As the decade draws to a close, there’s at least one thing we can say about the social media space with a fairly high level of confidence: it’s here to stay. That said, looking ahead to the next ten years, it’s incredibly hard to predict how we’ll use social media — let alone which services will still be relevant — when we get to 2020.
Already this decade we’ve seen the dramatic rise and fall of numerous social media services. This year’s Facebook could be next year’s Friendster, and even as I write this, there are signs that 2009’s media darling — Twitter — may have already peaked.
But there’s one innovation that in all likelihood won’t only endure, but thrive, in the decade ahead. It’s also the innovation that has most embodied what we’ve come to define as social media since 2000, while at the same time, showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. That innovation is YouTube.
A Perfect Storm
) didn’t even exist for more than half the decade, but a perfect storm of increasing bandwidth, advances in Flash, and the rise of social networks (where YouTube content could be embedded) made 2005 the perfect time for the site to make its debut. The growth was meteoric, and within 18 months, the website became one of the most trafficked on the web and the company was sold to Google for $1.6 billion. Co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen chronicled the moment in this memorable video:
Detractors are quick to point out that a significant portion of YouTube’s growth was due in no small part to the hoards of illegal content that found its way onto the site. They’ll also point to its inability so far to turn a profit. But the legal issues are mostly history, solved through technology and legal maneuvering. And the monetization is starting to come, through continued experimentation with online advertising and new business models we’ll likely see next year. Today, the fact is quite simply that YouTube dominates online video in a way that looks absolutely insurmountable.
How does something “go viral”? In the case of YouTube, an enormous part of it is the ability to embed clips anywhere, from blogs, to social networking profiles, to the front page of popular websites. YouTube pioneered this concept, and today, it’s a driving force behind the collective 1 billion minutes we spend each day watching YouTube clips like this one (NSFW!):
The concept didn’t stop with YouTube though -– almost all forms of content are now embeddable, from documents to music to maps. Technically, it’s one of the most important innovations we’ve seen in social media this decade. But it also means YouTube isn’t dependent on one social network or another to be successful. Just as MySpace (
) and other online communities.
Another trend that has buoyed YouTube is the availability of low-cost video cameras, and the inclusion of video on many mobile phones. Nowhere was the convergence of this trend with the other tides that have lifted YouTube more evident than this summer during the disputed Iran (
) captured of an Iranian woman named Neda bleeding to death in the streets was front page news around the world for days. And while Iran tried aggressively to stop the flow of information out of the country, videos captured on camera phone found their way around the web (both on YouTube and on YouTube-inspired sites) and into the hearts and minds of the outside world. That shocking and disturbing video is embedded here (warning: graphic violence):
We’ve seen the story over and over again in the years since the advent of YouTube. From police brutality to miracle plane landings to crime fighting, YouTube has made everyone a potential journalist and the world a better place for it.
The Internet Famous
Much like YouTube has allowed anyone to be a journalist, it’s also allowed anyone to be an entertainer. And much like how blogs and the web have been incredibly disruptive to print media, online video is becoming incredibly disruptive to television. Who were some of YouTube’s standout performers this decade? Check out this video from earlier this year when Mashable (
)’s Pete Cashmore was a guest on Nightline:
Already, we’re seeing YouTube stars sign lucrative deals with advertisers, record labels, and movie studios. At the same time, consumers are starting to reconsider the need for cable and satellite TV packages thanks to the plethora of video content being made available online, both through YouTube and third-party services that embrace YouTube and other video distributors. Old media has fought back with a number of options, including Hulu (
) and more recently Comcast’s xfinity TV, but in the long-run, online video is YouTube’s race to lose.
The Next 10 Years
YouTube’s biggest threat right now is in fact the old media companies, who are putting content online under their own brands. YouTube’s “professional” content selection remains relatively weak, but that’s likely to change, and as soon as 2010. The company is rumored to be working on both subscription and a la carte options for premium content, and given the vast lead the site has in audience, it’s hard to imagine the media companies not making deals. The music industry already has with Vevo, a re-imagining of YouTube designed for music videos and big brand advertisers:
Beyond that, here’s where else YouTube is likely going in the decade ahead:
To the big screen: There’s a good chance that the next TV you buy will include internet connectivity. And YouTube is prepared for it — earlier this year the company released YouTube XL, a version of the service optimized for the big screen. Coupled with the move towards hosting premium content that you’re used to getting through your cable provider, by the end of the next decade, turning on the TV might simply mean turning on YouTube.
To the small screen: Many smartphones already make it exceptionally easy to view YouTube clips. As smartphones become more widely available and mobile broadband speeds increase around the world, the audience for YouTube will continue to expand — many times over in markets where mobile is more important than the desktop.
Live video: Considered a hobby for early adopters in 2008, live video turned into a new medium for celebrities in 2009, becoming one of the year’s hottest trends. Propelled by integration with social media sites, services like Ustream (
) and Justin.tv have been able to attract hundreds of thousands (and occasionally millions) of viewers to live broadcasts. Don’t expect YouTube to take this lying down. The company has already started experimenting with live video on its own, demonstrating its massive scale with a U2 concert broadcast that garnered 10 million viewers.
The Right Choice?
In a decade that saw social media move from the fringes to the mainstream, YouTube is the innovation that touched the most lives, became a driving force for change around the world, and ultimately ends the decade with an opportunity to be as disruptive in the next 10 years as it was in the past four. That’s why YouTube is our choice for social media innovation of the decade.
Did we get it right? Would you have chosen something else? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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