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Who’s In the Name?

To many of its users, YouTube’s recent courting of professional, monetized content may have seemed as inevitable as the use of the site itself. Since acquiring YouTube in 2006, Google has used the site’s enormous popularity to secure partnerships with media powerhouses such as CBS, ABC/Disney, and Universal Music Group – the latter of which is working with Google on the creation of a website solely for music videos.

With these partnerships come plans to separate upcoming long-form, professional content from the user-created content that gave the site its name. Subscription and payment models are on the way, as well. And YouTube is planning to offer its video authors the opportunity to charge for the offsite use of their videos. On a site built by its users – and in an Internet culture used to receiving information for free - these changes come with a predictable backlash.

Not that YouTube is going away anytime soon. According to Comscore, YouTube now accounts for more than forty percent of the US online video market share, with a US viewership of about 100 million. Those are impressive numbers, sure, but what they mean for the big picture of online media is unclear. As users migrate from traditional video sources to online video sources, the identity of online media encounters a kind of crisis.

All That Twitters Ain’t Gold

Since the Web came charging to life about twenty years ago, the marketing world has been drooling at the prospect of bringing its millions of users into the consumer fold. Google was willing to plunk down a handsome 1.65 billion in shares for YouTube. FaceBook was enthusiastically valued, in 2007, at around 15 billion. Sites like these, including newcomers like Twitter, have traditionally looked to the business world like untapped goldmines. But the rush has run into problems. FaceBook’s valuation, in 2008, shed about 11 billion dollars. And Google’s 2008 profits for YouTube (around 300 million) hardly recoup the cost of owning the site. Some sites, like Craig’s List, further spurn convention by not taking, or even planning to take, a profit at all.

A few reasons for this. One is the longstanding (in Internet time) tradition of democratized content. Users have unprecedented control over both what they view and what they create online. They are informed – and as FaceBook recently discovered while attempting to change some of its site rules, they can be ferociously organized. The days of control sitting in the hands of the distributor are fading, and with so much available for free, why pay?

Add to this the clash between the established, albeit obscure, rules of copyright of the offline world and an online world that sees such propriety as outdated and, well, obscure. YouTube, partly by dint of its immense usership, has become a veritable hotspot for litigious activity. That’s just more cost to them. But it isn’t just the high visibility that’s gotten them in trouble lately. It’s the kind of videos that have become popular – namely, music videos, along with collage-like rearrangements of them called mash-ups.

The Kuitman Phenomenon

Amid the countless results of this popular undertaking, the work created, in 2008, by a twenty-something Israeli musician nicknamed Kuitman stands out. From a variety of instructional video clips, each by different musicians, professional and amateur alike, Kuitman assembled an entire video album with the look and sound of a genuine musical collaboration. It feels fresh, lively, and strangely spontaneous, like a conversation. Kuitman’s project was something new – and it was so popular it crashed the site he built to host it.

Other innovations like this exist (check out the work of MadV on YouTube) and more are presumably on the way. It’s safe to say that videos like these, which essentially require only talent as a start-up cost, could never have come to exist in a cable-based media.

Will Online Video Toe Cable’s Line?

To listen to some in the advertising world lately you’d think cable television was, so to speak, already boxed up and in the ground. Ironically, the same infrastructure that carries the signal for cable companies also carries the broadband signal that threatens to undo cable television’s grip on long-form content. For now, however, this only remains a possibility – a direction rather than a certain future. A recent Nielsen report noted that professional video (i.e. traditional television) still accounted for 244 times the viewership of online video. Either way, the battleground remains the living room television and the easier it becomes to connect that television to the internet, the easier it will become for users to control the content they view – and the harder for cable to survive.

Even then, however, it’s not clear that a site like YouTube, which traffics largely in short videos (the average length of all online videos is a mere 3.5 minutes), can be just as cozy a home to, say, feature-length movies. Just as Internet users are unhappy to pay for content that was once free, so they are unhappy with established sites altering their identity. The trend seems to be away from across-the-board content and toward specialization. A good site does maybe a couple things and does them well. If you want something else, you just go elsewhere – and at the speed of light.

If YouTube’s Not for You, Where Do You Go?

All of which invites the question: Where else, exactly, would you be going? Well, for videos of keyboard-playing cats, redubbed G.I. Joe cartoons and how to play a guitar like Jack White, YouTube will probably always be king. But there’s a lot else happening out there. Here’s a look at a few alternatives where you can contribute, or just consume, online media.

* Vimeo – Yes, these guys have been around a while. Begun in 2004, Vimeo now boasts a little under 1.5 million members. More of a social network than YouTube, Vimeo requires membership to upload videos and does charge users who plan to upload extensively. Recently added 1280x720 HD support makes reaching that megabyte max-out a bit easier.

* blip.tv – With an emphasis on independent, tv-style shows, blip.tv promises to give anyone with the talent a shot at being seen. Users provide content and blip.tv hosts it. If the show’s a hit, the show’s creator can chose some advertisers and potentially earn money. Like Vimeo, blip.tv tends to cater to more highly polished video productions.

* Hulu.com – As close as you can come to getting network TV in bite-size, authorized chunks. Even the networks seem to like it, so if you can stand the ads, you may be able to find that favorite Saturday Night Live clip from 1991 in its entirety here.

* Current – The brainchild of Al Gore, Current focuses on user-supplied content that often has a conscience. Documentary style shorts that combine the populist bent of the cell phone video expose’ with the proliferation of more sophisticated home technology.

* Dailymotion – Another popular video site that, like YouTube, mainly features short, entertaining clips. Dailymotion does use embedded advertising and has some fairly strict rules about what gets on. Oh yeah –and full episodes of Charles in Charge!

I Do - Do You?

What we want from online media is often a lesson in contradictions. We want professional but we also want free. We want unfettered access to the work of others but also the right to protect our own. We want new but we cling to old. These culture clashes may be inevitable, but they aren’t without opportunity.

It is worth remembering that the Internet itself is, in its own way, such a contradiction – a technology born within the military that has become essentially ungovernable. Sites like YouTube represent enormous potential customers, true, but as the business world is quickly discovering, there is no law that everything can be monetized. On the other hand, users must acknowledge the unavoidable cost of operating such a site. As the needs of the offline world merge with the needs of the online world, YouTube will become an example of how such a marriage might work. It just may turn out that the collective ”you” will, like a collage, show the tube something new.


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