YouTube turns five today. It is the third most visited website in the world, behind Google and Facebook. Its users will soon be uploading 1m videos every day. It is revolutionising advertising, broadcasting, music and the media; it is also changing us.
YouTube has changed Gordon Brown. It made him smile. Gruesomely. YouTube has changed the way we talk to each other. Confronted by absurdity in real life, we no longer wonder if Beadle’s about, but fear it is a “YouTube moment”. It has changed the way we complain; Dave Carroll, a Canadian musician, may have helped wipe $180m (£117m) from United Airlines’s value after uploading a song of complaint, United Breaks Guitars, when his beloved six-string was smashed on a flight. Mostly, though, YouTube has changed the way we waste our time, filling our Friday afternoons with skateboarding ducks and breakdancing babies.
YouTube took a while to flicker into life. New users had to be bribed with an iPod Nano competition to register. Its first mention in the British press was not until November 2005. That month, shortly before YouTube was boosted for the first time by venture-capitalist cash, the site showed 2m videos a day. Two months later, it broadcast 25m. Today it is well over 1bn.
When Google bought YouTube in a deal worth US$1.65bn in October 2006, it was not simply purchasing a hot website. It was acquiring a community. Like other social media that define the era of Web 2.0, YouTube is participatory. Users don’t just watch silly videos, they join in: imitating, parodying, mocking and paying tribute with their own clips. The loss of physical communities has been well documented during recent decades. Through YouTube, many users have replaced that with a virtual one.
YouTube’s expansion has not been without growing pains. Inside, the site’s community spirit has been shaken by debates over authenticity after the exposure of the likes of LonelyGirl15, the home-schooled American teen who turned out to be a New Zealand actor. Outside, it has been challenged legally by companies including Viacom and the English Premier League over copyright infringements and, more widely, by critics who see it as grotesquely trivial and narcissistic. As Lev Grossman said in Time: “Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity, just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.”
Is YouTube simply propagating a shallow and infantile culture of fraud, practical jokes and laughing at each other’s pain? “That’s absolutely true and absolutely false,” says Michael Wesch, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University and author of the seminal Web 2.0 tract The Machine is Us/ing Us. “Any observer could stand at the front door of YouTube and conclude that there is a lot of superficial stuff here, but I guarantee there will be a lot of stuff that can surprise you. There’s a whole club online that debates philosophy just by talking with webcams. There’s tremendous depth. Because it’s networked, it’s not a pile of videos sitting in the corner unorganised.”