Slate contributor Nick Douglas was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, July 19 to discuss the impact of YouTube and the world of online video. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Nick Douglas: Good afternoon. We got a lot of good questions in reply to my article about YouTube's dominance and its potential to cripple the art form of online video. I'll just jump in and answer some questions that have already been asked.
McPherson Square, D.C.: Do you think our presidential candidates have used YouTube well? How could they use it better?
Nick Douglas: YouTube has taken great initiative with the presidential campaign, heavily promoting campaign material, which so far seems more positive than TV ads. But the real way to use YouTube would be publishing more candid campaign moments. We live in a scary post-Macaca world! Candidates should embrace constant video coverage and learn constant integrity, not the same polish from TV as applied to YouTube.
Anaheim, Calif.: You mentioned Eraserhead at the last part ... is that the band from the Philippines?
Nick Douglas: That's the classic David Lynch film that would confuse most YouTube users. A confused YouTube user is like a normal one with more 1s at the end of their string of !s.
Leesburg, Va.: Operator11 appears to have the gumption and cajones to take on YouTube, particularly in the area of star creation. Would you expect to see someone or a cadre of players of a "Brookers" level break out from Operator11?
Nick Douglas: Probably not at the level of Brookers (a YouTube star who gained fame with a video called "Crazed Numa Fan"). It's harder every month to rise from obscurity online. EVERYONE knows Star Wars Kid; fewer know Gary Brolsma, the Numa Numa guy. The biggest YouTube stars are less known than Gary. As the world of online video expands, it becomes harder for any one person to capture the entire public attention. I'm willing to bet at least half of the people reading this have never seen a Brookers video. And Operator11, a streaming site, is competing with Stickam, Ustream, BlogTV, and Justin.tv. O11 doesn't have the competitive advantages YouTube made for itself by adding flash video capability. I don't see what sets O11 apart from its competitors.
From: The Fray: Should I trust the guy who wrote "Why YouTube Is About To Die" just 3 months before Google bought them for $1.6 billion?
I'm not sure why Nick has always seemed to have a beef with YouTube. The article smacks of elitism, rather than insightful criticism. In all forms of media, the most popular stuff is not necessarily the most critically acclaimed. That's just the way it is. With the advent of YouTube, it's never been easier to put out your own videos. And it's never been easier to find your audience. That's a good thing.
And if you think your stuff is too good to sit with the unwashed masses at YouTube, you can always publish elsewhere and settle for the smaller audience. If it's that good, someone will probably just rip it and stick it on YouTube anyway.
Nick Douglas: This was a good criticism. I made a huge mistake predicting YouTube's fall (in a Valleywag article in 2006). Let me assure you that I believe the world is better off with the innovation of embeddable flash video than it would be without, and we can largely credit YouTube for this. There is a lot of high-quality content on YouTube. The problem is drawing enough attention to it by eschewing "Top Videos" lists. Competitor Vimeo.com has no such top list, and instead concentrates on helping people "discover" videos. I've used the site for several months after leaving it over a year ago; I'm amazed by the quality level there. There are crap videos on Vimeo, but you just NEVER RUN INTO THEM. As opposed to YouTube, where they take over.
West Side, California: The reason why Youtube is #1 in video sites is because of exposure, hype, and market placement. All the major media outlets pull video from youtube (good or bad), and social networking/blog sites pull from youtube as well.
But this is not a bad thing. Rather, I think Youtube's competitors should see this as a good thing. With the bulk of the traffic hitting youtube, so does the bulk of the lawsuits and bandwidth traffic. Smaller video sites can take advantage of this time to update their software, provide services Youtube cannot, and boost their bandwidth. Then they can go big like youtube did without the constant glitches or legalese.
It also should be noted that Youtube makes content produces and the pirate community made by pulling videos off to please corporate lawyers. But other sites don't care as much or at all, and neither do the lawyers.
Nick Douglas: I made this point about lawsuits when Google bought YouTube. Google, I realized, saw the potential of online video about to be crushed. YouTube was destined for a lawsuit (which is why I foolishly concluded that the company would die). So Google bought the lawsuits. That is, Google swooped in, made deals with almost every potential plaintiff, and is now negotiating with Viacom, something YouTube couldn't have done on its own. So as a Google property, YouTube is helping to set good precedents. If YouTube had remained independent, it probably would have lost its suits (having no money to defend itself) and set some of the chilling precedents that we've seen in online radio. (Incidentally, I wonder why Google decided online audio wasn't worth this protective action. I mean, I'd have to agree that online audio isn't as important as video, but still.)
Mountain View, Calif.: As a follow up to your reply about publishing more candidate campaign moments: do you think that live streaming sites, like Ustream TV, are more apt to facilitating presidential candidates?
Nick Douglas: They would be, if a candidate had the guts to stream. There's a brilliant documentary whose name I forget; it uses footage from satellite-to-station streams to show the candidates before and after TV appearances. We learn a lot about the softly Machiavellian moves that the players make. For instance, Larry King desperately tries to talk himself up as a potential presidential debate moderator to Bill Clinton. If a candidate let a live stream capture all this, I'd definitely watch it. Why not Kucinich? Isn't he our "Do whatever, you have no chance" guy this time around?
Mountain View, Calif.: What do you think of "livecasting"—sites like Justin.tv who are broadcasting people's lives online, 24 hours a day? Will this phenomenon last?
Nick Douglas: It'll last, but it's still in its infancy. We'll need a much more sophisticated delivery system than a low-res stream. I tried broadcasting for Justin.tv for a week; I quickly realized how dull a constant stream was, and how it mostly attracted bored and negative "fans." I'd like to see more live shows; Justin.tv, as far as I know, is looking into some live shows that take advantage of real-time viewer chat (for instance, letting the broadcaster chat with viewers through a Blackberry). There's also great potential for COPS-type reality shows. And yes, some people would be interesting to watch 24/7. But it often takes a good budget to give someone the luxury of being interesting all day.
Bangkok, Thailand: Why did YouTube take so long recently to take down offensive video clips to the majority of Thais(maligning HM the King)when it hypocritically forbids such material in the first place? We fully support freedom of expression in Thailand and nobody condoned the government's decision to block YouTube when it did but YouTube should have complied with its own rules to gain credibility.
Nick Douglas: I'm afraid I don't know the legal issues involved, but it's my understanding that Google maintains YouTube's servers in the U.S. and thus maintains that only U.S. law applies to their content. That's the claim they made in a similar case in Brazil. "Offensive" is, of course, a loaded word, and Google wants to interpret such terms in the tightest way possible to avoid censorship. The situation is much more complex but that's all I can add.
The Fray: Youtube's "permissiveness" and its choice of short-form (< 10 minute) video clips are linked. The time limit means would-be scalawags can't post entire TV shows and movies without splitting them up. That decision helps YouTube argue that it's not designed to be a gigantic copyright infringement tool. Perhaps that'll make a difference in court, perhaps it won't. But it's the kind of design decision companies make in the face of copyright law run amok: an arbitrary limit on functionality, a sacrifice to appease the angry lawyer gods.
Nick Douglas: To be honest, I could believe YouTube's argument that they're not DESIGNED to be a tool for stealing. But it's obvious that the site is a piracy tool. YouTube has taken measures to help major content producers get their content off; it's harder to find a Simpsons episode now than it was a year ago. (I've tried.) But what scares me is their attitude of "We'll leave it alone until you come to us." Okay, this works for CBS or Fox, who have lawyers to do this sort of thing. But does the Joe Schmoe Comedy Troupe have to constantly scour for copies of their material?
At the same time, I'll grant that YouTube just can't afford to actively hunt down all copyrighted info. How do they know that the Joe Schmoe clip isn't uploaded by a member of the troupe for publicity?
Someone needs to invent a clever term for technology that destroys our previous understanding of strategy. Online video does to moving pictures what nuclear weapons do to war — you have to invent new ways of figuring out strategy using the vast new firepower given to everyone.
That was an awful metaphor, but hopefully it worked for someone.
Bowie: Back in the days of the Internet bubble, there were a lot of websites with business models not far removed from "we lose money on every sale, but make up for it in volume."
Can YouTube continue to dominate only by not making money?
Nick Douglas: Check their front page. There's a video ad. I wouldn't assume they don't make a good bit of money.
And, of course, by integrating with Google search, YouTube makes more money for the parent company.
New York, N.Y.: I see YouTube has an online video bulletin board.
How do you see the user interface evolving over the next five years?
And how will the content evolve?
Nick Douglas: I have no idea what they'll do, but here's what I hope they do: More fine-tuned controls for creators, more customizable creator pages, more of the community-driven features of Vimeo, and less emphasis on "most viewed" videos.
I expect we'll just see a smoother interface; the YouTube embed interface has turned into a stupendously useful little menu. It's pretty much a "widget." The site still looks ugly as sin, and while I'd like to see that change, I'm not holding my breath.
Champaign, Ill.: Given the growing political and cultural power of online shared video, do you recommend educational measures to ensure literacy and informed citizenship in this medium? Should I be teaching "millenial" students how to create 30 second videos as much as the 10 page paper?
Nick Douglas: Yes.
The 30-second spot is a viable art form. (Remember that my beef with YouTube's format isn't that it encourages so many people to make such short and punchy spots, but that that's the ONLY thing it seems to encourage.) Some of the most powerful art of the modern age is advertising. It expresses a message in a memorable and often emotional, even spiritual way.
Moving the 30-second spot to a less commercial sphere allows artists to exploit the advantages of this form for higher (or just less mercenary) purposes.
At the same time, let's not stop writing 10-page papers and shooting 90-minute films.
The documentary you referred to is "Spin" by Brian Springer. You can watch it at Google Video here.
Nick Douglas: Thank you!
Nick Douglas: We can take more questions.
Regarding the careless manner in which most online video is created: There seems to be a dearth of online film schools. The creators of "Four Eyed Monsters" (at http://foureyedmonsters.com I believe) have written some good lessons in filmmaking, but why haven't we seen a video series explaining how to use a camcorder for something more than "Funny noises and faces I can make"?
(Incidentally, there is a video called "Funny noises and faces I can make," and its creator HAS done more sophisticated work.)
Sacramento, Calif.: I'm sort of confused about how they censure things. I understand that they take porn out, but some of the older music videos and things have stuff that's pretty close to porn. Do you see them cracking down harder in the future? How do they decide how to censure stuff?
Nick Douglas: I'd guess that anything showing, well, a nipple or genitalia is considered pornographic. Nudity is explicitly forbidden in YouTube's terms of service. One reason for this rule is that hosting nudity may require the site to maintain hard-copy forms verifying the ages of anyone who appears nude. That's a headache that no one wants to deal with unless nudity is their core business.
The relevant law, USC 2257, is controversial because (it seems to those of us who opose it) it places the burden of proof on a publisher who may have no direct contact with the nude model.
As for "pretty close to porn," well, it's not porn, even if it's corrupting the minds of our yadda yadda yadda.
Cologne, North Rhein Westphalia: Am I being impertinent to say what a mistake it is that I am reading an article about YouTube and you have no link to this site?
Nick Douglas: You're right, they could use the traffic.
Los Angeles, Calif.: I want to know how the creator of YouTube get the idea and get enough servers to host it?
Nick Douglas: The idea, say the founders, came when they tried to send a video to a relative. This is how most ideas come about, at least if you listen to founders. Since they were young guys, porn was probably also discussed in that first bull session, but they had to pick that or sending videos to Grandma, and you know which one's more likely to get money from conservative venture capitalists.
As for the servers, I seem to remember YouTube being down frequently in its early stage. That happens to pretty much every web service before (and sometimes after) it gets bought by a company with generous resources.
From: The Fray: You would think that the article would note that Slate (and its new video site) might have a conflict of interest with YouTube. The only acknowledgment in the entire article is that the author will be an extra in a video sitcom that does not appear on YouTube.
Nick Douglas: (Note: I can't speak for Slate, and I only discovered Slate V this week.) Fair enough, though Slate V also includes many YouTube clips on a blog that tracks popular online videos. So the site benefits from YouTube as much as it "competes."
I hardly think the magazine considers its video content to be in direct competition with the new Timbaland music video. But you'd have to ask the editors.
Townson, Md.: Do you think it is appropriate to use YouTube the way Tony Blair has in the past?
Nick Douglas: I'm afraid I'm not familiar with his uses, but I'd like to hear about them.
Nick Douglas: We're just about out of questions and time. Thank you to everyone who participated; these were thought-provoking questions. I'm especially interested in whether YouTube will bring us another Macaca moment, or whether it has been safely transformed into another megaphone for the candidates.