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.

When trying to rope in the movie and TV studios, YouTube should point to MySpace, where A-listers like Eminem peddle their wares alongside unsigned bands and lip syncers. MySpace makes it easy for musicians, kids, and grandparents to post their own pages by removing the technical hurdles. I created a profile page in three minutes, complete with an auto-play jingle. I'd planned to upload an MP3 of a band I used to play in, until I found they already have their own MySpace page. Clicking "Add" instantly copied the song from their page onto mine. Another one-click tool imported my Gmail and Hotmail address books so I could mass-invite everyone to join me.

MySpace isn't that much easier to use than Friendster, or than other shared-user-content sites like Flickr (photo sharing), del.icio.us (bookmarks), or Digg (tech news). But it mixes multiple publishing models—blogs, photos, music, videos, friend networks—into one personal space. Most important, it doesn't presume to know what your goals are. The site's management ditched their early focus as a home for musicians when they realized Margaret Cho and my crazy friend Kenny wanted spaces of their own. Next, MySpace may let marketers set up profiles for brands. That's a great idea—the same people who'll bitch about Snickers having a page will add Wikipedia as their friend.

I think MySpace's popularity has to do with its puppylike accessibility. A typical page looks like something a Web-enthralled high schooler might have put up in 1996, but with more pics and a soundtrack. I agree with design guru Jesse James Garrett, who says the site's untrained layout sends a "we're just like you" message to newcomers. That encourages them to experiment with content genres the site's designers didn't build into templates. If tech builders want to hand the controls over to their users, shouldn't they presume they haven't thought of everything? Apple's iWeb publishing system is easy to use and way more attractive than MySpace, but we'd have gotten old waiting for Apple to invent a Lip Sync Video template.

The secret to success is to make everything one-button easy, then get out of the way. If you think collaborative architecture matters more, click the charts: The same Alexa plots that show MySpace and YouTube obliterating top sites reveal that Flickr, Digg  and del.icio.us  have plateaued with audiences barely bigger than Slate's. Photos, news, and other people's bookmarks just aren't as interesting as bootleg TV and checking out the hotties. The easier it gets to use, the less geeky the Net becomes, and the more it starts to look like real life.

Paul Boutin is a writer living in San Francisco.

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