5 Truths of the YouTube Age

YouTube is celebrating not only turning five, but reaching 2 billion views per day.  In the decade before YouTube, internet publishing and blogging had become commonplace.  But though the internet had long been a place where anyone could put their work out there (as long as they didn’t mind not getting paid for it), YouTube’s video sharing platform – along with technology that made quality video devices cheaper – turned everyone into a video producer.  Anyone could be Cecil B. DeMille.

That said, not everyone can effectively communicate on YouTube.

1.  Video is now essential to message delivery.

Political communication has always been a matter of telling stories, and no medium can tell a story like video. In 1960, the story of the cool, collected, and telegenic JFK as the harbinger of a new political generation was cemented by his now-famous debate performance; in 2008, the story of Barack Obama as the idealistic, optimistic harbinger of a new political generation was cemented by a music video adapted from one of his speeches that seized upon the phrase, “Yes We Can.”

Politicians can try to position themselves with stump speeches and media appearances, and their surrogates can attempt to provide “objective” support.  People believe what they see.  That makes effective online video a must-have.

The reality of modern politics is that if you can’t make your case in a YouTube video, you have no chance of winning the hearts and minds of the public.

2.  Brevity is art.

Part of the “effectiveness” factor is being able to boil an argument down to the point where it fits in a two-to-five-minute video clip.  Case in point: one citizen activist was able, in 1:38, to sum up just how insignificant a 2009 federal budget cut proposal was:

3.  The best ideas come from others.

The best part about YouTube is the opportunity for participation from the initiated, regardless of their “official” role.  Obama’s nascent 2008 campaign had a lot of energy, yet it was tough for people to discern exactly what kind of change he offered.  All Democrats were, in fact, plugging away at that theme after eight years of a Republican administration.  But one Obama supporter – whose involvement in the campaign was tangential, though his enthusiasm wasn’t – summed it up by repurposing a famous 1984 Macintosh commercial:

The Obama campaign could not have cut this ad – it’s too direct, and it uses images and clips which are most likely protected by copyright.  By supporting user generated content like this, YouTube invited a new level of citizen participation.

4.  Compelling content is the most important factor in attracting an audience.

Never has publishing content been easier.  Yet because of this, never has it been more important to create quality content: media consumers have plenty of choices.

And don’t let the lists of the most-viewed YouTube videos that tend to focus on music videos fool you: quality viewers are more important than total viewers.  If New York voters see George Allen call an opponent’s campaign volunteer a word that sounds like an ethnic slur, they may be offended.  If Virginia voters see it, they can actually take action and vote against him (which they did).

5.  Online video is a social experience

It’s counter-intuitive: We think of the internet as this highly personalized frontier, where each user has the utmost control over the news he or she reads or the entertainment he or she consumes.  Humans are social beings, and the internet augments that.

YouTube’s comments, video responses, subscriptions, and other site tools make it more than a place to post and share media; YouTube is a social network built on user connections.

But more that, YouTube success is based on the ability of an idea to pass from one person to another.  High-ranked YouTube videos don’t amass viewers from independent searches, they come from recommendations.  It’s the most obvious viral medium.

Just make sure you don’t say anything stupid.

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