YouTube videos may peer through Google-y eyes one day

Will deal take away Web site's quirkiness?

October 11, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

The message didn't come in corporate-speak.

After announcing they'd sold their startup company for a staggering $1.65 billion to the online search engine Google, the co-founders of YouTube sputtered and giggled as they talked about the deal on their Web site. The production values on their video-memo, viewed more than a half-million times by last night, were as choppy and amateurish as any of millions of clips shared on YouTube.

"We're going to stay committed to developing the best service for you," Chad Hurley said into the camera with Steve Chen at his side. The duo had little more to say on the union of what they dubbed the "King of Search" and the "King of Video," before they cracked up laughing.

They did promise fans that the Google acquisition won't change their objectives, although they wouldn't be the first corporate executives to make such a vow and break it. So it's natural for the site's community of artists, pranksters, philosophers and faithful viewers to wonder what will become of YouTube as it morphs into "GooTube."

Will the global clearing house of largely amateur videos become a slick marketplace with nonstop commercials? Will its "garage" aesthetic get smothered by Wall Street's bottom-line pressures? Will there still be a place in cyberspace for such clips as James Provan's paean to pancakes or "My Hands are Bananas," a spoof of German techno music by a bunch of Montana teens?

YouTube is "a grass-roots renegade community that I like the feel of," says Susannah Dourmash- kin, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and avid viewer. She fears that its freewheeling sensibilities may get tamped down by concerns about copyright infringement and other issues.

The groundswell of creativity that YouTube's user-friendly format inspired could be crushed by Google's colossal footprint, says John Broughton, an associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, who specializes in media and visual culture.

"I like the kind of anarchistic trajectory you have on YouTube," Broughton says. "You've got freedom of expression and all kinds of inappropriate materials," although the hits are mainly on "the really interesting and quirky things."

Originally, the founders of Google - former Stanford University graduate school classmates Larry Page and Sergey Brin - were "probably just as radical" as Chen and Hurley, but "everybody gets a bit more mainstream" when large sums of money are at stake, Broughton says. He wouldn't be surprised if YouTube is pressured to change its rough-hewn format and aesthetic style. And then, "you'll see young people re-creating YouTube under a new name."

By enhancing Google's current video capabilities with its own interactive components, YouTube will assuredly become "more mainstream," says Kim Gregson, an assistant professor of TV and radio at Ithaca College. But she believes the Google deal will expand YouTube's reach without disrupting its democratic spirit.

Flickr, a photo-sharing site, changed little after its purchase by Yahoo, Gregson says. She expects the same for YouTube, whose audience thrives on its autonomy and freedom from corporate control.

Smart marketers won't fear YouTube's "viral advertising" capacities, Gregson says. A case in point is the video "Fun with Treadmills" by the band OK Go, the pop group that was a huge hit at last summer's MTV Video Music Awards. Not only has the clever performance been viewed more than 7 million times, it has spawned a legion of video imitations, the best form of flattery.

YouTube will also continue to allow its users creative control when it comes to brand-name products, Gregson contends. An entire genre of YouTube videos is dedicated to demonstrating the explosive power of mixing Mentos mints with Diet Coke or Pepsi - "the ultimate in product placement," she says.

YouTube isn't exactly pure when it comes to advertising, says Deborah Vance, a professor of mass communication and cultural studies at McDaniel College. "I think we can't say it's completely innocent. It probably has been infiltrated already, and certainly there are people on there with commercial messages." With Google's purchase, however, "they might become easier to see," she says.

YouTube already has streaming ads, Vance notes. Other content featuring brand-name products, movies or other goods may or may not have been planted by sponsors. The popular video blog of Lonelygirl15 on YouTube proved to be a hoax, but not, as sleuths had expected, a promo for a new television show or film.

"So far, Google and YouTube have both said that their plan is not to change anything YouTube is already doing," says Steve Jones, a professor of communications and Internet studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "But one has to wonder given the sum of money involved what YouTube has to do to prove worthy of the investment."

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