Sat, Oct 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The YouTube phenomenon

A year after it was launched, YouTube is being sold for US$1.65 billion. But what is Google buying? The world's biggest collection of pop videos and silly home movies -- or something that could change the face of policing, politics and the Web?

By John Harris  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

When it comes to identifying that very modern moment known as a tipping point, there is surely nothing more conclusive than an outraged "investigation" by the mainstream press. In that sense, one of the world's most talked-about Web sites decisively arrived in England last Saturday, when the headline "One Click Away From Corruption" flagged a double-page spread about YouTube.

"It started off as a harmless way for children to share videos on the Internet," the blurb said, ignoring the fact that YouTube advises anyone under 13 not to use it. Now, however, YouTube was apparently "fueled by horrifying images of soldiers being shot, animal cruelty and vile racism."

The same day, there came news that slightly undermined the idea that YouTube was turning into an online dystopia. Perhaps awaking to the site's law-enforcement possibilities by news that the US government has been posting anti-drug videos on YouTube, detectives in Manchester announced that they had put up a new appeal for information about the murder of schoolboy Jessie James, featuring his mother Barbara and sister Rosemary.

Meanwhile, some of YouTube's 35 million regular users went about their usual daily business, watching somewhere in the region of 100 million videos and adding around 65,000 new ones.

Last weekend saw one other bit of YouTube news: rumors that Google was about to buy the site for US$1.65 billion.

The company's HQ remained shrouded in silence.

Repeated e-mails to its press department produced a curt reply claiming: "We're experiencing an incredible amount of interest in the company at this time and will regretfully have to decline your interview/story request."


Naysayers continued to compare YouTube with Napster -- the music-sharing service that brazenly defied the entertainment industry, made an attempt at detente and then faded from view.

In Britain, the site is even more popular than in the US: 3.6 million are now regular visitors, watching or uploading videos free of charge. As any YouTube junkie knows, it can change your viewing habits forever. TV will suddenly seem hopelessly restrictive -- why gawp at a program schedule planned by someone else when you could be joyfully hopping from former US president Bill Clinton's recent explosive interview on Fox News, through newsreels of the Cuban revolution and on to a Beatles video you have never seen before?

Yes, in the site's virtual backstreets there do lurk militant Muslim propaganda films and bits of Nazi agit-prop. Closer to its thriving downtown, however, there is a wealth of more mainstream material. In the US, they are already talking about the arrival of "YouTube politics" and "the first YouTube war." But can it last?

The birth of YouTube is already a part of Internet folklore. Early last year, the site began life in San Mateo, California, when three ex-employees of the online transaction firm PayPal found themselves faced with a yawn-inducing problem.

Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (who would subsequently step back from the company, retain his shares and become a postgraduate computer science student at Stanford University) wanted to share some digital video of a recent dinner party with half a dozen friends, but their e-mails kept being bounced back and posting the videos online seemed more trouble than it was worth.

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