It has been a big few weeks for online video-search engine mashups. By now Google's acquisition of YouTube no doubt has been blogged to death. And at this point, particularly in the wake of Google's stellar quarterly earnings announcement, the digital media world is probably ready for a rest from Google news, so I won't dwell excessively on the meaning of GooTube.
Industry analysts can cite 1.65 billion reasons why the deal smacks heavily of 1999 all over again, and, if Yahoo! does indeed follow through on its long-rumored (and correspondingly expensive, if the rumors are to be believed) purchase of social networking site Facebook, I'm sure we'll hear more of those cautionary voices. However, there clearly is something interesting afoot with search engines and video-sharing; something that extends beyond inflated price tags and taps into a deeper social need to see and be seen, to comment and be heard.
Not long ago, we were content with the proverbial water cooler, trading our outlook on yesterday's news, sports and entertainment. Today, the ubiquity of the internet demands that we broadcast our thoughts, opinions, creativity and, of course, our video clips with not just the people we do know but also a vast audience we don't. And increasingly, our thoughts, opinions and creativity can be neatly packaged and distributed in video form thanks to the ease and accessibility of editing tools and sites like YouTube. Video sharing may be the latest fad in the arc of social media, but the desire to partake in and share life's humorous and less humorous moments is likely to prove an enduring one.
In a recent appearance on NPR's "On the Media," Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Chicago-based new media consultancy Denuo, put his finger on it. "We are moving into a generation of people who," he said, "basically like creating content as much as they like consuming content. We're living in this generation where everyone expects to be famous and the way they become famous is by saying 'here is my riff on the world.'" In this context, Tobaccowala referred to video-sharing sites as the "canvas upon which they paint their lives." More to the point, video-sharing sites function as the instant-replay for our lives, allowing all of us to partake in, and, in the process, help create, viral cultural moments.
Lost in the frenzy over the phenomenal numbers associated with YouTube (100 million videos streamed and 70,000 new clips posted daily), the corresponding possibilities these numbers conjured in the minds of advertisers anxious to find new ways to reach audiences and the widely held verdict that Yahoo and MSN had fallen even farther behind for failing to win YouTube's hand was the fact that the deal-making was not limited to just Google. The number two and three search engines also made moves, albeit less impressive ones than Google, to bolster their online video-sharing capabilities. Yahoo more quietly acquired Jumpcut, a provider of online video editing tools, which makes for a nice fit with its roster of other social media tools that includes the Flickr photo-sharing site and the bookmark-sharing site Del.icio.us. And both Yahoo and MSN have adopted an approach to online video that seems calculated to play to their strengths in local search. By posting locally specific news and entertainment clips (Yahoo with CBS news and MSN with MTVu), they also make in-roads into one of the last healthy bastions of the traditional news media.
Many advertisers have expressed legitimate unease about video-sharing sites because of copyright infringement issues and the nature of some of the content posted by users. The Yahoo and MSN deals as well as YouTube's agreement with CBS to build a branded "channel" indicate where video-sharing is headed. Online video-sharing delivers eyeballs, literally, lots and lots of them, and people are going to share video clips, just as they shared music, regardless of the stance of the content owners.
The growing trend of copyright owners signing on with video-sharing services could be interpreted as a "can't-beat'em-join-em" capitulation, but I'd like to think instead that everyone along the content food chain actually is learning to listen to their audience. Sharing video clips is how consumers now interact with media and content brands, and even with advertisers. Like searching, it is a customer-initiated act. And like searching, it can function effectively as a dialogue with marketers, provided marketers have the capacity to listen on consumers' terms. Think tagging with enhanced capabilities. It's the beginning of a bold new reality, and we're just getting started.
Noah Elkin, Ph.D., is vice president of communications at iCrossing. .