Western audience in November 2013, for his country to be allowed nuclear power.

But YouTube has almost certainly been more of a force for good than ill, helping, for instance, charities and pressure groups highlight African farming projects that need help or last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge. With famous names such as Steven Gerrard, George W Bush and up to 2.4 million members of the public filming themselves being doused in cold water in exchange for donations, more than £70 million was raised for the US’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association and other charities.

 

Shrinking The World

From videos of domestic life on Pitcairn Island to up to the minute diaries from climbers stuck on K2, YouTube shows us far more of the planet than documentaries and magazine supplements ever could. “I was going on a motorbike holiday to Nepal, so I typed that in and instantly saw someone riding their Royal Enfield on the local roads,” says Terry Mynott. “I got a feel for what to expect, despite being thousands of miles away.” The more we see of different places and cultures, as filmed by the locals themselves, the less remote and alien they become, often challenging our assumptions. Footage of the poor but contented residents of a close-knit Arctic hamlet might make us rethink what’s important in life, for instance. But the change can be potentially even more profound. “I met a 14-year-old goat herder in Kenya, who had a solar mobile device that allowed her to post and watch videos on YouTube,” says Don Tapscott. “She didn’t have water, or electrical power, she was pregnant, married to some guy who bought her for 180 goats, but she was also part of a global media experience. Imagine the kind of cognitive dissonance that something like YouTube brings to her. Imagine the disruption.”

 

YouTube on Education

It used to be that if you didn’t know how to tile a wall or operate a computer programme, you’d either have to go to evening class, buy a manual or pay for professional help. Not any more. YouTube has thousands of free tutorials uploaded by helpful amateurs and companies promoting their products that show you how to do almost anything. It also provides a platform for more highbrow learning. The TED talks, for instance, are lectures on everything from tribes in the Amazon to fractal mathematics, by the sort of experts you’d normally only hear at top business conferences or university lectures.

 

The not-for-profit Khan Academy, meanwhile, combines online learning aids and puzzles with micro lectures on subjects including maths, economics, healthcare and astronomy. With the help of YouTube, it has delivered 400 million lessons to schools everywhere from rich British WWW. suburbs to poor Indian villages.

Scientists have even shared their new discoveries on YouTube, perhaps in the hope that others can develop them further. Carnegie Mellon University PhD student Johnny Chung Lee received several million plays of a video he posted in 2008 showing how a Nintendo Wii controller could transform a normal TV screen into a virtual reality display.

 

Changing Our Minds

“YouTube is improving our memories,” says Don Tapscott. “It’s a visual record of a huge amount of what’s happening or has happened in the world, and it’s available to everybody.” You can now have a strong memory of a family party you didn’t even attend thanks to YouTube footage, for instance. You can revisit obscure regional news stories you’d long forgotten about. You can watch old footage of a favourite country lane, now buried under a motorway, or watch long-dead writers or entertainers. YouTube has given us a far deeper, clearer sense of the past than we’d get from just being told about it, laboriously thumbing through history books or watching TV documentaries. Indeed, says Tapscott, “It has the potential to build on these new shared memories and perceptions to create some kind of collective intelligence or even consciousness.”

 

The World Of Business

YouTube has profoundly changed marketing, says John Blossom. “It’s almost essential for a company or product to have a compelling YouTube presence. Markets are conversations and YouTube is often now where the conversation begins.” The website is an excellent vehicle for ads, but its comments sections also give firms instant feedback about how a product is being perceived, and they may change their marketing accordingly. Some even put “teaser” videos of new products on YouTube before they are launched and use the public reaction to determine strategy.

But YouTube is also undermining companies’ ability to determine how their products are perceived. Video bloggers, who review everything from supercars to restaurants, now hold a huge amount of power, with many having millions of viewers. They have about 97 per cent of all beauty-related video views, for instance, compared to the big brands’ three per cent, so firms have to woo them with free gifts, advertise next to their videos and sometimes take drastic PR action to counteract their criticism.

A 2009 upload by Canadian musician Dave Carroll criticising United Airlines for breaking his guitar may have helped wipe £115 million of the company’s share value, and prompted the firm to change its customer-service policy. Meanwhile, smaller and start-up firms can take on the big boys more effectively through affordable, niche YouTube advertising. They can also make cheap, effective sales pitches to huge numbers of potential investors and big corporations they wouldn’t otherwise get near.

 

Reporting The News

A 2012 study by US think tank, the Pew Research Centre, found that YouTube has become the worldwide platform for viewing news. The most searched term on the website was news-related in five of the 15 months analysed. However, 39 per cent of the most watched videos came from members of the public, rather than news organisations, revealing how YouTube has made citizen video journalism a powerful force.

Amateur recordings have been the first, most revealing or often only footage to emerge from several major events, including the Japanese tsunami, Saddam Hussein’s execution and last year’s anti-police riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Indeed, an anonymous video of the shooting of Iranian protestor Neda Agha Soltan in 2009 won the George Polk journalism award. It is YouTube and its users that frequently set the news agenda now, says John Blossom—determining the latest, most important event in the world that most people want to see footage of—rather than editors or TV producers. “Major media outlets must follow in YouTube’s footsteps to gain some portion of people’s attention as events unfold,” he says.

 

Building Communities

Though often derided as another excuse for young men to isolate themselves in their bedrooms, YouTube has created thousands of new communities. Video-game players are a good example, says Graham Jones, author of online consumer behaviour study Click.ology. Fans of a particular game will produce films showing their hints and tricks, others will leave comments saying why they love the game, perhaps, or post their own videos in response, and so people all over the world will start bonding over a shared interest. The same can happened with everything from fishing videos, to tapestry to footage of obscure 1980s British indie groups. Of course, as detailed in comedian Adam Buxton’s recent Sky Atlantic series Bug, the comments underneath YouTube videos often do the opposite of building new relationships, being nasty, sarcastic or threatening. But, says Graham Jones, research has found that far more people leave positive comments online than unpleasant ones, so one could argue that YouTube helps bring people together by showing that, “Most of us are actually nice.

 

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