Will All of Us Get
Our 15 Minutes
On a YouTube Video?
August 30, 2006; Page B1
If the data from YouTube are to believed, the world has a lot of explaining to do.
The video-sharing site doesn't make public much of the information it has about itself, such as a breakdown of the nationalities of its registered users. But it's possible to piece together that sort of information by "scraping" the site, a popular and entirely legal practice of using a computer to gather methodically all the tiny bits of public information scattered around a Web site, and then piecing them together.
I did a scrape of YouTube a month ago and found there were 5.1 million videos. By Sunday, the end of another scrape, that number had grown by about 20% to 6.1 million. Because we know how many videos have been uploaded to the site, the length of each, and how many times it has been watched (total views were 1.73 billion as of Sunday) we can do a little multiplication to find out how much time has collectively been spent watching them.
We will get to the result in due time. First, some other bits of YouTube fun -- data-crunching style. For example, the words "dance," "love," "music" and "girl" are all exceedingly popular in titles of YouTube videos.
Also, nearly 2,000 videos have "Zidane" in the title. Who at a desk anywhere on the planet didn't watch at least one head-butt video in the days after French soccer star Zinedine Zidane's meltdown in the World Cup final? For all the talk of the Internet fragmenting tastes and interests, YouTube is an example of the Web homogenizing experiences.
YouTube videos take up an estimated 45 terabytes of storage -- about 5,000 home computers' worth -- and require several million dollars' worth of bandwidth a month to transmit.
Those costs are one reason that some predict YouTube will collapse under the sheer weight of providing a haven for every teenager with a cellphone camera eager to be famous for 15 minutes of video.
An even more enterprising YouTube scraper is Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, which, equipped with a supercomputer with 400 nodes and a 10 gigabit Ethernet connection, was able to learn about all of the 500,000 or so people who bothered to create profiles for themselves at the site.
While YouTube's messaging software is rudimentary, and often doesn't work, many users nonetheless rely on it to stay in touch with each other. That gives YouTube -- and other Web locales -- some of the "social network" characteristics usually associated with the likes of MySpace. And it's another reason that established players like Yahoo and Google are ramping up their video-sharing competitors.
Johan Pouwelse, a Delft professor who helped develop a peer-to-peer, video-sharing technology at Delft called Tribler (one that he says could help YouTube cut down on bandwidth costs), reports that 70% of YouTube's registered users are American and roughly half are under 20 years of age.
The oldest active viewer apparently is geriatric1927, a 79-year old U.K. resident who sits at his PC in his study with headphones on and narrates memories of World War II. Ernie Rogers, a 23-year old from Colton, Calif., whose handle is "lamo1234," has watched more YouTube videos than anyone. Mr. Rogers claims he is on the site 24/7. And as "the YouTube rockstar," he has shared his original songs, including one called "Waste of Time."
The most devoted uploader is Christy Leigh Stewart, a 21-year-old college student who lives near Modesto, Calif., and who has so far uploaded nearly 2,000 videos. Nearly all involve Korean pop music, a passion of Ms. Stewart. Indeed, she says the main reason she spends too much time with YouTube is to drive traffic to hwaiting.net, a Korean-oriented Web site she runs with her friend Megan Hansen.
The notion of using the enormous YouTube audience for marketing other products has occurred to many people, including YouTube itself. It recently struck a deal with Paris Hilton, whose "channel," reports Prof. Pouwelse, instantly became the most popular.
Another is Marc Pearson, 24, who, as pearson101, records backyard wrestling matches: enthusiastic but low-budget versions of the fake-real matches you see on cable. Because his hometown of Stoke-on-Trent, England, is short on wrestlers, Mr. Pearson uses YouTube to attract opponents. "We used to have a lot of wrestlers around here, but not anymore, on account of all the injuries," he explains.
The YouTube juggernaut has attracted the interest of many others, including academics. Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School professor with an interest in the digital-entertainment marketplace, said the site is a good laboratory for studying how some forms of content become popular.
Andrew M. Odlyzko, a mathematician who heads the Digital Technology Center at the University of Minnesota, has examined YouTube data, such as lists of most-viewed videos, to see whether the numbers follow a pattern familiar to statisticians, where a few of the most popular items get an especially large percentage of the traffic. They do.
Oh yes, I owe you a statistic: The total time the people of the world spent watching YouTube since it started last year. The figure is -- drum roll, please -- 9,305 years!