Keeping YouTube's edginess may be Google's greatest challenge

Ryan Blitstein and Elise Ackerman [San Jose Mercury News]

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Just hours after they announced their 20-month-old company, YouTube, had been sold to Google for $1.65 billion, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen stood outside a San Bruno, Calif., TGI Friday's and recorded a video to thank their users.

"This is great, two kings have gotten together," said a swaggering Hurley. "The king of search and the king of video have gotten together. We're going to have it our way."

Not a standard announcement for a major corporate acquisition, but YouTube, of course, is not a standard corporation. And that will be one of the main challenges facing Google as it adds the world's largest online video site to its growing empire: how to keep the edginess that has made YouTube so popular while also attracting advertisers wary of controversy. How to make money, but not sell out. How, in other words, to make sure YouTube can stay YouTube.

Reaction to the Hurley/Chen video from some of the 560,000 YouTubers who watched illustrates the challenge.

"Aw i think youtube is gunna be ruined now," Smilelikeyouremo wrote. "Goodbye, Youtube. Hello, Google Video 2," predicted MasterGreen999.

"I am not happy about this at all," added SakuraOrNazomi. "Ever since yesterday I have been cursing the whole thing."

The criticisms embody everything YouTube's users love about the free-wheeling site, where people go for entertaining -- and often illegally posted -- video. Keeping those users could prove to be one of Google's toughest challenges.

One major concern is advertising -- specifically, how much advertising will Google plaster around and within YouTube's videos?

"The way it is set up right now is you have a small ads right above the video and that would really worry me if that started to change," said Joshua Herring, a 22-year-old filmmaker from Bloomington, Ind.

"Even though they say it'll remain autonomous, it's going to be a profit center," said Reed Dworski, a 41-year-old online auctioneer and stay-at-home dad in Columbia, Md. "It'll change the entire feel of the site and disrupt the community. Even though it's a commercial venture for the founders, it's not commercial for the users."

Dworski is also worried that Google will crack down on copyrighted material and pull the old episodes of the 1960s science fiction show "Ultraman," which are among his favorite videos on the site.

Ryan Riley, a 27-year-old from Detroit, said even before the sale, YouTube had removed some of the Asian music videos he posted because of copyright concerns. Riley argues that allowing such videos benefits both fans and artists.

"Before I found YouTube there were a lot of groups I had never heard of until I saw them on YouTube," he said. "I ordered at least 20 posters and cds. If it weren't for those videos I wouldn't have bought $200 worth of merchandise."

Some users were disappointed to see Hurley taking so much credit for a successful site that they feel they built themselves.

"YouTube is a wholly user-created entity, and while I am happy for those guys, to declare yourselves the `kings' of Internet video is like Bob Saget claiming he is the `king' of `America's Funniest Home Videos,'" said Luke Wahl, a television production coordinator in Los Angeles.

David Bell, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said the success of businesses like YouTube that depend on social networking can be fragile. In addition to maintaining YouTube's sense of community, Google will have to make sure the site remains functional and that users have a reason to keep coming back, he said.

"I will continue to use it as long as it stays free and simple," said Marlene Moore, a stay-at-home mother in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in an e-mail. "If it gets too complex and we have to pay for it, then I will go elsewhere."

Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution," warned there could be a lesson for Google in the history of GeoCities, a popular Web site purchased by Yahoo in 1999 for $3.6 billion that was rapidly superseded by new sites.

For every skeptic on the site, there was a YouTuber offering congratulations to Hurley and Chen on their newfound millions. Even Clive (aka "nuodai"), the 15-year-old Leeds, United Kingdom, videoblogger who posted a remarkably cogent critique last weekend of the impending deal (viewed by 14,000 people), changed his mind once he saw the details.

"The thing that's good about the deal is that YouTube now has a lot more money and support to continue doing what it's doing, which is great because it will benefit the average user," he said.


© 2006, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.





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