Google shells out for loyalty

Web search leader buying into YouTube's interactive community of 63 million viewers

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October 27, 2006|By Dawn C. Chmielewski and Chris Gaither | Dawn C. Chmielewski and Chris Gaither,Los Angeles Times

The reason Google Inc. spent a king's ransom on YouTube this month can be found in a two-minute clip posted to the video-sharing site within hours of the $1.65 billion deal.

Standing outside a TGI Friday's restaurant in San Bruno, Calif., YouTube Inc. co-founder Chad Hurley said in a shaky video that "two kings have gotten together," prompting co-founder Steve Chen to burst out laughing.

The video was more than the swagger of young millionaires. It was also an inside joke. Hurley was lampooning a video by rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs announcing the debut of his YouTube channel while ordering a Whopper at Burger King.

"When two kings get together, you know they gotta do it in a special way," Diddy said, inspiring dozens of mocking videos by YouTube members who thought the rapper was invading their turf.

The self-referential satire of the "Message from Chad and Steve" highlights what separates YouTube from other online video sites: It's a community where the videos are part of a running conversation between members.

To Google, that community is potentially worth far more than the bootlegged video clips and amateur movies that built YouTube's audience of 63 million. Among fickle online audiences, loyalty is prized.

"What's so unique about YouTube is that most of the content on the site is this conversation between people," said Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina who has studied social networks. "The interesting thing is that the conversations are happening in videos."

Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, called that the "secret sauce" that could help YouTube fend off competition from other video-sharing services. "You can't go out and build features to substitute for community," she said.

YouTube gained widespread notice not for its original short-form content, but rather for popular television shows that users uploaded to the site, such as the "Lazy Sunday" skit from NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Such clips attracted millions of viewers, and some think they explain the site's popularity. Although surreptitiously posted segments of popular TV shows such as The Colbert Report continue to draw an audience, YouTube increasingly has built a following around such homegrown celebrities as LonelyGirl15, Renetto and LisaNova.

"Online communities for teens, a lot of them, including MySpace, are a lot like nightclubs. When the uncool kids start showing up or, God forbid, your parents, you're out of there," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the Annenberg School for Communications' Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. "YouTube might be different. This is the place people go to share their lives."

The videotaped musings of LonelyGirl15, who presented herself as Bree, a shy, home-schooled 16-year-old with strict, religious parents, drew hundreds of thousands of viewers each week. After four months she was revealed to be Jessica Rose, a New Zealand-raised actress playing a role. That provoked a strong reaction from the community, some of whom had been drawn in by the plight of the purportedly sheltered girl and felt betrayed.

"The thing I like about YouTube is that it's real people," a 33-year-old user called "monkeyfemme" said in a video recorded on her front porch. "I want to hear about people's lives. I want to hear people's opinions. I want to hear about good things in the world and hear about bad things that we need to hear about so that we can try and make a difference. I don't really want to turn to YouTube for a soap opera. If I wanted to do that, I'd turn on the TV."

When they announced the acquisition, Google executives said they were happy with the way their service, Google Video, allowed people to upload and watch clips. But they said YouTube had become the clear leader in assembling an active community around videos, which presented a big business opportunity and gave Google more advertising inventory.

"It's a great deal for Google in that they now have the power of a network that can act promotionally, which is something they lacked," said Ian Schafer, chief executive of ad agency Deep Focus. "No one is able to monetize traffic like Google has."

Like other popular videos, the ads have become fodder for community satire.

LisaNova, a budding filmmaker from Hollywood who edits film and does "corporate annoying stuff [that] isn't fun," posts her sketch comedy on YouTube in her spare time. She has parodied videos from Diddy and LonelyGirl15.

The Diddy parody drew more than 2,000 posts.

"I couldn't believe the reaction to him. People were so upset at him. The comments were so angry," LisaNova said. "It's very much a community. It's interactive, and you're expected to participate in it. When P. Diddy or Paris Hilton come because their album is coming out, people feel used."

Dawn C. Chmielewski and Chris Gaither write for the Los Angeles Times.

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