YouTube, Google’s online video site, is like a metronome when it comes to media coverage. Every week, like clockwork, new stories about the site and its effects (or lack thereof) on the world around us are put forth by various journalists, politicians, media observers–and anyone else with access to a computer and the Internet. The questions seem to be: How powerful, really, is YouTube? Does it affect what we think? What we watch? How we vote?
To begin, this week saw an interview with Lorne Michaels, creator and executive producer of Saturday Night Live, in the New York Observer. Talking about YouTube, Michaels said, “I think that YouTube is great because if you do something like ‘Dick in a Box,’ someone in Pakistan can see it.”
Michaels, however, has sent mixed messages about YouTube in the past. When Lazy Sunday became an online pop phenomenon, Michaels did not seem nearly as happy about its viral spread on the web. Unfortunately, to many, YouTube carries with it the "scary new technology" label, a catch all that allows people unfamiliar with it to either dismiss it altogether, or make overreaching predictions about it's potential. Michaels seems to view YouTube as quaint, a distraction. However, it's true value has not yet been fully defined.
Also making news this week was YouTube’s announcement of a “political spotlight” channel that will allow 2008 presidential hopefuls to post videos to the site and speak directly to potential voters. Suffice it to say, various political observers will likely pontificate about what a great idea this is, or what a stupid idea this is, or how this will change the political landscape forever, or how by doing this the candidates are tacitly endorsing copyright infringement. Once more, there are some very bold statements about a very new medium.
The point is, as much as we like to think we know why YouTube is a success, or what its effects are on our society, the truth is a little more humbling: We don’t know.
Depending on whom you ask, YouTube is successful because it has copyrighted material from TV networks, musicians and movie studios. Ask someone else and they will say it is successful because it allows users to submit their own videos and gives anyone the chance to have 15 seconds of fame. We can’t agree at the most basic level what makes YouTube popular, so making ambitious statements about the future of it, or the power it holds now, are almost certainly short-sighted. Anyone who says YouTube could help swing the 2008 election, or any media observer who says that NBC and News Corp.’s online venture will make YouTube obsolete should take a chill pill. The web is a fickle place, and old media hasn't quite adjusted to the new kid on the block.