TECHSPLOITATION By the time you read this, the meme “GooTube” will already be dead. Everyone will have stopped talking about the freakishly large amount of money Google paid for video-sharing Web site YouTube. They will therefore no longer need to refer to this event as if it were a celebrity marriage like Bennifer or Brangelina.
Despite this extremely desirable state of affairs for the English language, we will nevertheless remain perplexed and obsessed with Google’s latest bid to make all forms of digital expression searchable.
I wouldn’t mind the “make the world searchable” thing if it weren’t for the part where Google accomplishes this laudable goal by owning everything in the world first. As thousands of YouTube contributors have already pointed out grumpily, somebody should be paying them part of that $1.6 billion. Really, somebody should.
Let’s pretend for a minute, however, that Google didn’t buy YouTube for its stellar content. Let’s say — and I know I’m being crazy here, but bear with me — that Google bought YouTube for its audience of millions. News Corp. bought MySpace for the same reason last year. Like News Corp., Google wanted eyeballs, not a bunch of movies with cats freaking out and kids drinking milk until they barf.
Alright, let’s face it: you are the real reason why Google paid all that money to YouTube. And by “you” I mean the person who watched the milk barf video, then watched a bunch of clips from The Colbert Report and briefly searched for videos tagged “kaiju porn.” As those people who are done using the word “GooTube” have already pointed out, Google no doubt plans to turn YouTube into another place to paper with ads, sort of like Gmail or its search engine. It’ll monetize your eyeballs if it’s the last thing it does.
Another possible reason why Google bought YouTube is because it fits with the company’s copyright reformist agenda. Google has already been testing the limits of corporate activism in the copy wars with its frankly awesome Google Book Search. This controversial project, which led to a lot of legal chest-thumping in the publishing industry, allows people to search the full text of thousands of books. Maybe YouTube will be a kind of Google Book for movies, with fully-searchable videos that allow artists, students, and film geeks to appreciate the motion picture in a whole new way.
Even if Google hadn’t intended YouTube to be another Google Book, the media industry is treating it that way. Time Warner president Dick Parsons told the London Guardian last week that his company intends to get its copyright complaints about YouTube “kicked up to the Google level.” And by that I don’t think he means the level where you get free espresso and a lava lamp for your desk.
So Google bought you when it bought YouTube, and it also bought itself a legal headache that will hopefully lead to some better laws around digital copyright. What are you getting out of the deal? Frankly, worse than nothing. You probably won’t see the benefits from Google’s copy war anytime soon. And worst of all, I predict you’ll lose one of the best things about YouTube when Google forces it to submit to the old “make it fully searchable” regime.
The thing is, YouTube isn’t about searchability. You don’t go there to plug in a search term and find information. You go there for the same reason you go to the local independent movie theater — you want a place where somebody has put together a unique and bizarre lineup of films to watch. YouTube rules because of users who act like the owners of very tiny movie theaters or cable stations by finding cool videos and posting them on their “channels.”
These people offer findability, which is practically the opposite of searchability. When you search, you have to already know what you want to find. You have to plug in “espresso” or “fainting goats.” Findability means that you can discover things for which you’d never dream of searching. Findability is what YouTube has now, and what Google has never had.
So what will you lose when Google turns YouTube into one of its searchable data troves? You may lose the ability to find a video of a beautiful thing you never knew existed. SFBG
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who was once offered $1.6 billion for her Web 2.0 company, but she said, “No way, man. I’m not gonna sell out, ’cause I gotta keep the AJAX real, just like it is on the street.”