In the first half of 2006, mention the name YouTube and only the Internet-savvy would know what you were talking about. The website was merely one amongst many providing hosting for Web video streams. But there was something special about the way YouTube combined its streaming system with search, ratings and a limited form of social networking – and in particular, its easy embedding of clips in other websites. This separated YouTube from the crowd, leading to the now legendary $1.65 billion Google buyout in October 2006.
Since then, despite the plethora of alternatives, YouTube has become the household name for Web video sharing. It may not be the only popular video sharing website by any means, with for example Vimeo popular amongst professional videomakers, but it sets the benchmark for online audiovisual success. A new breed of stars has arisen, their fame so great that they are often featured in traditional media – which is what many are still aiming for anyway.
We’ve already mentioned the infamous Numa Numa Guy – voted the number one Internet icon by VH1 in 2007. However, a less novelty-oriented YouTube phenomenon was Lonelygirl15. Encountered amongst other video bloggers (aka vloggers), Lonelygirl15 appeared to be a troubled teen struggling with the angst of being born into a mysterious religious sect in the US. Many of her postings have received over a million views, as YouTubers became fascinated with the intimate confessions of her personal woes. The fascination was further fuelled by her willingness to converse with fans via YouTube’s comments system.
But then the truth came out. Lonelygirl15 was actually an actress called Jessica Rose, and the videos were created by a pair of film industry hopefuls. Her replies to her YouTube commentators weren’t even written by her. One of the filmmakers’ wives was responsible. Lonelygirl15’s main character, Bree, didn’t really exist. This caused considerable controversy, with vitriolic video attacks and angry comments posted on YouTube – although many continued to enjoy the series. Jessica Rose made the cover of Wired, and the event was widely reported on US news TV shows. She even appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
The makers of Lonelygirl15 have reportedly been able to make a viable living out of the series, despite the main character being killed off in August 2007, due to Jessica Rose’s desire to move on to other projects. The phenomenon is also one of the first examples of dramatic content specifically designed for the Internet, taking advantage of the fast-growing trend towards social networking as well as cheap global video distribution. The Lonelygirl15 series is available on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=lonelygirl15), although initially the now-defunct Revver was the primary video host, chosen for its generous revenue-sharing model. The series also has its own website (www.lonelygirl15.com), making this one series a content channel of its own.
Pretty girls doing quirky things seem to make up a large proportion of the most successful YouTube stars, epitomised by HappySlip (http://www.youtube.com/profile?user=happyslip). This Philippine-American, whose real name is Christine Gambito, has a remarkably expressive face – ideal for the low resolutions of YouTube – and a keen sense of humour. Her videos regularly garner 300,000 or more viewings, and a number have achieved over three million. This is particularly impressive considering that the content is focused on Philippine-American culture, and hard to understand for those not from this background. As a result of her Internet popularity, Gambito has been made a Philippine ambassador for the country’s Department of Tourism.
The UK has its own home-grown stars of the computer screen, too. For example, Katers17, who was a high school student at the time of her main YouTube career, has produced videos that regularly achieved hundreds of thousands of viewers. Her spoof on Tomb Raider (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UzmyAv5n7LE) had been watched nearly 460,000 times at the time of writing – the kind of viewing figures a minor cable TV channel would salivate over. This was a true family business to begin with, too, as her father held the camera for many of the first videos. Perhaps the most curious success of all is Geriatric1927, an octogenarian with a penchant for grumbling about life. His emotional candour and frank admissions about his life have won the hearts of many. Geriatric1927’s first video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_YMigZmUuk) had been viewed nearly 3 million times at the time of writing, and his series Telling it all regularly achieves six-figure followings. This shows that anyone can be an Internet video star.
Despite their multi-million viewers, however, these Web video stars have mostly found it hard to turn their high-profile hobby into a real living. Google does pay a share of advertising revenue to successful YouTubers, and this has enabled a few to make a decent income. The family behind the infamous Charlie Bit My Finger… again! clip, which had been viewed more than 474 million times at the time of writing, according to the Daily Mail made £100,000 from the advertising overlaid on the video, and thousdands more every year from other videos. But this is the exception, rather than the rule. Videos must be viewed millions of times on YouTube before the income from them becomes significant.
Part of the issue here is that the revenue comes exclusively from advertisers, and advertisers like to know if the audience for their ads fits the customer base they wish to reach. You can’t really be sure who will be watching a kitten do something cute on YouTube – the demographic information is too limited. When videos are added to an existing website with a defined audience, however, attaching advertising to the content can garner more significant revenue. With decent rates per 1,000 views on offer for pre-roll advertising on a site with millions of monthly visitors, just a few thousand video views a day can be enough to make video content pay.
UK-based Web video company ChannelFlip has devised a more novel business model still. Originally, ChannelFlip was intended to be the UK’s answer to Revision3. The latter is a US Internet video company that creates a plethora of successful online series, most notably the hugely popular Diggnation, where the founder of website Digg sits on a couch with another presenter to discuss popular Internet stories from Digg. The first programmes on ChannelFlip were a technology show, a games show, a DVD movie release review show and a cooking show, although the latter was dropped after just a couple of episodes.
ChannelFlip really took off when it started to enlist famous names from the world of TV for its programmes. First, TV comic David Mitchell performed short monologues in the series David Mitchell’s Soap Box, but there were also other UK comedy stars and cast members from the popular Red Dwarf TV series, as well as Richard Hammond, one of the presenters of the BBC’s blockbusting car TV show Top Gear. So ChannelFlip has veered significantly away from the original Internet video theme of user-generated content and little-known people becoming Internet famous. It also has a novel model of offering its content to existing sites such as The Guardian Online whilst maintaining its own embedded sponsorship messages. So the audience increases, via reputable sites with clear demographic information, making the sponsorship deals more lucrative. This model proved so successful that News Corporation’s Shine Group bought ChannelFlip for an undisclosed sum in January 2012.
The ChannelFlip story, and the fact that the most successful videos on YouTube are now music videos from the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga, show that corporate interests are getting a grip on the Internet viral video phenomenon. But this doesn’t mean the medium has totally sold out just yet. There is true potential for the propagation of alternative views of news events, for example. The September 11th, 2001 attacks on the New York World Trade Center showed that people in the right place at the right time with a camcorder could gather news which the professionals missed. The only footage of the first plane hitting the towers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpONEX8tme8) was not recorded by a professional news cameraperson. The mobile phone photos and videos of the 7/7 attacks in the UK have further cemented the place of ‘citizen journalism’ as an important element in news reporting in the Internet Age.
Seeing this potential, Channel 5’s news (http://news.five.tv/) offered opportunities for its viewers to upload videos – promising to pay at least £100 for those chosen to be featured. Showing just how serious some are taking citizen journalism, though, ‘former next president of the United States’ Al Gore helped set up a site dedicated to grassroots video news reporting called Current TV (www.current.tv). This site takes a more curated approach to YouTube and other user-generated content sites, with submissions (called ‘Pods’) reviewed by the Current TV team before being allowed on the site. Current TV launched a local UK branch, although this has subsequently been discontinued after BSkyB dropped the broadcast channel from its lineup in March 2012.
The KONY 2012 phenomenon aside, serious issues don’t tend to make it into the top of the most-viewed viral charts just yet, and they probably won’t ever. Many of the favourites may be topical, but it’s usually their quirkiness which makes them popular. Looking at the list prepared by Viral Video Chart (http://www.viralvideochart.com/), it is now mostly music videos which dominate, although this is a change in the last couple of years. Top of the pops for a time in 2007 was Leave Britney Alone ! Chris Crocker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHmvkRoEowc). Over eight million people had watched this less than a week after it was released. Yet it essentially consists of someone pretending to be upset about how Britney Spears has been treated after her dire MTV comeback performance earlier in 2007. It really wasn’t clear why this was such a big hit, garnering more viewers in one week than most soap operas on UK television.
It’s also not clear what the effect is of the hugely unsettling spate of grisly beheading videos found online from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When everyone can make video and upload it onto the Internet, this also includes content which transcends all norms of decency. Depending on your point of view, the display of these videos instills fear in the West, or gives the West the justification it needs for further military action. The notorious popularity of the Bumfights videos, where homeless people were exploited to perform stunts, also found a small but significant audience. So there are clearly negative sides to the Internet video revolution, but none more so than the potential devaluation of professional content, which we will be turning to in the next chapter.