08 Jan 2018 15:14 IST

Creativity powered by YouTube

A YouTube honcho’s riveting take on the immense possibilities of internet self-expression

Remember Oppa Gangnam Style — the improbable runaway hit featuring an absurd music video starring the podgy Korean popstar Psy? It broke all records on YouTube forcing Google’s engineers to change the view counter. Till Psy’s viral video happened YouTube could only count views up to 32 integers; luckily, they upgraded this to 64 integers and averted the counter from going back to zero.

In November 2017, Gangnam Style crossed three billion views and, yet, it is only the third-highest all-time views on YouTube. No doubt, YouTube had a big role to play in catapulting the little known Psy to global fame and wealth. In fact, it has touched and shaped each one of ours — maybe in not as explosive a way, but certainly it has altered our habits, consciously or subconsciously.

YouTube has allowed us to create, share, watch videos from anywhere in the world on any subject and be educated, entertained and even become famous. In Alexa Traffic Rankings, it is the world’s second most popular site (Google, of course, is the top one, with Facebook taking the third position).

It won’t be an exaggeration to say YouTube is shaping the culture of today’s world. And this is the phenomena Videocracy, written by YouTube’s head of culture and trends Kevin Allocca, explains. It’s an insider’s account of the power of internet self expression and how it is influencing our lives. And given the access he has to data on the videos, and the search patterns of users, there’s a wealth of information and insights in this book.

Of course, the chartbusting Gangnam Style features in the book prominently. It is after all the representation of what is possible in this environment and the delightful unpredictability of it all. Gangnam Style got people listening to K-Pop.

So much so that in 2013, a KPop group Girls Generation won the YouTube music awards. It has changed the distribution landscape totally putting power in the hands of you and me rather than a studio or channel.

The book actually begins by talking about the ‘Double Rainbow’ video, taken by Paul ‘Bear’ Vasquez in his front yard just outside the Yosemite National Park. But more than the rainbow it is the farmer’s ecstatic reaction to the rainbow that garnered the clip 44.2 million views.

Writes Allocca: “In Bear’s joyous exclamations and incoherent sobbing — and our laughter — lie some important truths. We are part of an entirely new era of creativity, one driven by people like Bear who have something they want to share with us.” In sum, it’s a culture shaped by all of us.

Stripping away the artifice

As Allocca notes, YouTube provides a home to the video that cannot be explained and justified. How else can you account for cat videos becoming as popular as they are? Everyday users can broadcast their clips of the most inane things and reduce the world to tears or laughter; things traditional media would scorn to show. According to Allocca, these become hits because we all love honest, authentic moments that we can relate to. It’s a non judgemental platform.

Perhaps this is why, Allocca explains, viewers react better to Buzzfeed telling us five things than a structured pre-scripted video about the same subject. The aesthetic of YouTube is to strip away the artifice, writes Allocca. The beauty of a powerful YouTube video is that it doesn’t end with a single clip. There’s an after story too. Just imagine — somebody took the excited squeaks of Bear and turned it into a song and The Double Rainbow Song audiotuned by Gregory Brothers got even more views than the original.

There’s a certain structure to Allocca’s thoughts — first he leads us through how YouTube got created in 2005 when Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen — all part of PayPal’s design and architecture team got together to create a video sharing site.

The inspiration was the wardrobe malfunction of Janet Jackson as well as the tsunami in India in 2004 which people had clicked shots of. The world was looking for an easy way to share these and the three managed to come up with this difficult task (Vimeo and Google video were there before; but it was YouTube that took off).

Allocca shares some technical bits — how video files are created, where they are stored, what constitutes likes and so on. But it’s the content part that is more interesting, the various fads and trends. The rise of pet videos exemplified by the bulldog Tillman on a skateboard, entertainment in the auto tune era, the web trend of remixing and so on.

The chapter on remixing is fascinating as it shows the spontaneous way two artistes in two different parts of the world who don't know each other can collaborate.

The book also offers nuggets about publishers who have used YouTube creatively — BuzzFeed is one. There’s also a section on unorthodox advertising approaches (Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is one example) that marketers will find useful.

Subconscious cues

The most interesting part of Allocca’s book is when he gets into the psychology of users and viewers. Just imagine the top keyword associated with news anchor searches on YouTube is not “report” but the word “fail” followed by “bloopers”. What pleasure do we get from somebody else’s embarrassment?

Our subconscious dictates the kind of programming we watch and a technology platform like YouTube is able to infer what our subconscious is hankering for. Isn’t that a scary thought?

Allocca skims over the negatives of the platform, how it could be misused, etc, though he does discuss the ethical dilemmas of what you should post and what you should not. If he had delved into the dark web aspects a bit more, it would have been a more rounded book, but it is still engrossing.

And be warned — this book is going to take a while to read and consume a lot of mobile data as you cannot help stopping every other page to watch on YouTube a video being discussed in the book!

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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