YouTube is awesome.
I know, a lot of people see YouTube as the next great time waster on the web– people spending hours poking around for videos of bikini-clad exhibitionists or public brawls. But as with so many of the complaints about the Internet, the salacious anecdotes overshadow what’s truly remarkable about this sort of website.
Many of my views about sites like Flickr and Wikipedia and YouTube have been influenced by Clay Shirky’s book “Here Comes Everybody.” The overall theme of the book and what links these sites together is a sort of economy of scale. Whereas in the past it took a great deal of energy to spread any sort of information, now it’s easy for anyone to put any sort of information out into the public square. These sites are essentially information aggregators on a scale that has never been seen in human history. The scale is so vast that we tend to miss what it is accomplishing. In the past, it would have taken the few people who were able to put this sort of thing together days, weeks, or even months to compile this much information. Now one person can post one small clip very easily. But when 1 million people post one small clip, suddenly you have more information than you ever thought possible.
I primarily use YouTube when I want to see something that has been broadcast that I missed. This could range from news reports to historical events to TV shows to movie trailers. I have not yet been unable to find a clip on YouTube that I was looking for. Seriously.
I know a lot of people complain about copyright at this point. Distributing the work of the people who produce these clips without their being fairly paid for that distribution is a violation of our copyright laws. But again I come back to what I have said time and time again on this issue. Our current copyright laws don’t work. If they worked, sites like YouTube wouldn’t exist. Publishers, producers, and lawyers simply have no conception of how their world has changed on this issue. There is no way for an artist or producer to be paid for every broadcast of their work anymore. As soon as you take down one offender, the economy of scale kicks in again and if it’s something people want to see, it’s back up.
A perfect example of this was the recent leaking of the trailer for a new movie based on the Alan Moore breakthrough graphic novel “Watchmen.” A friend who is much more of a comic book geek than I am sent out a tweet that the trailer was on YouTube, with a link. I clicked the link only to find that Warner was on the job and the video had been pulled. But I thought, “it’s on the Internet, it’s gotta be there somewhere.” A few minutes of searching later and I had the clip.
So what’s the point? You can’t stop the flow of information. Artists and producers will still get paid, primarily for live work. People will still pay to go to a movie theater or a concert. People will still pay to own a physical copy of their favorite book. And, as Radiohead showed us, people will still pay to support their favorite artists’ work. But we need to let go of the idea that you can control every instance of your work. YouTube is just one symptom of this, but undoubtedly the best way to share video information currently available.