Sunday, October 15, 2006

Dave is the perfect picture of the web's future

If you want to know why Google just bought the fledgling website YouTube for a cool £880m, ask David Cameron. His own cringe-inducing video blog, Webcameron, has had more than 2,500 YouTube views at last count — and it’s not even any good.

Dave’s vlog (yes, that’s the ghastly neologism we’ll all have to start deploying) was given its real headstart by a YouTube clip parodying it. The satire made news (it featured Sion Simon, a Labour MP, mimicking Cameron and offering to give away Dave’s wife and two — yes, only two — kids).

The news created a web buzz and the buzz ended up bringing the real thing to 10 times as many eyeballs. All in a few days. With no one on control. And everything in full view of anyone who cares what the Tory leader thinks as he loads a dishwasher to the sound of a bawling child.

Yes, Simon’s sense of propriety leaves something to be desired. But he, like Cameron, has the right idea. The web exists to empower great media corporations like, er, you. Or your strange nephew. Or your cranky uncle. Or that inspired French video artist, Michel Gondry. Or the best jokes from cable comedy, or the worst gaffes of politicians caught with their mouths open and their brains dead. Its riches are close to endless, its embarrassments compelling in the way only home video can be.

I stumbled across YouTube a year ago, and quickly became addicted. I became obsessed by a webcam clip of two young Asian students lip-syncing I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. The deadpan facial expressions, the perfectly copied boy-band gestures, the passion for western pop culture, the off-camera Chinese slang: they all made for an almost poignant insight into globalisation.

But my favourite part was their room-mate. He sits behind them, his back to the camera, doing homework, and obviously bored and irritated by his inspired but demented fellows. Eventually, you see him get up and leave. He had no idea the back of his head would eventually be seen a quarter of a million times — on every continent. These amateurs almost have as much media power as the professionals.

So Google really isn’t that dumb. Where once the web was essentially a transmitter of words, it is fast becoming the newest incarnation of television — and YouTube has managed to occupy frontier territory. A year ago, to give a simple example, my own blog featured no videos at all. Now, I have a YouTube clip every day. The readers send them in, or I stumble across them in my meanderings across the web.

The variety is stunning. In the past couple of weeks I’ve featured the last five minutes of the HBO drama series Six Feet Under, a local news debate about a potential legalisation of cannabis in Nevada, a dramatic re-enactment of the waterboarding torture technique, and one of my favourite scenes from the 1980 comedy classic, Airplane!. It’s all there — if you want to find it.

YouTube yanks classic clips from the old media, adds a melange of amateur antics, scrambles recent television, and lets viewers decide what they prefer to watch and when they want to watch it.

Bloggers love it because it has a simple mechanism for embedding the YouTube clips onto your own blog, thereby bringing them to more people and making more, freely associative connections. By allowing itself to be embedded and multiplied across the blogosphere, YouTube grasped the essential fact of new media: let the consumers do the producing.

Here’s another example: two former colleagues of mine at the magazine The New Republic got bored with most political programming and simply constructed their own version of a television talk show. They debate with one another and sundry guests over video-cams, often to embarrassing or self-revealing effect.

It’s more viscerally interesting than a static column on newsprint; but more sophisticated than the average cable news show. They have no editors, but are gaining an audience. It is rather like the British 18DoughtyStreet internet political television show that the blogger Iain Dale launched last week. And if they want a vehicle to bring their wonkish debates to the masses, YouTube is only too happy to help.

Is this simple formula worth £880m? I have my doubts. Last week Google tried to reassure investors that it wasn’t on some acid trip back to the late 1990s. But YouTube feels a lot like the early Napster to me. It’s way too good to be true. Sometimes, ominously, a YouTube clip suddenly disappears — because someone somewhere wants their copyright back.

Big media companies are not too fond of having their content purloined, spliced and disseminated by amateurs for free — and the anarchy of the YouTube universe is not an easy fit with corporate world. Google’s chief understands this and said last week: “We are not in the content business and partnerships really show the application of our advertising network to the content and media abilities of our partners. We want those partners to put their media content into this emergent (system).”

Translated into English, I think that means Google has been striking deals with big media companies to get around some of the copyright problems, and share advertising revenue with content providers. If anyone tells you this will be easy, don’t believe them.

There’s one thing, however, that Cameron got right. He shrugged off the Simon parody as a lark, and seemed happy that it had increased the viewing of his original lame home-video 10-fold. That’s the attitude the web fosters; and it’s one reason why Google may not be so stupid in the long run.

The one thing many of us have in common is simply the desire to express ourselves or to communicate our tastes and enthusiasms to others. It’s called self-expression. The web has unleashed it for millions who never believed they would ever have a moment in the spotlight.

The only possible response is to sit back and watch — or to create your own television channel. All you need is a boy-band soundtrack or a couple of dirty forks and a dishwasher. Mr Cameron, get ready for your close-up. Your 15 seconds of vlogger-fame are formally here.

Andrew Sullivan (ST)

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