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Generation YouTube

The video-sharing site has become more than entertainment:
It’s a generational icon.

By Sarah Klein

By now everyone knows all about YouTube, the viral video-sharing site your kids just can’t get enough of. You know it’s entertaining and funny and you know you can find just about anything—from staged Harry Potter puppet shows to sensational guitar playing. But what is it about YouTube that has got kids turning off the TV and turning on the computer screen?

An estimated 40 million viewers visit YouTube monthly, watching over 100 million clips a day. Worldwide, visitors watched 5 billion videos in July 2008 alone! They surf around the site watching anything from clumsy animals, cackling babies, and music videos to sports highlights, political debates, and television parodies.

Of course, the amount, variety, and creativity of content are what appeal to viewers. But the ease with which you can find anything you might be looking for is what draws in visitors and keeps them coming back for more.

And it’s not hard to understand why kids love it. Just a few minutes perusing the site reveals the pranks, tricks, laughs, and gasps that today’s kids and teens live and breathe for. Video sharing quickly has become one of the most important parts of not only Internet culture, but kid culture.

So What’s New?

In the last couple of years, YouTube has been dogged by legal issues and claims of copyright infringement, so the site now has deals with major entertainment companies to bring full-length movies and shows to online viewers. Although YouTube still hasn’t totally cleared the air with Hollywood, viewers can now watch feature films and primetime shows they may have missed the first time around.

Unlike downloading movies on iTunes or another pay-to-play video site, everything on YouTube is still free to watch, but now there’s the small addition of ads running alongside the videos. Unlike TV commercials, the ads don’t interrupt the videos—except for the occasional pop up message—but just like TV commercials, online ads can have powerful and persuading messages that you wouldn’t immediately expect your son or daughter to be seeing when surfing the Internet.

Safety and Privacy

Thanks to the site’s surprisingly robust community rules, parents can be somewhat confident that their kids aren’t being bombarded with violence, sex, or other inappropriate content. Users are encouraged to flag offending videos, alerting staffers to review the clips in question and take them down if necessary.

And, according to YouTube itself, those younger than 13 shouldn’t even be on the site in the first place. If your kids do use YouTube, strict privacy rules should apply: Don’t let them reveal anything—in text or video form—that they wouldn’t want the rest of the world to see. And because ads are meant to attract viewers and sell a product, make sure your kids know the difference between a professional ad and a user-generated video.

More Than Just A Good Laugh

With the new content-sharing deals and the introduction of ads, YouTube is evolving into more than the carefree entertainment site it once was. The most popular videos, viewed tens—even hundreds—of millions of times, have lists of comments that stretch nearly as long as their view-counts. Visitors don’t just leave their thoughts, but respond to others’ as well, turning each video into its own discussion-riddled message board. Newly uploaded videos can even be posted as responses to others, creating a tangled web of communication threading its way across the site.

And the communication on the site isn’t just between kids; YouTube itself is getting involved. When someone signs up for an account, YouTube will remember their viewing patterns and, when they next visit, will promote videos similar to the ones watched last time. Logging into a personal account also gives kids options like making a QuickList. There, they can pre-pick their favorite videos to play seamlessly, from one clip to the next, without any additional clicks.

I Want My YouTV?

With so many returning viewers, it’s understandable why YouTube’s parent, Google, has started to capitalize on this traffic goldmine with its advertising networks. But what does this commercial shift mean for the future of YouTube and its millions of predominantly young fans? YouTube is increasingly used as a promotional tool. Visitors who upload their own videos to the site—there are an estimated 65,000 new postings a day—can be anyone, which is admittedly part of the fun. But now more than ever before, they include professionals with a product to sell, whether it’s a movie, a new album, or a video game.

These promotional videos can easily blend in with user-generated content. Professionally produced content has had to become increasingly creative in order to attract viewers, because, let’s face it, if your child was watching TV, he’d probably change the channel!

The trailer for the movie The Spirit could very well have been posted by any teenage fan of movies like Sin City or 300, but it’s actually straight from the source: Some research into the user profile shows it’s classified by YouTube as a sponsor. With almost 2 million views in its first two days on the site—making it the most viewed video of the day—the presentation has clearly paid off. As other advertisers scramble for some of the limelight, it’s impossible to tell what tomorrow’s top video will be.

Kids and teens might not always know when they’re watching a homemade goody or a well thought-out ad campaign, but to them it doesn’t really matter. They can watch whatever they want, they are entertained, and they’re connected to a broader community of other kids with similar interests.

With the ability for these kids to learn about pop culture and connect with one another, it’s hard not to compare YouTube to another trail-blazing media outlet for kids—MTV. The cable network redefined the music industry for kids and teens growing up in the 80s. The “I want my MTV” slogan was as embedded in society as this guy’s dance moves are today.

MTV became a virtual breeding ground for promotions, bringing together artists and fans to completely revolutionize pop culture, fashion, music, and how youngsters learned about all these things. But as the MTV Generation grows up, and the network closes the curtains on former staples like TRL, the YouTube Generation has taken over and the video-sharing pioneer remains poised for continued success.

Sarah Klein is a freelance writer for both print and online media living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured in Health.com, Sports Illustrated Kids, and Scholastic Classroom Magazines. To read more of her work, visit SarahKleinWrites.com.


Comment by FrancineL, posted 12/10/2008, 8:06 AM:

I am amazed at how much YouTube is used for marketing and promotional purposes - all my kids are watching commercials made for YouTube and I am not sure how I feel about that - I think companies should be honest about producing commercials so users know what they're watching. What does the OnlineMom think?
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