In the past several months, YouTube has gone from “wha?” to something mainstream enough to be the source of Jay Leno bits. The mainstreaming of YouTube has been formalized by the deal they struck with Warner Music, the first of no doubt several they will be striking with the music labels, despite the bluster from Universal.
Of course, they only faced two choices: go legit or go the Napster route. They went legit, and I get that. We all know what happened to Napster when they fought the power. And yet, I wonder if this means that YouTube has peaked in terms of cultural influence.
Part of it has to do with the technology that they’ve developed:
YouTube’s agreement with Warner hinges on a digital system YouTube is developing to identify automatically copyrighted music or other audio, and related video its users upload. The system relies partly on what’s known as “fingerprinting” — comparing audio uploaded to the site to unique attributes of copyrighted content it already knows.
Essentially, YouTube is developing the digital equivalent of drug-sniffing dogs.
But it seems to me that half of the fun the fun of YouTube was discovering old Hüsker Dü videos or clips from Late Night with David Letterman, and once the drug-sniffing dog learns and starts getting content like this removed, that’s going to be a drag.
This also means that there is a possibility that there will be less stuff bubbling up from the underground as there once was. Once people realize that the next video from OK Go — the one with the weightless trapeze routine — is full-budget and major-label backed, and maybe even used CGI or a stunt double, will it seem as cool as the ones filmed by the guys’s sister?
And what about the possibility, as YouTube goes more legit, of users being forced to watch commercials in front of the videos? And if you want to get really paranoid, I can see them following the money to the point where they become purely a outlet for its content partners, banning user-generated content entirely.
That seems unthinkable now, but look how fast it took MTV to go from all videos, all of the time to no videos, none of the time.
Of course, none of this has happened, and if it did, you could send your lipsynching videos somewhere else. But my guess is that there would be so many “somewhere elses” that there would be no unifying flash point. And I bet that hardcore YouTube junkies would bemoan the salad days of 2006 in the same way hardcore Napster users still pine for that magical time when you could get the advance version of Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia.
So in a way, maybe they could end up like Napster, after all.