‘LOL!! you have to see this!!!’ chortles the subject line. It’s bound to be a video of a dog smoking or a budgie roller skating.
If you’re like the majority of us, you’ll open it. One billion people access YouTube each month to watch Ninja babies or bad lip-synching.
There was a time when ‘viral’ was something you caught off a toilet seat, and ‘you tube’ was something you said to an idiot. “Go on out of that, you tube.”
‘YouTube’ has entered our argot as a verb. Billions of us ‘google’, ‘facebook’ and ‘youtube’ daily. Want to learn how to play the piano or fix your toilet? YouTube it. That’s how much a part of our lives it has become.
The first YouTube video will be eight years old next week. On Apr 23, 2005, Yakov Lapitsky shot YouTube co-founder, Jawed Karim, in front of the elephant enclosure at San Diego Zoo. The video is 18 seconds and, to use the vernacular, utterly crap. That hasn’t stopped it ratcheting up 10,424,086 views. Since that zoo shoot, YouTube has become the elephant in everyone’s room. It has informed, enflamed and wasted the time of billions of people.
YouTube says four billion hours of its video are watched each month; 72 hours of video are uploaded every minute. In 2011, YouTube had more than one trillion views. They’re impressive figures for something devised by three nerds: Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Karim. YouTube was intended to be a video version of the rating site, Hot or Not.
YouTube.com was registered on Valentine’s Day, 2005. A year and a half later, it was bought by Google for an astonishing US$1.65bn in stock. YouTube is now the net’s third most-visited site, behind Google and Facebook. But does it make money?
For its first five years, YouTube failed to return a profit. Then, in 2010, it introduced TrueView, which allows users to skip two-thirds of its adverts. Google could charge more for the ads people watched. The future took on a dollar-green hue. Now, there is a growing consensus that traditional media need to learn lessons from YouTube’s success. That it’s not all monkey-boxing.
“YouTube is beginning to behave like a market leader,” said Elisabeth Murdoch in her 2012 MacTaggart lecture. “Brands and talent are using YouTube to create direct-to-consumer relationships. Michelle Phan is the world’s most popular make-up expert, with over 600m views. That’s equivalent to a global Olympic audience generated by a 22-year-old putting on Lady Gaga makeup.”
While it may be new to money-making, YouTube made a social impact from its launch, bringing out the best and worst of the internet and human nature. One of the earliest examples of this was the ‘success’ of ‘The Bus Uncle’ video in 2006.
It shows an angry conversation, between a young man and a middle-aged commuter, about mobile-phone use. The video raised questions about how technology has impacted on our interactions with each other. It spawned a mainstream media debate, giving YouTube credibility as a source for social discourse.
But YouTube was also a repository for ‘happy-slapping’ videos. These featured moronic young people filming their friends punching passersby. The site moved quickly to close down the offending pages. The ‘craze’ proved, however, that YouTube empowers idiots to become super-idiots.
If you don’t believe that, then watch any of the videos surrounding the Mentos/Coke rocket craze. Did you know you could make a bomb out of a soft drink and a mint? Don’t try this at home kids….
Less dangerously, YouTube has also encouraged people to be idiots on the dance floor. Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ is the first video to receive 1.5bn hits. Its impact has mainly been felt at weddings, where it has replaced ‘Rock The Boat’ as the most annoying dance trend ever. Now, thanks to Psy, everyone’s drunk uncle thinks it’s hilarious to gallop around the dancefloor like a gone-to-seed drayhorse on its way to the burger factory. Psy’s not just a one-hit wonder, as the video for his follow-up, ‘Gentleman’, had 70m views in three days. The video, which is more ‘camp’ than a boyscout jamboree, set the record for most views in its first day (18.9m).
Whether you love or loathe Psy, he has proven that YouTube is a gamechanger for the crumbling music industry. Budding musicians are now bypassing the record companies and taking their music directly to ‘market’. Joe Demotape can write and record his opus on Garageband, synch it to a video, and upload the package to YouTube… for nothing.
In December 2011, Alex Day (23) reached No4 in the UK charts with his single, ‘Forever Yours’, after generating massive interest on YouTube. He is one of 1,000 people who earn more than $100,000 a year from YouTube.
Music producer and composer, Shea Fitzgerald, says it’s not good singers who get noticed. “Talent is no guarantee of fame on YouTube. Most hits are of idiots lip-synching badly or screeching. The less self-awareness you have, the more likely you are to be a YouTube star. The world hasn’t got talent.
“Take the case of Shane Lee. He posted a video of himself, claiming he could sing in five octaves. When he hit the higher levels, he just started singing the same note over and over again. It doesn’t sound funny on paper, but it’s actually hilarious to watch.”
Ireland’s first YouTube music sensation, in 2010, was unlikely: Mary Murray-Burke and her children, Dervla and Derek, singing their single ‘He Drinks Tequila’.
The video features mom looking foxy behind the keys, while the kids sing about “talking dirty in Spanish”. The trio performed on the Late Late, where hucklebucking Derek showed he has rubber legs worthy of a Glasgow drunk. Then, Ellen de Generes aired a clip of them on her Paddy’s Day show. The next day, the song entered the Irish singles chart at number 18.
YouTube may have reinvigorated Irish poetry. The sublime ‘Just Saying’, written and directed by Dave Tynan, is a poem/paen to broken Ireland. It’s racked up 370,000 hits since December 27, which is remarkable for a genre that sells books by the hundreds.
In 1979, the Buggles declared that ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. It hasn’t (ask Joe Duffy). It’s created some hybrid internet/TV stars though, such as newsreader, Aenghus MacGrianna. He had an unintentional ‘hit’ in January when a clip was posted of him titivating himself during the news. The video appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s TV show in the US.
While Aenghus was breaking news in the States, another unwitting Irish person was making headlines here. A video of a drunk Irish girl, ranting that her daddy worked in KPMG, went viral after being uploaded by an onlooker in a fast-food joint. The girl suffered a torrent of online hate-comments.
The video raised interesting questions, notably: should young people be allowed to make asses out of themselves without being reminded of it in perpetuity? The answer was ‘yes’ and the video was removed.
Despite its abuses, many people believe that the advent of YouTube has been good for democracy. It allows users to report on events while they unfold, as during the Arab Spring. Syria is being credited as the first YouTube war, such is the volume of material being posted online.
China, Morocco, Thailand and Libya have all blocked Youtube at some stage. So it must be doing something right.
Whether YouTube is, ultimately, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a moot point. Time magazine has said it “harnesses the stupidity of crowds, as well as its wisdom. 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”.
Media elitism aside, who would have thought that a video of a geek standing in front of some elephants would change the way we look at the world?
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