It’s just over a decade since Jawed Karim stood in front of some elephants at a zoo in San Diego and mumbled into his friend’s camera for 18 seconds. It was the first video uploaded to YouTube, which Karim co-founded along with two other former employees of PayPal. A year and a half later, it had already grown to become the fifth largest website on the internet, and was sold to Google for $1.65bn – a fortune at the time, but cheap at the price considering its continued impact on the media landscape.
This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies took in the story of YouTube’s rise and rise (there still hasn’t been a fall), by way of its various battles with the old big media companies, angry at how their content was being shared and shared again. YouTube, with Google’s help, was ultimately able to resist years of legal pressure and avoid going the same way as Napster. The final irony is that YouTube has become much more like broadcast television – a home for professionally made content rather than the ‘broadcast yourself’ homemade videos on which it made its reputation – while any TV station you care to name has a platform which somewhat resembles YouTube, not least the BBC’s iPlayer.
For a theoretical approach, I turned to Spreadable Media, a 2013 book by the father of participatory cultures, Henry Jenkins, along with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Explaining the way certain videos spread on YouTube, they draw a contrast with sticky content, a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his memorable book The Tipping Point. Jenkins and the others say that no matter how good – sticky – a piece of content is, these days it still needs people to share, recommend and remix it to their networks, so it can reach a large audience.
The practical sessions involved getting students to actually make quick and easy YouTube videos, using the platform’s basic in-built editor and some of the copyright-free footage and music available on there. Despite being big consumers of YouTube, only relatively few students in the groups had ever uploaded anything themselves before. At least now they know where all that tinkly music so beloved of vloggers comes from!