YouTube is undergoing the most profound shift in its history — licensing original programming from new creative partners. If that sounds like a bid to become a traditional television network, think again. YouTube's mission is to revolutionize the medium, transforming all of us into active participants in TV culture.

Written by
Tetsuhiko Endo
April 2012

The sweeping sub- divisions of San Bruno, California, are sandwiched between the city of San Francisco and its airport. There is a shopping mall at its heart and a highway through its belly. Toward its western edge, perched atop a gentle hill overlooking a nondescript business park, sits the world headquarters of YouTube.

Though outwardly unassuming, inside it's a hive of activity, as befits the largest video archive in the world. Many of the several hundred people who work here are imbued with a distinct sense of purpose, as if by hosting more footage each month than the three major American television networks created in their first 60 years of business, they form part of a greater movement whose possibilities are only just beginning to come into focus.

There is no historical precedent for the scope or creative potential that exists in YouTube's vast digital databanks, but there is a literary one. In 1941, Jorge Luis Borges published the short story, The Library of Babel, which describes an infinite library that holds an infinite number of books containing every possible combination of letters. The library, as Borges wrote, was a repository of 'everything.'

YouTube isn't that large, but it's growing every second. "YouTube is a reflection of our entire pop culture," says the platform's Trends Manager Kevin Allocca. "Almost anything that happens in the world plays out, in some way, on YouTube."

Think back to three of the largest news events of 2011 — the tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. What kinds of images come to mind? "In our memories, those things play out on cell phone cameras and YouTube videos," says Allocca, seemingly a little surprised by the notion himself. In other words, you've already started to see the world through YouTube, even if you've never logged on to the site.

Every minute, 60 hours of new video are uploaded to YouTube. That means every day of real time contains almost a year of YouTube time submitted from countries around the world. This fact was given stunning clarity by Sundance favorite Life in a Day, which saw Hollywood heavyweights Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald compile and cut 4,500 hours of user-submitted videos from 192 different countries into a globe-spanning account of a single day on earth. Co-branded with YouTube, it's a creation that uniquely reflects the platform. At just over two hours, it is much less than a day, but in its scope and communal effort much more, too. It is candid, yet fantastical: This is how real people experience a day, but not how a single real person could ever experience a day. It is also a neat metaphor for the core creative strength of the platform — interactive communities.

Communities are responding to each other. Someone makes a video, then others respond to it or remix it in some way. That is a different kind of entertainment. There isn't an analog from 50 or 100 years ago. It's a brave new world.

"For the last 150 years, anything outside of our immediate experience we learned about through mass media," says Frank Rose. Rose is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and author of The Art of Immersion: How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories. His book deals with the new ways in which consumers want to be engaged, and touches on everything from computer games to ad campaigns. "That was a very powerful thing, but it's even more powerful when it becomes something that people can create themselves — It means that you're not necessarily dependent on other people to tell you what's going on."

A girl in California doesn't just watch music videos, she choreographs them. A young man in Egypt doesn't witness riots in Tahrir Square, he captures them on his smartphone, potentially creating millions more witnesses in the process. These people are active content consumers. Not satisfied to simply observe media like their exclusively television-raised, passive parents, they want to be a part of it: To touch it, feel it, add to, subtract from, and shape it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they are compelled to share it.

"These communities are responding to each other," says Professor Gary Edgerton. Edgerton is a media scholar at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and author of the book, The Columbia History of American Television. "Someone makes a video, then others respond to it or remix it in some way. That is a different kind of entertainment. There isn't an analog from 50 or 100 years ago. It's a brave new world."

"One of the things that has developed in tandem with the growth of YouTube is that pop culture is now a participatory thing rather than a passive thing," says Allocca. In this culture, what people are participating in is often secondary to the act of participation itself. "It could be almost anything," he asserts. "Every time a new movie comes out, for instance, there is always a ton of activity around it, whether people are watching trailers or making their own trailers.

"The royal wedding is a good example. People are watching the wedding, they're making their own videos of it, they're watching the T-Mobile version of the wedding [which spoofed legendary YouTube video 'JK Wedding Entrance Dance,' replacing a real couple with royal lookalikes dancing their way down the aisle. The ad racked up over 25 million views and earned a spot in Ad Age's Top Viral Advertising Campaigns of 2011]. It's not enough to just watch the event. You become a part of it by enjoying other takes on it, other points of view. And that trend extends to all parts of culture. The thing about YouTube and participatory pop culture is that you feel as much ownership of something becoming popular as the person who created it."

For a brand, the result can be a significant increase in the effectiveness of its communications. Delivering the keynote speech at CES in January, Robert Kyncl, Vice President of TV and Entertainment at Google, highlighted the example of Coca-Cola, which embraced the creative potential of YouTube in 2011. Coke's official videos received over 30 million views last year, but that was only a fraction of its online presence. By encouraging users to create their own content inspired by its work, Coke-related videos racked up 120 million views. "By allowing fans to incorporate its brand in their work, Coke is amplifying its message and expanding its reach for free," explained Kyncl. "And doing it in a way that's both authentic and impossible on TV today."

The sociological alchemy that underlies the process of something 'going viral' continues to perplex new media scholars. "What's most fascinating to me about it is just that it occurs in the first place — it's an emergent happening," says Rose. "We are used to ad campaigns and publicity campaigns, and we are used to incredible resources and incredible amounts of money being used to make people go see a movie or vote for a candidate. But the idea that it can happen automatically is almost magical. It shows that there is a whole different kind of programming that people will respond to that is not like TV. It's unbridled creativity that doesn't follow the rules and doesn't do what you are taught to expect from watching TV for years and years. It's really powerful and important."

In what is perhaps the most profound shift in its short history, YouTube is now hoping to take the interactive ethos that it has pioneered in pop culture and make it work in professional programming. By licensing original content from newly signed creative partners including Madonna, comedian Amy Poehler, and spiritual doctor Deepak Chopra, YouTube hopes to transform the way in which we relate to visual media.

"We are seeing a convergence in all mediums of storytelling and it's really exciting. We're not just looking at more specific content, but also a level of interactivity that is going to be the future of content consumption going forward."

Anthony Zuiker, creator of the hit TV series CSI, has signed on with a channel called BlackBoxTV that will focus on sci-fi, horror, and thriller content. No stranger to the world of interactivity and immersion, one of Zuiker's first YouTube projects was a 'digi-novel' in 2009 that used video clips to advance the plot between chapters. "We need to get BlackBoxTV off the ground before we deal with interactivity, so stage one is original content, but stage two is going to be about reinventing the medium," he says. "We're seeing a convergence in all mediums of storytelling and it's really exciting. We're not just looking at more specific content, but also a level of interactivity that is going to be the future of content consumption going forward."

The interactivity he's alluding to has already happened organically for some television shows. Zuiker points to Lost; a series that encouraged its fan base to interact with the mysteries presented on-screen. "[Fans] would take scenes from eight seasons of the show and stream them together in one video to show what was happening second-by-second in the initial plane crash that occurs in the pilot episode, often with split screens to watch things that happened simultaneously. It shows the depths of people's fascinations and the ability of people to indulge those fascinations," he says.

But Zuiker is also quick to confirm that interactivity does not mean the death of traditional storytelling: "I think there will always be original, linear content but what it's going to turn into is the integration of more user-generated content like multiple endings, or plot suggestions that are contributed interactively and create a daily experience that offers the option to consume linearly but also to 'gamify' content in a way that is perfectly apropos with the device you are consuming it on. I want to tell stories that are '5D' in terms of interactivity."

Online series are only the tip of the iceberg. At the Dance@Live final on a blistering Saturday in September, hundreds of hip-hop dancers from Asia, Europe, and North America crammed into a club on Tokyo's waterfront to compete against each other. What was striking was the similarities in their styles and repertoires. In a 2010 TED Talk, the filmmaker Jonathan Chu said: "Dancers have created a whole global laboratory online. Kids in Japan are taking moves from a YouTube video created in Detroit, building on it within days and releasing a new video, while teenagers in California are taking the Japanese video and remixing it to create a whole new dance style."

In a subsequent speech, TED curator Chris Anderson called this an example of 'crowd-accelerated innovation.' Many niche subcultures have benefited from the phenomenon, but the YouTube team in San Bruno are more interested in how the same principles can be applied to much larger audiences. "There is this incredible opportunity for YouTube not just to be an archive of the human experience, but also to be this really wonderful knowledge center," says Angela Lin, head of YouTube Education, which started as a volunteer project and has since grown into over 700 channels of educational content. "Not only has it become a teaching aid," says Lin, "but we have seen a large growth in peer-to-peer learning. Seeing someone do something, even if it's in another country, compels you to do better or build off that, whether it's dancing or medicine."

Borges' Library of Babel drove many of its inhabitants to depression or hysteria because it was too large and all encompassing to understand. But however daunting YouTube appears today, it will only come more clearly into focus as we begin to realize its creative potential. It may be an archive of human experiences, but it is also shaping the experiences we'll have in the future.

Adrienne Russell, an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Studies at the University of Denver, believes that we will inevitably come to understand the medium better as our media consumption habits change. "People are creating new genres of broadcast media: Responding, mixing, creating memes, etc.," she says. "All of these examples point to engagement really shifting the way people see themselves and the way they engage in public life. It's not like voting or going door-to-door and having someone sign a petition. It makes a much richer environment for all of us on a societal level."