There is a simple truth about video-sharing site YouTube, and an enigma. The simple truth is that this web startup has bottled up the viral video idea and made it eminently drinkable by anyone — you go to the site, find the video clip you want to watch, and, voila! you’re watching it in seconds. And if you want to upload and share your own videos, the process is also very straightforward and free of charge.
But the enigma is how YouTube will profit on its own spectacular popularity. Julie Supan, senior director of marketing for YouTube, said the site now serves up 35 million videos per day, and users upload 35,000 videos per day, with 100 million page views per day. These are massive numbers for a site that’s not even a year old yet.
But so far, the only hint of a way this startup will make money is by making deals with media companies such as MTV2 and E! Entertainment Television to help promote their offerings with video clips. Of course, YouTube could add advertisements before each clip is shown, but that would change the user experience and would require advertisers to feel comfortable with the strange brew of material there.
With TV networks asking for copyrighted material to be pulled off YouTube, the site started to get noticed in the press, and a Google News search brings up 714 recent stories. Those include Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times proclaiming that “skinny guys in moppy hair in modest houses” are making the most popular YouTube videos.
Heather Svokos of the Fort Star Telegram explains the site’s popularity thusly: “It was a smart idea that caught a wave at the right time, and now it’s giddily feeding a few of our most human cravings: the urge to share, connect, and to see it for ourselves.”
Most of what Svokos recommends as her favorite clips on YouTube — and links to from her article — are likely copyright violations. As I warned when I first wrote about YouTube’s videos shot by American soldiers in Iraq, copyright infringements are impossible to totally eliminate. For each one YouTube pulls down, another dozen could sprout up. YouTube has tried to limit the longer form violations with a 10-minute limit to videos, and puts the burden on content owners to ferret out violations and notify the site.
So the balancing act continues, with YouTube trying to meet the needs and tastes of its vast audience of clip junkies, while making deals with media companies for professional clips. The small company, based in San Mateo, Calif., down the peninsula from San Francisco, has just 23 employees but will likely have to grow more over time to meet its growing audience and all their content.
I sent along my five big questions for Chad Hurley, the CEO of YouTube and a co-founder. The following are his unedited responses via email.
Q: What’s your longer term vision for YouTube? A bigger MySpace-like community with more social networking, or a stronger video-feature focus with mash-ups and the like?
Chad Hurley: Our vision is to build the next-generation platform for serving media worldwide.
It is the birth of a new clip culture. There is a complete shift happening in digital media entertainment and users are now in control of what they watch and when they watch it. At YouTube, we are seeing an evolution of entertainment and media distribution — where the audience is now in control more than ever.
We do plan to incorporate more customized features over the coming months so that members can personalize their profiles and how they engage with the content on our site. We listen to our users as we develop new features because it is their feedback and insight that has helped us build the community.
Q: There are a lot of video-sharing sites online, so how do you explain the huge success of YouTube?
Hurley: It’s about user choice and we are the people’s choice — our success lies in the fact that we are democratizing the entertainment experience and creating a community for people to interact with video. Also, YouTube has made video sharing easier than anyone else. Members can be uploading and sharing video within minutes of wandering onto the site.
Q: YouTube’s motto is “Broadcast Yourself.” If this is about a digital media revolution where everyone can be the star, why make deals for Big Media content (E!, MTV2) for use in YouTube?
Hurley: YouTube is a stage for everyone. With this (cultural) shift happening in digital media entertainment and a new clip culture evolving, TV networks and other professional content creators, such as movie studios and record labels, have an opportunity to promote their programs or new records through YouTube. And professional content is absolutely of interest with our viewers — so long as it is entertaining and short-form. Clips like Nike, E!‘s Cybersmack clips, and movie previews like the “Scary Movie 4” trailer are all very popular with viewers. Because it is a democracy, users decide what is popular and determine what they are going to share with others.
Q: Please explain your business model, and how it might adversely affect the grassroots community that has sprouted up at YouTube.
Hurley: It will be an advertising-based model. We are exploring ways to serve up relevant advertising that will benefit the viewing experience since we know a lot about each of the videos based on how they are tagged. We have been moving cautiously to ensure we don’t disrupt the goodness of the community. But at the end of the day it’s the viewers that decide what is entertaining whether it be user-generated content or professionally produced videos — our community is still in control and will decide what rises to the top.
Q: When it comes to copyright violations and inappropriate material, how much can you filter technologically, and how much do you depend on users to monitor this?
Hurley: It is the rights holders that alert us to unauthorized videos on the site — through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act notification process. We comply with the DMCA and remove videos when we have knowledge that they are posted by users without permission of the copyright owners. This is what the law requires of us.
In addition, we have developed a number of tools both internal and for rights holders to help us identify unauthorized videos on site. With 35,000 videos uploaded to our site per day, we clearly need content owners to cooperate and alert us of any unauthorized content of which they are aware.
Our policy prohibits inappropriate content on YouTube. Our community understands the rules and effectively polices the site for inappropriate material. The users can flag content that they feel is inappropriate. This combined with our proprietary technology helps us to enforce the rules. We also disable the accounts of repeat offenders for both inappropriate material and copyright violations.
What do you think? Have you checked out YouTube and other viral video sites, and what did you like about them? Not like? Should content owners and Big Media companies lighten up over copyright issues? Share your thoughts in the comments below.