After landing a $1.65-billion US deal to sell their video sharing website to Google Inc., the co-founders of YouTube did the obvious: they posted a goofy, unrehearsed video, thanking the YouTube community for its support.
But the cameraman poses a question to Chad Hurley, 29, and Steve Chen, 27, that goes unanswered: "What does [the deal] mean for the user community?"
That's what thousands of YouTubers are wondering. Will YouTube 2.0 still have room for the bedroom video-makers that created the site's billion-dollar identity? Or will the little guy be crowded out by advertising and corporate involvement?
"We could have never built this without the community. That is what we're fiercely protecting," Julie Supan, the senior director of marketing at YouTube, said Wednesday.
The YouTube community is also very protective— including Richard Stern, better known as LazyDork, a rapping, dancing, opinion-spewing defender of the site's grass-roots nature.
New online frontier
"The Wild West feel of YouTube is already slipping away, and within a few weeks it likely will be gone altogether," says Stern.
YouTube isn't as lawless as the old West, but it has served as the gateway to a new online frontier. Since its start in February 2005, YouTube has become the pre-eminent site for internet video, drawing a worldwide audience of 72.1 million in August.
Though enormously expansive, YouTube nevertheless has a distinct community of users who communicate by video and posted comments. This motley crew is made up of bloggers, vloggers and other users, many of whom bristled when stars like Paris Hilton and Diddy attempted to promote albums with YouTube video channels.
Now, some are expecting other, larger entities to shake up the YouTube democracy, where amateurs stand on equal footing with the professionals. The pros are growing in number: YouTube has recently reached agreements with CBS Corp., Vivendi's Universal Music Group, Sony BMG Music Entertainment, NBC Universal and Warner Music Group Corp.
"What we've seen over the last year is, it doesn't matter if it's professional content or if it's user-generated content," says Supan. "What the community decides by is how entertaining is the content."
Hurley and Chen's thank-you video has been viewed by more than 1.3 million people and has a rating of 4 1/2 stars out of 5. It also has yielded the most discussion of any recent video by far. Many of the comments wish the founders well and congratulate them on their tremendous payday. Many, however, have voiced skepticism.
Sarcasm and acceptance
"Since it was the 'people' that made YouTube, why aren't they being paid billions?" wrote a user named winofiend. "Good for you guys. Please don't let our community be destroyed!" wrote Pookieftw. "Preserve the freeness of this site. Please," wrote Poloinspace.
A frequent poster of videos named Renetto replied with sarcasm: "You actually learned how to post a video on your own Web site. This is breaking news."
Others have faith in Google, which is generally known for innovation and internet savvy. A prominent figure of the YouTube community, boh3m3 said, "Come on, man. Google is good. If it had to be bought by any company, I have to say Google is a ... great choice."
"The community is very honest," says Supan, laughing at her understatement. "That's the beauty of the community— everyone has a voice."
As part of the deal, Hurley, Chen and the other 65 YouTube employees will continue to work independently at their new offices in San Bruno, Calif. Google is expected to give YouTube a considerable marketing boost, increasing the number of ads on the site.
Concerns over advertising
Luke Barats, who with his comedy partner Joe Bereta has parlayed their popular YouTube sketch videos into a pilot deal with NBC, is happy for YouTube's creators. His concern, though, lies with increased advertising.
"If the advertising is kept as unobtrusive as possible, I doubt there will be much backlash from the YouTube community," says Barats. "The fact of the matter is that YouTube still offers a great product— a widely used embeddable player that works on both PC and Mac."
Stern fears an increase in advertising will take up precious space on YouTube's home page, which lists featured videos.
"In order to become widely popular on YouTube, it's almost imperative that you get featured on the front page," says Stern, 28. "YouTube has already begun selling off its top front page real estate to advertisers and Google, one of the top internet advertising brokers, is not going to make matters any better."
Supan, though, says that pre-roll ads aren't going to be added to the front of videos, and notes that the video advertisement on YouTube's home page is participatory: you have to press play.
"[Advertisers] are very concerned with coming into this community in the right way," she says. "They don't want to come in and muck up the site. They want to do what fits with the environment."
The future of YouTube has been much speculated upon practically since its inception— and doomsayers have been a constant. In particular, Mark Cuban, the outspoken dot-com billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team, has blogged that copyright issues will eventually ruin YouTube just as they did Napster.
Legal experts generally dispute that view since YouTube has consistently relied on the safe harbour provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 as a shield against lawsuits. However, that doesn't mean individual users who post copyrighted material won't be sued. YouTube explicitly states that such users are liable.
"We may see fewer postings of copyrighted works, but only if the content providers start suing YouTube users," says Jennifer Rothman, an associate professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis. "And I suspect they may do that because they're not going to be able to go after YouTube direct."
Juggling the wants and needs of its user community with YouTube's rapid growth— be it ads propelled by Google or copyright concerns from media companies— will likely remain an ongoing dance for YouTube.
Barats's partner, Bereta, recalls that the comedy duo were certain to include as part of their deal with NBC the continued freedom to post videos on YouTube.
Echoing the sentiment suggested in Hurley and Chen's bare-bones video, Barats explains, "It's kind of that whole don't-forget-where-you-came-from thing."