During the Web 2.0 Summit recently, the Mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, pointed out that one of the reasons the world is no longer the same is YouTube. For better or worse, said Mr. Newsom, we are now always on the record. Every significant and insignificant conversation is being recorded, and the videos are available on YouTube.
His co-panelist Joe Trippi, who was in charge of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, further explained that because of YouTube, we have now entered the age of transparency. Joe argued that because we are always on record, the only sensible thing to do is to tell the truth. The panelists agreed that YouTube, and the online video movement, is fundamentally changing our society.
The panel was indeed thought provoking, but there was another conversation at the Summit that got me thinking that the second largest search engine may be on its way to becoming the largest.
The story of one 9-year-old boy
During one of the conference breaks, I met Ian Kennedy, one of the heads of Service Innovation at Nokia. (You’ve seen a lot of Ian around the web because he used to be the product manager for MyBlogLog at Yahoo!.) Ian and I started talking, and he mentioned that his son accesses the web through YouTube. At first, I didn’t get it and thought Ian was making a joke.
But then I realized he was not. Whenever his son needed any information, he would open up YouTube, type in the search term and then just watch the videos that showed up as matches. He never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos. It was rather puzzling, I thought. Could it be that there are YouTube videos on any topic? My curiosity was piqued, and I decided to run a little experiment.
The YouTube experiment
To get an idea, I ran several different searches:
- Chicken Noodle Soup (bad results)
- George Washington (bad results)
- Astrophysics (bad results)
- Donkey from Shrek (good results)
- Lance Wataru (good results)
- vacuuming carpet (good results)
- Gavin Newsom (good results)
- Bakugan (good results)
Like any search engine, YouTube is not perfect. In general, short queries on generic topics, like Astrophysics, do not work very well. Somewhat surprisingly, George Washington and Chicken Noodle Soup do not yield good results either. But some searches do work very well. Ian said that his son frequently searches for episodes of Bakugan, which come up perfectly. Another likely search for a 9-year-old, Lance Wataru (a Pokemon character), works well, too. More specific searches, such as Donkey from Shrek, work even better.
Anything that can be a video will be a video
I walked away with the impression that we are not quite there yet, but was intrigued. Clearly a lot of things lend themselves to video, not just movies and music clips, but educational videos, tourism and a lot of other things. If video content continues to grow, could video eventually replace text?
Most likely not. The main reason that text rules the web today is because of hyperlinks. Linking pages via text links is what makes the web possible. Hyperlinking videos would be a harder thing to do. Not impossible, of course, because you can link objects and insert text in videos, but it’s just not as elegant as text. Besides the linking issue, not everything would be an effective video. For example, a research paper could be made into a video but would not be as easy to follow as the text.
But there is definitely a shift. Because video was not possible before, the web was dominated by text. Now that video cameras and broadband are cheap, information that is better served by video is getting converted. As a result, YouTube is now the second largest search engine, and traffic is through the roof. And because kids like Ian’s son are video natives, this is just the beginning.
Imagine a whole generation of kids growing up and learning about the world through YouTube. In the first half of the 20th century, people grew up reading books and newspapers. Then there was a generation that grew up on movies and television. The last shift was to the Internet. And now web video is creating yet another generation.
Kids no longer learn about the world by reading text. Like the television generation, they are absorbing the world through their visual sense. But there is a big difference. Television was programmed and inflexible. YouTube is completely micro-chunked and on demand. Kids can search for what they need anytime. This is different, and powerful.
True, the current model of YouTube is still raw and still skewed to entertainment. But imagine online video 5 years from now, geared to kids, where entertainment, games, education, travel — everything for kids — is mixed and delivered via searchable channels. This would be a big change on the Internet and in the world. Just as we no longer think twice about Googling, kids of the future will be consuming huge volumes of information via video.