The YouTube Shift

By | April 9, 2008

Just before the end of 2005, programmers Chad Hurley and Steve Chen launched a simple, social website that allowed anyone with an Internet connection to upload video clips and share them. Within a matter of months, had become a phenomenon–recognized as one of the fastest-growing websites in the world. Some 100 million video clips were being viewed daily on YouTube by summer 2006, with 65,000 videos being uploaded onto the site every 24 hours. [1] Further acknowledging YouTube as the medium of the moment, Time Magazine named “You” (referencing YouTube) as the Person of the Year for 2006.[2]

YouTube’s exponential growth in popularity serves as evidence of a revolutionary shift in the media landscape: consumers have become producers. YouTube’s user-friendly interface and social networking elements invited people to create their own communications and distribute it for free to a wide audience. People accepted the invitation en masse.

The videos posted on YouTube include home videos and remixes, personal rants, television excerpts, music videos, movie trailers, commercials and highlights from television history. Most clips are posted by users and increasingly, by producers and networks themselves.

Now, much of the content available on YouTube is frivolous. But some videos are serious, including clips of incidents that have political consequences or document important trends, reveal truths, or spread disinformation, propaganda and lies. The weighty stuff has caused some scholars to question whether video sharing sites like YouTube have the power to bring greater accountability and transparency to governments around the world. “International news operations may have thousands of professional journalists, but they will never be as omnipresent as millions of people carrying phones that record video,” argued Moisés Naím in a January 2007 article in Foreign Policy. [3]

The media business traditionally has been defined by three characteristics: information production and distribution is expensive, arduous, and usually outside of the control of ‘ordinary’ citizens. YouTube has broken that mold. Video sharing sites open doors for democratic participation, both in terms of entertainment production and political communication. And open access/sharing websites like YouTube allow for forms of expression to be distributed that might not otherwise be available to a broader audience. [4]

“The YouTube motto (‘Broadcast Yourself) is indicative of the idea that the system is designed to allow members of the general public to engage in an activity (‘broadcasting’) that was traditionally the domain of large, powerful media corporations,” wrote Christian Christensen, a new media scholar at Karlstad University in Sweden. “The importance of distribution in the media process is often overlooked, yet it is perhaps almost as important as the actual media product itself. What YouTube and other video-sharing websites do is eliminate the need for attracting the interest of the narrow number of distribution companies from the media mix and allow media producers to self-distribute by simply uploading their films straight onto the web.”

The histories of communication technologies have shown time and again that audiences rarely adopt and use media in the ways they were originally envisioned. YouTube was developed by two 20-somethings who wrote code. The audience decided how to use it. “Everyone wants to consume their media the way they want to consume it. You can’t control that,” acknowledged Stefanie Henning, a senior vice president at Fox Television Studios. [5]

YouTube is also unique in that it didn’t rely on traditional multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns to gain popularity. People learned about the site through electronic word of mouth – forwarded email links, blogs, embedding and MySpace profiles. [6] “Users want to be passionate about what their interests are. The habit of sharing them has become a cultural phenomenon,” said Richard Rosenblatt, founder and former chairman of MySpace. [7]

YouTube’s success has been attributed in large part to its easy-to-use, straightforward interface. Users do not need to log-in to view clips, or need to worry about software compatiblity, downloading files or even clicking a play button. Videos begin streaming as soon as the webpage loads, and relational videos are offered to users in a scrollable sidebar, so users can click from one clip to another without doing multiple searches. [8]

Another primary draw of YouTube is its vastness. The more users contribute to YouTube, the more value it acquires. And to be sure, consumers like YouTube because watching and/or participating is free.

Others attest that YouTube exploded into a cultural and business phenomenon over many other video-sharing websites because no other site was as willing to turn a blind eye to illegal content. “What turned it into the world’s most popular video-sharer was a series of widely watched videos that the uploaders didn’t have the legal right to put on the web,” wrote Jaime J. Weinman in MacLean’s magazine in November 2006.

The first “illegal” clip was of the Saturday Night Live sketch “Lazy Sunday.” It became a viral online phenomenon. NBC eventually demanded the skit be removed in February 2006. But by then, an estimated 5 million people had viewed the clip on YouTube, helping the site to become part of the cultural zeitgeist. [9]

The rise of YouTube has contributed to the culture of “the clip.” Specific moments that users want to watch can be searched and accessed without having to watch live broadcasts, make recordings, or wait through commercial breaks. The instantaneity of YouTube panders to the immediacy desires of modern media consumers. [10]

YouTube does have a policy of taking down a copyrighted video if the owner complains. But YouTube does not prescreen videos to make sure they’re not in violation of copyright. It allows any video to be immediately processed and distributed. By the time the owner has it taken down for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the site has already gotten lots of exposure. And though entertainment companies like Universal have entered into agreements with YouTube to post authorized TV and movieclips, they’re still outweighed by the hundreds of other users still posting unauthorized clips every day. [11]

“You write YouTube a letter and the content gets removed within eight hours,” explained Alan Bell, a Paramount Studios’ executive. “But the site is so vast that the next day it’s up on the platform again, posted by another user.” [12]

Now YouTube’s premise–a website where people freely upload and view video of all sorts–has nothing to do with traditional journalism, but it is teaching mainstream journalists a few things about modern media consumers.[13] Audiences today are part of a networked society, and members of that network want to produce, publish and share their own content. If traditional media companies want to remain relevant, they need to become active members of the network and offer users the opportunity to create and contribute.

One positive for journalists: the YouTube shift is creating a strong demand for reliable guides – individuals, institutions, and technologies that people can trust to help sort through the morass of content and distinguish the good stuff from the bad stuff, the facts from the lies. [14]


1, 4, Christian Christensen, “You Tube: The Evolution of Media?” Screen Education; 2007, Issue 45, 36-40.

2, 6, 8, 10, Lucas Hilderbrand “YouTube: Where Cultural Memory And Copyright Converge.” Film Quarterly 61, no. 1 (October 1, 2007): 48-57.

3, 14. Moisés Naím “The YouTube Effect.” Foreign Policy no. 158 (January 1, 2007): 104,103.

5, 7, 12. Michael Goldstein, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…” MediaWeek, vol. 17, Issue 21, (May 21, 2007)

9. Wendy N. Davis, “Downloading a File of Copyright Woes.” ABA Journal 93, (March 1, 2007): 10-11.

11. Jaime J. Weinman “Say hello to the YouTube losers.” Maclean’s, November 6, 2006, 70.

13. Francis Pisani, “Journalism and Web 2.0.” Nieman Reports 60, no. 4 (December 1, 2006): 42-44.

*Note: This essay was written by Marie K. Shanahan for a graduate level course at Quinnipiac University in Spring 2008. A collaboratively-edited version of this essay is included in a Wiki called “The New Communication Professional” at

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: