A grand unified theory of YouTube and MySpace.

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April 28 2006 12:05 PM

A Grand Unified Theory of YouTube and MySpace

Point-and-click sites that don't tell you what to do.

I was skeptical when I heard how huge video-sharing hub YouTube and social-networking hotspot MySpace have become. YouTube claims 40 million plays a day, up from 35 million just a week ago. The Washington Post recently reported that MySpace pulls more monthly visitors than Amazon and is closing in on AOL and eBay. Both sites are vague about their traffic details, though, so I ran them through Alexa, the traffic report generator favored by techies who don't trust press releases. I nearly fell out of my chair. On Alexa's charts, MySpace is an order of magnitude bigger than Friendster. YouTube will pass CNN  any day now. 

Both YouTube and MySpace fit the textbook definition of Web 2.0, that hypothetical next-generation Internet where people contribute as easily as they consume. Even self-described late adopters like New York's Kurt Andersen recognize that that by letting everyone contribute, these sites have reached a critical mass where "a real network effect has kicked in."

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But the focus on the collaborative nature of these sites has been nagging at me. Sites like Friendster and Blogger that promote sharing and friend-making have been around for years with nowhere near the mainstream success. I've got a different theory. YouTube and MySpace are runaway hits because they combine two attributes rarely found together in tech products. They're easy to use, and they don't tell you what to do.

There are two design requirements for technology meant for the masses. First, you need to automate all the techie parts so people can just press Play. To watch television online, I shouldn't have to install extra video software, figure out my bandwidth setting (100K? 300K?), and sign up for an account with the player's maker. Second, Web moguls shouldn't presume to foresee what 100 million people will want to do with their site. I'm one of many who stopped using Google's Orkut social network because its hardwired page designs made everyone look like they were there to find a date and/or a job.

The guys behind YouTube hit the sweet spot. Most important, they made it head-slappingly easy to publish and play video clips by handling the tricky parts automatically. Given up on BitTorrent because it feels like launching a mission to Mars? If you've sent an e-mail attachment, you've got the tech skills to publish on YouTube.

To post your own video, sign up for a free account and go to the Upload page. Select your file, click the Upload Video button, and you're done! YouTube's servers convert your vid to a standardized format, but you don't need to know what that format is. If you send the URL to your aunt, it'll play in her browser without spraying the screen with pop-ups and errors.

You don't have to upload video to use YouTube. If you just like to watch, it's even easier. There's no software to install, no settings to muck with. The video auto-plays as soon as you load the page, without launching more windows—why can't CNN do that?

Three months ago, I predicted Google Video would become the hottest thing on the Net. I was wrong, and I think Google has failed to take off for the simple reason that it's more annoying to use than YouTube. To begin with, you have to install Google's special uploading application. When I tried to upload the same clips I'd posted to YouTube, Google's app wouldn't let me. I combed through the FAQ and found this: "While we also support other digital formats such as QuickTime, Windows Media, and RealVideo … submitting your files in these formats may significantly delay us from using them on Google Video." Come on, guys. Whatever happened to "I'm Feeling Lucky?"

Google Video lets you google videos (of course) by their titles and a brief description of each. Each page links to other matches. That's OK, but predictable. YouTube lets posters tag each clip themselves. For example, I tagged this clip of my 12 seconds on Good Morning America with "boutin wired slate gma." Whenever you play a YouTube clip, the page shows a half-dozen potential matches. A tag like "slate" could mean all sorts of things, so each page mixes perfect matches with what-the-huh results. A documentary on Scientology links to a South Park episode, which links to comedian Pablo Francisco. A few clicks later I'm watching some merry prankster get an unexpected smackdown. In Web 2.0-speak, this is a "folksonomy." In English, it means YouTube is a mix of every video genre imaginable.

Judging by the number of South Park episodes and music videos available for viewing, it's fair to say that YouTube's warnings not to post copyrighted material aren't much of a deterrent. The site removes porn much more aggressively than they do copyright violations. That makes a lot of sense: There are more than enough places to browse for porn online, but the presence of easily downloadable mainstream fare among YouTube's home movies is a huge draw. I hope the site's budding deals with Hollywood work out and the networks don't launch their own sites. If they do, it's a sure bet they won't be user-friendly. Just look at CNN's recent redesign, which just now threw a giant "PLUGIN WARNING!" onto my screen.

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