Like the rest of you, I shudder when I receive forwarded e-mail of dubious origin. My fear is that even if it's not spam, it must be a virus waiting to be unleashed on my system. So when I recently got an e-mail with a cryptic "FW:"—and nothing else—in the subject line, I almost pushed delete. Then I realized what the e-mail was about.
A kid from my hometown in New Jersey had become a pseudo-celebrity because of his video, "Crazy Asian Mother." In the spoof, Erick Liang, 17, tells his mom about a report card featuring a single B+ amid a sea of As. What started as a school project was later posted on YouTube and has since received more than 2 million hits and 4,200 user comments.
And the list is growing. Already one of the most popular video-sharing sites on the Web, YouTube now lets users create their own "channel," similar to a personal homepage. The site's channel option allows wannabe stars, or anyone with interesting or offbeat footage, to showcase their videos from a centralized location.
COUNTLESS CLIPS. The new feature gave me a great excuse for taking a closer look at YouTube, the subject of the first in a series of BusinessWeek.com reviews of popular video-sharing and rental sites.
In short, YouTube provides one of the largest collections of free video clips on the Web (70 million on any give day). Even when you've honed your searching skills, it can be a lot harder to find content that's deeply informative than it is to find clips that are downright funny, odd, or titillating.
But if it's entertainment you're after, look no further. YouTube also has plenty of user-friendly tools for uploading, sharing, and showcasing your handiwork.
MY OWN VIDEO. I kicked off my test run by setting up my own page. Tapping into the channel creation section is like walking into a paint store. I chose an overall color scheme—the appropriately named, obnoxiously bright Orange A Peel—along with shades for every detail, from link text to background to font. Because I apparently wasn't paying enough attention in high school art, my background overpowered some of my text, obscuring two key pieces of data: my user and channel names.
But for those less challenged in this area, there are a number of ways to customize your channel, as is the case on MySpace, Facebook, or any other networking site. You can include basic personal information, as well as other content such as favorite videos and user comments. Users can also have lists of friends, join interest groups, and subscribe to other people's channels, giving the experience even more of a peer-to-peer feel.
Creating a profile is only part of the appeal of YouTube. The big draw, of course, is choosing from the millions of videos hosted on the site each day. They range from the entertaining—a Stanford University cafeteria worker dancing to a Britney Spears song, for example—to the downright bizarre—a guy swallowing a penny, making it travel down to his arm, and then cutting the coin out with a knife.
HARD TO SEARCH. Each day, videos are broadcast to some 6 million unique viewers. That number has jumped significantly since December, when 60,000 videos were being uploaded daily by 3 million people. The number and variety of videos alone is plenty of reason to spend oodles of time on YouTube.
Still, scads of videos are useless without a way to search them. After finishing my channel, I thought I'd check out Liang's video, figuring that would give me a sense of how easy it is to find what you're looking for. But until I figured out navigation strategies, finding what I wanted was frustrating and difficult. I typed the name of the video into the home page's search box and each time saw no results. I knew that he and his piece of work existed, so what could possibly be wrong? Turns out quotation marks don't work in this particular YouTube search tool.
I typed in the title without quotation marks and finally found a match. Actually, I found about 18 matches—the real video, a handful of tributes, and a few that at a glance had nothing to do with the video (e.g., Bad Day Basketball, Cone & Cross's Peanut Butter Jelly Time, and The Reaper Full Movie). Luckily, I only found a handful of matches. But what if I had typed in a longer name that produced more results? I definitely wouldn't feel like sifting through hundreds of videos in search of one.
BROWSING IS BETTER. You can also search using the "Categories" tab. This more advanced function lets you use quote marks and multiple words or phrases. To make things easier for users, YouTube should have something to the effect of "Search by Category" on the top of the page to let users know that this is the best way to search. To find Liang's video via the categories section, I clicked on "Comedy" and typed in Liang's name and the title of the video.
I only found two results this time. The site has how-to guides on such tasks as making and uploading videos and tips for online safety. But I couldn't find any tips on tailoring a search.
Then I started playing around with more categories and searches. Dreaming of my next vacation, I found gorgeous videos of people surfing in Hawaii. It was easy to find beautiful landscapes, the beach, and shots of hula dancers, but I didn't find anything useful regarding hotels or weather.
CRAZY CONTENT. On the contrary, much of the site's content is funny, weird, and random—and not of the best quality either. I encountered everything from a cat licking a woman's hand to a girl trying to get a caterpillar off her shirt to people reciting strange poetry to teenagers taking "shots" of syrup.
Though they were definitely entertaining, many of the videos were blurry and sound quality was poor because creators were first-timers. Music videos, sports, and entertainment pieces were more professionally shot and easier to view, for the most part. Still, most viewers go to YouTube for entertainment purposes.
Overall, once I figured out how to use the categories section, finding a video was easy. Compared to Uth TV—another media-sharing site—YouTube allows more targeted searches. On Uth, you can only search by the type of media you're looking to find and four types of channels—indie, comedy, lifestyle, and music. YouTube organizes videos into 12 categories, including Entertainment, Music, News & Blogs, and People.
EASY UPLOADS. An area where YouTube shines is in sharing videos. Uploading can take as little as a few minutes, depending on the size of your video. The first step is entering information about your piece—title, description, tags, and category. At the end of that step, there's a warning to avoid uploading copyrighted content that you do not have permission to submit (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/27/06, "Whose Video Is It, Anyway?"). Next, you upload the video. The maximum file size is 100 megabytes, and the maximum length is 10 minutes.
To download videos, you click on the title. Seconds later, the video pops up on your monitor. YouTube also lets you know about interesting and funny videos each day with a "Featured Videos" box on the homepage. This way, you can always view something fresh.
Whether you're looking for a few laughs or a clip from a sports game, YouTube is the place to go. It has the largest stock of any video-sharing site out there, 12 categories to surf through, and user pages for a more personalized feel. Though at first it might be hard to find what you're looking for, using the categories tab to search makes viewing a lot simpler.