Saturday, September 02, 2006

All This, And Cool Too: Party-Crashing at the Gates of YouTube

Something about Cai Guo-Qiang's sculpture for his "Head On" exhibition currently installed at the Dutch Guggenheim reminded me of Ars Technica's recent reporting on YouTube. A striking photograph from the Telegraph's Images of the Week (reproduced here for easy access) shows Guo-Quaing's sculptural installation of a wolf pack racing in a river of fur and teeth through the air and towards a gallery wall, into which the pack leaders have already unceremoniously collided.

Ars Technica's Nate Anderson wrote:

There comes a moment in the life of every sitcom where a desperately uncool father tries to act hip around his children's friends. The results, disastrous as they always are, should have given the UK government pause as it contemplated its own attempt at hipness—putting some videos on YouTube.
Anderson was actually writing about two incidents he considered categorically uncool: The British government's use of YouTube as a cheap public relations tool (since pulled down due to copyright issues) and a defense industry whistleblower's attempt to draw attention to security and safety issues in a Lockheed-Martin project refurbishing ships for the Coast Guard. (This, too, has apparently been removed; a search for "Michael De Kort" turns up nothing.) I'd hate to insinuate that the door-panel-mounted LCD screens in the Think In Pictures limo show anything but OKGo treadmill-based music videos or that government PR films about "sharing the leadership challenge" meet my crew's exacting pre-funk standards. But what's profoundly uncool is watching a technology website completely misread the power of a new technology because it has momentarily donned sunglasses so dark it can't see the blindingly obvious.

YouTube is not just a cultural phenomenon. It is also, believe it or not, a website that hosts free streaming video. Some of these videos are indeed very cool, and most of them, cool or not, speak directly to very young people with lots of time on their hands who are very easily bored. Meanwhile, many more people who are no longer freshmen in college skim the surface, looking for the occasional work-break fodder. At this point, it's safe to say (and Anderson says it loud and clear) that none of us are seeking out statements from the British government or defense-industry whistleblowers.

But why not?

Google ranks websites based on inbound links. Are websites that serve a niche audience or that hone an amateur's skills mocked for joining the Internet because the majority of Internet users spend most of their time on top-ranked websites? Of course not. Then why assume that anything posted on YouTube is put up with the goal of garnering massive numbers of views? Should we really ask people like Michael De Kort or British government officials to stay away from a video streaming site which offers free uploads and video hosting, blog integration, and video sharing tools because their content doesn't match the site's current target audience - teenagers looking for the next viral hit or just a way to spend half an hour that they can laugh with their friends about later? De Kort's video was viewed more than 8,000 times in three days. Top-ranking videos tend to hit a couple hundred thousand views before fading out. But what if no one's counting?

I have posted two unerringly uncool videos to YouTube, examples of middle-school educational PowerPoint animations. It never once crossed my mind that I would be "mocked" for posting them. Here's why: I assumed the only people who ever saw them would be watching them on my blog. (How many searches for "educational technology" and "nuclear fission" do you think YouTube sees in a day?) I was making pragmatic use of an web-based application that met my immediate and personal needs.

How many people use sites like YouTube in this way? I'm sure Nate Anderson has no earthly idea. In the cases of the British government organization looking for some free PR or De Kort's revelations about Coast Guard insecurity, YouTube's primary audiences were not pandered to; they were ignored, a point Anderson completely misses in his article. The Washington Post put the blog to shame, going so far as to interview people for their story and coming up with a great source at YouTube competitor who has no problem cutting through Anderson's knot of audiences and the technological tools that enable them:

"This is an excellent example of the democratization of the media, where everyone has access to the printing press of the 21st century," said Dina Kaplan, co-founder of, a site that hosts grass-roots television programming.

Kaplan, like others, was hard-pressed to think of another video like De Kort's. "We have some people that come to mind that like to complain about government conspiracies," she said. "But in terms of something truly substantive and credible, nothing springs to mind."

The real story for tech readers, Ars, is not how "embarrasing" it is to post serious videos for post-teenage audiences on a site like YouTube. It's a story about how easily technology blogs can get caught up in a web-app's hype and lose sight of what the future holds.

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