Last Wednesday I told a TED audience of 250 people that the YouTube video platform was becoming the most important repository of documentary evidence about humankind in existence. It’s a bold statement, but I think it stands up.
YouTube is now becoming a real-time window on world events through live streaming. It is already the host of the world’s biggest, most accessible video archive of life on earth – from the mundane to the spectacular. Some of that is real-time documentation, and some of it is retrospective material. And it is growing at a phenomenal rate. Every minute, 72 hours of video is added to YouTube. By the time my short TED talk ended on Wednesday, there were 864 more hours of video on YouTube than when I started.
Three things this year changed how I view YouTube.
The first epiphany was the Democratic conventions in the US. I wanted to watch the event unadulterated, without commentary, without the partisan hackery or faux-objectivity of the networks. YouTube had a page dedicated to the conventions, where I could browse in and out of the live action as it happened, or, when things became a little dull, review videos from speeches I had missed.
What startled me about my own behaviour was that I hadn’t checked the TV stations to see how they were covering it and subsequently dismissed them, but that I made an innate choice that YouTube would be my first stop. I didn’t even consider Fox or CNN – YouTube was naturally the first place I went to watch the elections. I didn’t reach for the remote, I grabbed the iPad. That was a big shift. YouTube had always been the first place I’d go to for footage in retrospect, but for it to be my instinctive choice for ongoing news, as it was happening – that was HUGE.
Felix Baumgartner’s edge-of-the-atmosphere parachute jump was the second. Eight million people logged on to watch that little hop live via YouTube. News channels couldn’t devote the adequate time to it and would skip in and out, but Red Bull’s YouTube channel streamed the entire thing. The last minutes of the ascent were mesmerising. Joe Kittinger’s halting instructions to Felix in his pod were endearing and highly stressful. I hooked a laptop up to the TV to super-size my YouTubing, and watched the plummet, wondering if TV coverage of live events was on a similar, plunging trajectory.
The third is the ongoing war in Syria. Footage from Syria and the Arab Spring in general falls into a different category to most YouTube uploads- it is, arguably, evidentiary material. An entire war, to which external media were NOT welcome, has been documented via the clenched, phone-holding fists of citizens, soldiers and activists. And last week, the UN said that one particular event could, if validated, be considered a war crime. The evidence lay largely on YouTube servers.
We are now the most-chronicled generation in history. There has never been a greater level of unfiltered documentation of humanity (caveats coming) in history. It also gives us a window into countries that old-school news would never have shown. Through YouTube you get to see past media stereotypes to get candid glimpses from Saudi Arabia, central Russia, caucus states, Pacific islands and elsewhere. It must be said, however, that documentation falls short of being global. Swathes of the planet are not represented for reasons of culture or connectivity. We know, in Storyful, that there are ‘black holes’ for YouTube footage, due to connectivity, etc. Coverage from certain countries in Africa is abysmal. When we’ve gone looking for footage of news events in Congo, Mali or anywhere in the centre of Africa, it’s simply not there. Iraq is a dead zone for YouTube content. On the other hand, I’ve been involved in helping Google curate video from elections in Nigeria, Senegal and currently Ghana, all of which have been very active, and creative, in how they cover news. Given its need for decent upload speeds, a per-country/region comparison of video footage tallies could very well be an interesting benchmark for a global connectivity study.
The problem with YouTube being a gigantic and ever-growing haystack of video is that most people approach it looking for needles, and the means by which you find what you’re looking for haven’t matched the pace of the growth in volume. Organising the stack is crucial to make it navigable, useful, and potentially, to allow it blast a lot of TV into insignificance by making more content accessible to everyone, everywhere. he greater focus on channels, much vaunted of late, will hopefully begin to make this a reality.
How does this relate to the mainstream media? The media houses that recognise that organising YouTube into usable channels early are the ones will thrive. You can already see how some are adapting. Check out the New York Times, with their Timecast videos and wall-to-wall election coverage. See how the Weather Channel delivered non-stop Sandy via YouTube for the duration of the storm & aftermath. And look at the Wall Street Journal which has succeeded in integrating relevant, timely web video reporting seamlessly into what was a traditionalist financial newspaper.
News orgs can’t think of themselves as TV channels, or newspapers (with website) anymore. They have to think of themselves as content generators, connecting with the audience via whatever format people makes sense for them as they go about their daily lives – and with the access to more and more newsworthy video content ON YouTube (72 more hours of it every minute, remember) it’s cheaper than ever to package news with video. Being successful in news in the next five years probably means having a sensible video strategy, re-skilling journalists to tell their stories using multimedia – training an old-school subeditor to think of 15 selected seconds of amateur footage in the way he might once have thought of formatting a pull-quote.
To do all that, the haystack has be organised. At TED, 15-year-old Jack Andraka drew a standing ovation as he described how he, effectively, Googled his way to means of detecting pancreatic cancer. In doing so, he had to find the one protein of more than 4,000 in the cancer which would help him in his bid for early detection. He described it not as finding a needle in a haystack, but as finding a needle in a stack of needles, which is probably just as accurate in this case. Without the means to find the needle you’re looking for, your fingers are going to get pricked thousands of times. And that’s no fun.
UPDATE: YouTube recognised by the ICFJ with an ‘Innovation in News’ Award: