January 17, 2009

Why YouTube's Leap From Cute Kitties to Real Research Matters

Greetings. As this New York Times story notes, YouTube is rapidly turning into a bona fide research tool, a fact that vocal Internet video haters ignore at their peril (a cohort I discussed a couple of days ago in "Risks in Hating Web Video".

I must admit that I've been using YouTube for a variety of research for some time, with quite remarkable results, at least by my standards.

Leaving aside most of the complex (to say the least) intellectual property and rights issues for the moment, the depth and breadth of material to be found on YouTube is simply staggering, and arguably the most interesting videos are the items that individuals have posted simply because those topics are ones that they personally care about. They post not for gain, nor do they necessarily really care how many people ever view the videos that they've posted. It's just an urge to share -- a drive as old as mankind, and forever vexing when ownership is asserted over easily copied and distribute materials.

These might be old TV shows, or vids about particular animals, or ... well, if you've ever spent any time with YouTube, especially via a decent TV hookup (e.g., through a TiVo), you can't help but start to play around with the term "functionally infinite" when thinking about the vastness of that data, very large portions of which would never see the light of day, nor in many cases likely be preserved in any way, absent the resources that Google has directed to YouTube's support.

I like to play a little game with people who are unfamiliar with YouTube's scope for serious research. I suggest that they name any topic -- and I do mean any -- and then demonstrate how, almost every single time, I can find relevant YouTube videos regarding the subject, often in surprisingly large numbers. Doing this on my G1 phone rather than a PC provides even more impact -- instant access to seemingly endless information from almost anywhere.

That the quality of submissions on YouTube varies widely is not the point. Even the rights issues, while very important of course, are likely to be a relative blip in the long run as such technologies march forward (and I say this with no particular pleasure, it's simply what I believe will be true, for better or worse).

Ultimately, a core "natural value" of YouTube (and I dare say of Google and its ilk more generally) is as a repository of information (and/or indexes of information) in all their varied forms -- regardless of their perceived quality or even relevance to the majority of persons.

The users of these services ultimately decide individually what matters to them, choices that they can only make if the information is available to them in the first place. It's that availability of data that is key, and also where censorship issues raise their heads in attempts to obscure the clarity of perceptions.

There is vast power (and I don't mean just in the electrical sense) in those data centers with their spinning disks and humming fans -- power for entertainment, research, and much else ranging from the most serious and important to the flotsam and jetsam of life.

It is of course this sort of power that drives many of the controversies about the organizations controlling these systems -- everything from reasoned debate to tinfoil hat conspiracy theories. That's the way of the world whenever information is involved -- it always has been.

But one of the biggest mistakes that observers can make is to look at these information ecosystems -- like that now built within and around YouTube, and discount them as "merely" entertainment that can be easily ignored -- especially when more than just textual media is involved.

These technologies are game changers. They are drastically and inevitably changing the shape and dynamics of our world and lives -- and unlike during some periods of history, we can see in our own lifetimes, even in periods of just a relatively few years, how much fundamental change is occurring.

When you think of YouTube, remember that there's a lot more than cute kitties involved. Not that I have anything against cute kitties. In fact, as it happens, there's one on my lap as I type this.

Meow for now.


Posted by Lauren at January 17, 2009 10:01 PM | Permalink
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