Just as YouTube formally announces its addition of YouTube Insight, a free feature showing filmmakers when and where viewers are watching their content, the platform’s co-founder and chief technical officer STEVE CHEN talks to Ben Cooper from Inside Film about how the future of the platform is in our own hands.

BEN COOPER: On March 19, YouTube teamed up with The Vancouver Film School to launch the ‘What Matters to You’ Scholarship Competition. Obviously this is a great opportunity for filmmakers to leverage their talent. The big question being asked is, when does this kind of thing shift from being a marketing opportunity to a sustainable financial model? How can filmmakers make the best out of YouTube?

STEVE CHEN: When we first started the site, you should have seen the videos that were on it. No one would have thought from looking at that corpus of content that two and a half years later you were going to be working with some of the most prestigious film schools, news and music outlets. Now you even have politicians using it! But I think the most naturally fit was the movie industry. YouTube is a natural extension for filmmakers because when you are creating entertainment, it’s about how to get more eyeballs looking at this content. And there’s probably no better and easier and less expensive way to distribute content than using YouTube globally.

BEN COOPER: That’s right. But do you think there’s an opportunity for filmmakers to not just promote their film but making money through the channel itself? So, rather than it be, ‘Hey look, X-Men 3‘s coming out, here’s the trailer or some outtakes’, it could actually be a viable future for an independent filmmaker?

STEVE CHEN: We would love to be able see the future of YouTube emerge as not just the platform on which talented filmmakers can put their content for marketing purposes but also to actually build a sustainable sort of career path. We’re not there yet. But we’ve achieved the first part. If you were to ask the content creators putting content on YouTube – again, this is across the board, musicians, politicians – ‘Why are you using YouTube?’, I think it will come down to two reasons: one, the ability to be able to get content to the largest audience possible and, secondly, building some kind of identity out of it. We’ve seen that happen.

But you also want to hopefully be able to make some money off that, right. On the music side, we’ve had a few examples like Esmée Denters from the Netherlands, who ended up signing a deal with Justin Timberlake after she put up videos of herself singing in her bedroom. I think she’s coming out with her first album this April. The next phase of that – well we’ll see what happens with the Vancouver Film School – but I’m confident there’s great talent out there and good content that we just haven’t seen yet. We haven’t seen it really manifest itself in the life cycle of talent in terms of being found on YouTube, signed onto something and actually emerging a commercial success.

BEN COOPER: Perhaps it’s something we have to build on top of the YouTube API (application program interface). It could allow people to make a living from the web. Like the way eBay did – though obviously in a different context – in the way it empowered users as shop owners.

STEVE CHEN: Yeah, and you’re starting to see people completely rely on eBay; it’s their nine-to-five job. We have a lot of things that are in the pipeline – we’ll work with advertisers and marketers – so hopefully we can have a proposition for great content creators to put content on the site that can hopefully generate revenue as well as the chance to become well known.

I think the other point too, which is important to know, I think is just the low barrier to entry to actually test out something. It may be similar to the video gaming industry in which a lot of the games coming out fall into the set of ‘tried and tested’ but not very exciting buckets of content. Because it costs tens of millions of dollars, over [US]$100m to create this content, that it’s very difficult to experiment. And I think with YouTube, you can have the time to try out a lot of different things.

BEN COOPER: The film industry faces similar issues as the music industry went through in terms of ideas and rights management. They don’t know whether to fear or embrace this kind of model. Whereas I think we, as consumers of content, want to run with it; we want to stick it on our blogs and our profiles and tell people about it. It’s just working out how you capitalise on this. Would YouTube ever actually purchase content?

STEVE CHEN: Historically, we’ve viewed YouTube as a filter of content. Similar to Google in a way. And all the engineering, all the product, all that effort inside the walls of YouTube is focused on discovering and connecting content. There’s premium content, which is working with the large movie studios and large music studios and brand names that you’re going to recognise but then there’s the huge amount of user-generated content, and what we call ‘torso content’. [Torso content] is generally content that’s never been digitised before; you have, like, 25 years of television content from all over the world, if you want to see this stuff, you can’t, there’s no other way to find this stuff online.

We just came back from Japan where they were trying to do something similar for people that are interested in technology. So, I think there’s a lot of this content that’s now coming online for the first time.

BEN COOPER: That’s a really interesting space. I know the UKNova bittorrent network has an honour system that allows the indexing and discovery of content that’s no longer available and it’s there to download, so YouTube, benefits from being a place that allows access straight away.

STEVE CHEN: But when you think about the fact that every minute the amount of content on YouTube grows by 10 hours, you can find a piece of video about anything! The other day I was looking for how to make a half Windsor knot on a tie, and there it was. A video does a better job explaining how to tie a tie than images or text and YouTube is ‘the’ place to go to search for content.

BEN COOPER: You’re right that never before have we really been able to see footage from all around the world, everything from the amazing to the horrific and just a click away. But what is the impact of this on storytelling. Things like the Davos Question are extremely empowering. It’s just brilliant. It allows people to get involved and in turn raise social and political awareness. Much like Pangea Day, which is coming up on May 10, enabling people and filmmakers to share a point of view. What other active initiatives do you have besides the Vancouver Film School partnership? Can video really make a difference?

STEVE CHEN: Short answer is sure, yes, definitely. The roundabout answer is that, with the emergence of the internet in the last 15 years, you started seeing the entire world shrink and you just get closer to the fact that you can communicate instantly –and send images instantly. I was able to take a picture of the Sydney Opera House on my camera and send it without having to go back to the hotel room. And so when you look at the transformation of traditional journalism and how that’s been affected by blogs and how now anybody with a keyboard and internet connection can be read by just as many people as who read the BBC or The New York Times, then YouTube comes in at a time where it’s a perfect complement to a lot that already exists on traditional television. Month to month there’s always an entirely new use for it or a clip that takes everybody by storm and it could be anybody with a camera.

BEN COOPER: Analogous to that is the example of Lonelygirl15, which was obviously a famous use of the channel in terms of storytelling. Whether you objected to the fact that it was fake or not, what stood out was the fact that they used the channel’s strengths; they created a piece of content that was engaging and brought audiences back again and again. And you’ve seen those guys go on to be advisers for studios now. So, how can content creators leverage the unique channel to tell stories in new ways and do you have ways of assisting people in doing that?

STEVE CHEN: Yeah, Lonelygirl was one of the earliest success stories of YouTube in which this iconic personality was built completely on YouTube.com, nowhere else. And I think that the concept of the channel is a natural step from what YouTube started as, with just a collection of movie clips. It builds this idea that it’s not just about the clips but the creators. Over 40 percent of YouTube’s page hits come from ‘search’, so people are searching around and finding a lot of content. But an average person comes to the site for about around 20 minutes – the average clip is about 45 seconds, a minute – so you think that they’re probably watching on average, you know, 15-20 clips on a site. They’re engaged. They’re browsing. And looking at ‘what else’. If you like one video, you’re probably going to like the other videos that this content creator has created.
Going back to the music analogy, because it’s more of an established field. Okay, so we have a track, which I would correlate to an individual, a clip, and then we have an album and artist which correlate to the other videos that have been created by that user as well as the artist. Go up another level and you start getting into categories like ‘rock’ or ‘alternative 90s rock’ and you start digging down into communities like, I don’t know, Mediterranean cooking videos! You get these people that are very involved. I just recently bought an acoustic guitar and wanted to learn how to play it and, although I ended up buying some DVDs with it, it was more helpful to watch some of this online content. And some of the most helpful, instructional content is actually on YouTube. Some creators of this content are actually good guitar players, and good teachers. We’re going to start doing a lot more work to try to foster this idea of a community, this idea, like, a rock genre, right.
BEN COOPER: The idea of YouTube communities is interesting. And it brings us to projects like Photosynth [a pattern recognition software preview from Microsoft Live Labs and the University of Washington that analyses digital photographs to build a 3D point cloud of a photographed object]. I know Microsoft are doing things like taking flickr images and mapping it onto geospatial environments. This brings us to the fact that obviously everyone’s very keen on where the web’s going to next and you’re dealing with media around which it’s very hard to create metadata. We’re already seeing with Flickr, for example, that the tags and the titles are not enough. It’s like we’re trying to desperately find our way through what we love: rich content. The fact that we very sadly lost Heath Ledger here, for example – it may be that you could do a search on Heath Ledger and see every single instance of a clip or film that’s he’s been in and, along the way, get his history, from a TV commercial all the way to his last film.

STEVE CHEN: There are two diverging schools of thought about how to use metadata: one which is using image detection, using OCR technology, and we’ve been working with the Google research and development teams on this; then text identification within the video itself, so even if the user didn’t type in the right text, tags, we could still direct their query. There are some very cool technologies out there with face detection, exactly what you’re talking about, the fact that you can actually take a picture of somebody’s face and say, ‘Show me all the videos in YouTube that have this face’. Another aspect is just localisation, internationalisation of the content itself. You know, one complaint from the non-English speaking world is that even though YouTube is available in 19 different countries, and the search button has been translated to 19 different countries, most of the content is still English content. So, how do you actually enable this English content to be translated on the fly in a reasonable manner that is not laughable to non English speakers? I think there’s a lot of stuff that can be done automatically and then there’s a whole other side in which actually I think we’ve seen more effective in using the community to help augment tags and recommendations, things like using ‘favourites’, sort of like Amazon recommendations. This seems to have been working out more successfully for us than trying to almost guess too much about the user’s intent.

BEN COOPER: Being involved with Google should certainly help.

BEN COOPER: I was just actually thinking, obviously we’ve seen live streaming just announced and at the same time we’ve got Joost [www.joost.com] coming out with their live platform. We’ve got QIK [qik.com], which is a streaming platform from your phone. You’ve also got ‘Seesmic’ [a video micro blogging web application being developed by French entrepreneur Loic Le Meur to make video uploading by webcam easier – see www.seemic.com] as well. It’s a really exciting space. But you’ve got a leader advantage in the sense you’ve got this massive community. Are you going to work with some of those platforms or just allow them to interface with you? Do you have visions of having your own hardware in the future?

STEVE CHEN: I think that as we start talking about syndication to other types of platforms outside of the computer monitor, we’re probably going to be doing most of that internally. It’s just putting another window to the same content. But there are some very interesting things going on in this space. Two and a half years ago video on the internet, it was just unheard of, the fact that, with Windows Media, Quicktime, all these different formats, a video can actually play without something screwing up. It’s an encouraging thing for us is that there are other people entering this space; to know you’re getting support from other people that think that there’s some money to be made here.

BEN COOPER: With film distribution at the moment and platforms like Apple TV and iPhone and the iTunes Movie Rental, what’s holding all these guys back is the outdated territory agreements. Obviously you’ve got a model here which has completely thrown that away. As YouTube becomes something that I can watch in my lounge room through Apple TV, TiVo or whatever, user content will be one part of my relationship with it but will you look to partner with those studios and try and maybe redefine how film is distributed?

STEVE CHEN: We’ve learned a lot of things about syndicating content onto the web. Different types of content have all sorts of different regulatory rules about how you can syndicate it online and then outside of the computer space on DVDs, in music, on movie rentals. Even seeing how things have changed and been revolutionised with YouTube with the internet as a whole, I don’t think that the old syndication models are ever going to be tossed out the window. I think that it’s going to be some kind of compromise. You have hundreds of millions of people coming to YouTube and you have hundreds of millions of videos watched per day. What it does do is force them to wake up and say, ‘maybe we should challenge some of our old distribution models because it seems like there’s a more efficient way’.

BEN COOPER: It just feels that you guys could spearhead that as far as maybe creating territory specific rights. Maybe there are services that are set up locally, beyond the home page.

STEVE CHEN: Yeah, I mean, I had no idea how much paperwork and lawyers were needed to just play content all over the world. I mean, to play the same piece of music video in three different regions, you could work with three different divisions with these music studios. It’s definitely a carry-over from 30, 40 years ago when a lot of these industries were first starting. They made sense back then and in some ways they still make sense. But I do think that the emergence of things like YouTube, eBay, Joost, all these different sites that are coming up and distributing content in a new way and I think we’re going to start seeing changes with the rest of the industries spearheaded by the new distribution methods.

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