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YouTube users keep dialogue running

October 23, 2006|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writers

A clue to why Google Inc. spent a king's ransom on YouTube Inc. this month can be found in a silly, two-minute clip posted to the video-sharing site hours after the $1.65-billion deal.

Standing outside a TGI Friday's restaurant in San Bruno, Calif., YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley pronounced in a shaky video that "two kings have gotten together," prompting co-founder Steve Chen to burst out laughing.

More than just the youthful swagger of millionaire twentysomethings, the clip was an inside joke: Hurley was lampooning a video by rapper Diddy announcing the debut of his own YouTube channel while ordering a Whopper at Burger King.

"When two kings get together, you know they gotta do it in a special way," Diddy said, inspiring dozens of mocking videos in response from YouTube members who thought the rapper was invading their turf.

The self-referential satire of the "Message From Chad and Steve" highlights what separates YouTube from the other online video sites: It's a community where the videos are part of a running conversation between members.

To Google, that community is worth potentially far more than the bootlegged video clips and amateur movies that built YouTube's audience of 63 million. Among fickle online audiences, loyalty is prized.

"What's so unique about YouTube is that most of the content on the site is this conversation between people," said Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who has studied social networks. "The interesting thing is that the conversations are happening in videos."

Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., called that the "secret sauce" that could help YouTube fend off competition from the rash of other video-sharing services.

"You can't go out and build features to substitute for community," she said.

YouTube gained widespread notoriety not for its original short-form content but for popular television shows that users uploaded to the site, such as the "Lazy Sunday" skit from NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

These clips attracted millions of viewers -- and some believe that they explain the site's continued popularity. Although surreptitiously posted segments of popular TV shows such as "The Colbert Report" continue to draw an audience, YouTube has increasingly built a following around such home-grown celebrities as LonelyGirl15 and LisaNova.

"Online communities for teens, a lot of them, including MySpace, are a lot like nightclubs," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication's Center for the Digital Future. "When the uncool kids start showing up or, God forbid, your parents, you're out of there. YouTube might be different. This is the place people go to share their lives."

The videotaped musings of LonelyGirl15, who presented herself as Bree, a shy, home-schooled 16-year-old with strict, religious parents, drew hundreds of thousands of viewers each week. After four months, she was revealed to be Jessica Rose, a New Zealand-raised actress playing a role -- provoking a strong reaction from those in the community, some of whom had been drawn in by the plight of the sheltered girl and felt betrayed.

"The thing I like about YouTube is that it's real people," said a 33-year-old user called monkeyfemme, in a video recorded from her front porch and posted on the site. "I want to hear about people's lives. I want to hear people's opinions. I want to hear about good things in the world and hear about bad things that we need to hear about so that we can try and make a difference. I don't really want to turn to YouTube for a soap opera. If I wanted to do that, I'd turn on the TV."

New celebrities since emerged in LonelyGirl15's place -- including a 79-year-old widower from England who calls himself Geriatric1927. Peter sits in his brown V-neck sweater, eyes closed behind an enormous pair of eyeglasses, and recounts his life story, his years as a schoolboy, growing up during World War II, and his love of motorcycles.

"I got addicted to YouTube," Peter said in a video labeled "First Try." "It's a fascinating place to go to see all the wonderful videos that you young people have produced, so I thought I'd have a go at doing one myself. But as you can see, if this ever does get uploaded to YouTube, I need a lot of help."

Peter's low-key yarns have attracted more than 1 million views and elicited thousands of responses.

When they announced the acquisition, Google executives said they were happy with how their own service, Google Video, allowed people to upload and watch clips. But they said YouTube had become the clear leader in assembling an active community around videos, which presented a big business opportunity and gave Google more advertising inventory.

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