What’s to see in YouTube

The effects of exposure on the web’s most popular video-sharing site can be good, bad or ugly, but among the postings are six messages users should pick up on, says David Bowen.

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I’m increasingly intrigued by the way YouTube is used. In my column two weeks ago I talked about the extraordinary spread of a speech by a little known member of the European parliament, Daniel Hannan. Having posted the video himself on YouTube, it got to 2 million views within 10 days.
YouTube must be the cheapest and fastest way ever to make yourself famous. But it is also the cheapest and fastest way to get yourself a bad reputation.
I wrote last time about how the internet was being used during the G20 summit in London, and finished “…if someone takes a video of, say, a policeman being overenthusiastic with his truncheon, this will be surely posted to YouTube. Twitter will spread the word, and we may yet have a Daniel Hannan moment”.
It happened. If you look at YouTube and search for ‘g20 guardian’, you will find ‘Video of police assault on Ian Tomlinson, who died at the London G20 protest’). The film shows Mr Tomlinson being hit on the legs by a police officer and falling over; later, he died of a heart attack. It was posted by The Guardian newspaper on 8 April; within two days it had been viewed 150,000 times; a week on it had reached 210,000.
A main item in the news on Wednesday 15 April was about a video that had been posted showing a policeman hitting a protestor with a truncheon. It was put up by ‘RPJ360’ the previous day, and by mid-morning Wednesday had been viewed about 2,500 times. The policeman has been suspended, and the reputation of the police in London has taken a further battering.

More reputations online

On to other videos, before trying to make some sense of the phenomenon.
The most-viewed YouTube clip on 15 April was posted by two Domino’s workers in the US, showing them doing horrible things to the food they were preparing. The description says “This is a great lesson on why you never post something like this on the Internet. These Dominos workers posted this on YouTube earlier today (April 13, 2009). It was removed later this day but re-uploaded because these people deserve to be fired. If you want these people fired then Favorite, comment, and rate 5 stars so the word gets out and these people fired”. This version had been viewed 637,000 times.
One of the most popular videos of the past month was Extreme Sheep LED Art. In essence it’s an extended advertisement for Samsung televisions. It features Welsh sheep, with LED displays attached to their backs, apparently being herded around the hillside by dogs, making entertaining patterns. It was watched more than 6.6 million times in the month since it was posted on 16 March.
Rio Tinto posts the same videos on its site as it does on YouTube. The most viewed is about the Diavik diamond mine in Canada and has been watched 145,000 times on YouTube. You can’t see the traffic numbers on the riotinto.com version, but it is available there in Quicktime or Windows Media, without a link to YouTube.
Finally, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not have videos on its own site, but does have a link on its home page to a busy YouTube channel. The latest post, on 15 April, was by Yoosk and features filmed questions aimed at the government and is by a Muslim woman criticising government policy.

Six lessons to extract

1. It is not very helpful to say ‘We must get ourselves on YouTube’, because it can be very good, very bad or pretty ineffectual.
2. You can divide between videos you control (such as the Samsung or Rio Tinto ones) and those you don’t – but don’t count on keeping control. The rash Dominos workers quickly took their video down, but it was too late. There would be nothing to stop the critical Yoosk video being separated from the safe confines of the FCO area, and becoming altogether more dangerous. YouTube videos can be shared, and when they are you lose control of them. This is why the medium is potentially so much more beneficial/damaging than conventional media: a newspaper article or television piece is here today forgotten tomorrow. On YouTube, there is no reason why a video cannot hang around, and even gain momentum, over months or years.
3. YouTube and mainstream media feed off each other. The high viewings of the Tomlinson video must have been stimulated by massive media coverage, in the UK at least. The second video has had modest viewings (so far at least), but enough of the viewers have been journalists to get it to the top of the headlines on radio and television. From an organisational risk point of view, this is the most damaging video of all – a short clip, posted by someone with a mobile phone, that gets spotted and publicised. Your sins are less easy than ever to hide.
4. Video tends to tell the truth and it is difficult to cover it up. A text description of a police officer wielding a truncheon might be made up; a video will not be.
5. Genius pays off. The Samsung sheep video is good fun, but also has a clear commercial message. Good news for television commercial directors who worry that their skills are becoming redundant. And, I would say, good news for anyone who thinks that quality should always get out.
6. Technical issues between YouTube and ordinary websites continue to cause problems. Do you run the two in parallel, like Rio Tinto, or simply point to a YouTube Channel, as the Foreign Office does? You don‘t have to do either. General Motors’ social media newsroom has a strip of YouTube video thumbnails; click on one and it plays in a new window. Blogs, too, often have YouTube videos embedded in them – GM does this frequently.
With a bit of skill the corporate website and YouTube can work well together – if there is a real stumbling block, it is more likely to be around intellectual property issues.

First published 15 April, 2009
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