Why we're all going down the Tube...
John Costello on the internet phenomenon that is loved by billions -- but still can't seem to make any money
Published 17/10/2009 | 05:00
This month alone we will have watched 2,150 years of video on YouTube. That's over 30 billion videos, with an average length of two minutes, 46 seconds. By the time it took you to read those figures another 100 hours of video will have been uploaded onto the site.
That's 20 hours of footage uploaded every second, featuring laughing babies, cute kittens, puerile pranks, celebrity clangers and, apparently, feuding Limerick gangs taunting each other.
The eye-popping statistics were released as the company celebrated the third anniversary of the deal that saw Google pay $1.65bn for the pleasure of owning a website still waiting to turn a profit.
Indeed, the world's favourite video website is predicted to lose $470m this year by Spencer Want, a Credit Suisse analyst. No surprise, then, that Time Magazine has included YouTube in its list of 'The 10 Biggest Tech Failures of the Last Decade'.
While the site may be on course to generate $240m in revenue, the costs associated with storing such massive volumes of video comes to an estimated $711m.
So is YouTube just an expensive way to waste time or is there a crock of gold at the end of its rainbow of content?
The first clip shown on YouTube, back in April 2005, was an uninspiring 19-second insight into elephants. It was posted by Jawed Karim, one of the three founders of the site, who can be seen standing in front of an elephant enclosure at a zoo wearing a geeky anorak and saying: "The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really long trunks. And that's pretty much all there is to say."
Karim (30) and co-founders Steve Chen (31) and Chad Hurley (33) met while working at internet payment company, PayPal.
They were inspired to develop the website that would quickly make them billionaires after realising how difficult it was to share video clips they'd taken at a dinner party. They wanted to create a site to make casual video sharing quick and easy.
Originally, YouTube was intended to be a video version of HOTorNOT.com, a dating site that encourages users to score, on a scale of 1 to 10, the attractiveness of potential mates. Early versions of its home page had fields asking your gender and the gender and ages of people you were "seeking".
But when YouTube went live the founders simply sat back and let users dictate what content they wanted to share. Soon the site was producing sensations like the time-lapse documentary of Noah Kalina taken over 2,356 days simply entitled 'Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for Six Years'. While a little thin on plot, the video racked up more than three million views in six weeks.
The current YouTube hit being viewed by hordes is UK postman Mike Izzard filmed by colleagues moonwalking at a sorting office to Michael Jackson's classic song 'Billie Jean'.
The YouTube phenomenon has generated a plethora of cyber celebrities since it was launched, as well as giving a popularity boost to established stars.
Pop sirens Rihanna and Avril Lavigne are amongst the celebrities whose clips have had the most views on the video sharing website.
The promotional video for Rihanna's hit single 'Please Don't Stop The Music' has been viewed over 100 million times.
Canadian pop-punk chanteuse Avril Lavigne has notched up a staggering 127 million hits on the site for the video of her smash hit 'Girlfriend'.
Even the most unlikely of people can make it big thanks to YouTube. Britain's Got Talent winner Susan Boyle was unknown outside the UK and Ireland until a clip of her first performance on the show was uploaded in April. It quickly became a web hit, having been viewed 76.9 million times to date.
The huge success of YouTube makes sense when you consider nearly a third of us have a desire to create and share content online, according to a recent study by Accenture.
"If you aren't posting, you don't exist," says Rishad Tobaccowala, CEO of Denuo, a new media consultancy, of generation YouTube.
"People say, 'I post, therefore I am'."
But while it may be a pastime for millions, for some making videos for YouTube means making a living. In fact, 20-something Cory Williams from California, known as smpfilms on YouTube, claims to earn as much as $20,000 a month by producing infomercials with his camcorder as part of the site's Partner Programme.
Half his profits come from advertisements placed beside the content he produces, while the other half comes from sponsorship and product placement within his videos.
Williams' big break came in September 2007 when his music video parody called 'The Mean Kitty Song', starring his cat, was viewed more than 15 million times. The phenomenal viewing figures enabled him to sell advertising space to the likes of Coca-Cola.
With only 3pc of videos on YouTube supported by advertising the site hopes its Partner Programme will provide a partial solution to its nagging profit problem.
Even though YouTube gets 10 times the number of video views as any other video-sharing website, it has proven to be hard to profit from videos posted by anonymous users who may or may not own the copyright to the content they upload.
However, YouTube's fortunes could be about to change as it is rumoured to be on the brink of signing a deal with Channel 4. The British broadcaster has negotiated the right to sell its own advertising around its content on YouTube and share the revenue with the Google-owned site.
The Channel 4 service is expected to offer users a 30-day window for viewing its broadcast content -- it already offers the service via its 4 on Demand website. YouTube already has similar full-length content deals in the US and has publicly expressed interest in signing other such deals worldwide.
Indeed, it seems only by adding high quality, professionally produced content that YouTube will turn its billions of viewers into billions of dollars.
Because, without the help of the likes of Hollywood and Channel 4, the simple truth is that, just like if you put a million monkeys in a room with a million typewriters you are unlikely to get Shakespeare, putting a million humans together with a million camcorders and a million computers currently means all you get is YouTube.