Sunday, November 5, 2006

YouTube Citizens speaking out

It's election season and we have silly politicians pulling silly stunts to try to get elected. I don't watch television so I don't experience this first hand, but I hear the TV is full of the typical ugly political campaign advertising. That's partly why I don't watch TV. In any case in addition to the TV advertising YouTube has drawn a number of political and corporate videos. And, the presence of these videos are causing some to question whether YouTube is being ruined. But I think it's an example of the question: Who owns a community?

An interesting sidebar this year is the growing effect of YouTube. It's about sharing video content, and it has several viral features that has helped propel the site into mainstream America. Well, at least among those of mainstream America who are intelligent enough to figure out how to post to YouTube.

Apparently YouTube users were originally brought on board with a promise, possibly explicit, that the site would be for their use, for them to share whatever video content they wanted to post. But given the number of eyeballs now browsing YouTube it has drawn corporate types, and political types. Consider this video:

It's decrying a set of videos posted by obvious political hacks who are brazenly violating YouTube's rules, and who are somehow able to get links into Google's search engine results pretty quickly. The author of that video has a certain conception of the purpose of YouTube, and s/he's being offended by the destruction of that purpose. And this demonstrates very well the question at the beginning of this posting: Who owns a community?

YouTube is an example of an online community. A community forms when a group of people come together for common activities, shared activities that head to a common purpose. In YouTube's case the purpose is sharing video content and creating contact with one another through video content.

YouTube and Google may think they own the community. YouTube built the community infrastructure and enticed the people into the community, and Google bought everything that is YouTube. So by some measures Google owns the thing. But let me ask you, is the community the web site, or is the community the people?

Obviously I believe the community is the people. Without those people YouTube would be just another web site, one of the zillions of them on the Web. It is the people who enliven the YouTube site with activity and life. And what's valuable about YouTube is the sharing between people, and the connection created between people via that sharing.

What control does Google/YouTube have? Obviously as the owners of the site they can do anything they want. But if they manage to offend the community members, those people will vote with their feet. It's not all that hard to implement something like YouTube, what's hard is getting people on-board. The example would be eBay's phenomenon in the auctioneering space, where there are dozens of online auction houses but only one (eBay) who has a major presence. That is the community in action, and eBay has been carefully nurturing its community.

The real world analogy I think of is a bar owner. The bar owner earns their money by operating a space for a community to form, siphoning some money out of the pockets of people who come to meet one another. For the bar to be successful the bar owner has to offer an inviting space. And the people can abandon a bar if the bar owner screws up the space. Can the bar owner be dictatorial? Maybe. But a dictatorial bar owner might see few patrons unless the bar is extremely inviting in some way. (I'm thinking of that "Soup Nazi" character on some TV show)

When Google bought YouTube did they end up owning the community? Nope. They bought a service, and to do well with it they need to learn to nurture community. YouTube did an excellent job of this.