Planet YouTube

Taking a seat at the world's greatest slide show

There are 120,000,000 Shiite Muslims living on the planet today, roughly the entire population of earth in 1000 BC.

And 120,000,000 is also the number of times a video has been viewed on YouTube showing an anonymous baby laughing.

A young Swedish father, who thought his child's guffaw was entertaining, posted the video the day after Halloween in 2006. He was no different from the grandma at the bus stop, that same afternoon, who pulled a photo of her grandson from her purse to show a stranger seated beside her.

The grandma made a single person smile. The father did the same with scores of millions.

The awe one feels witnessing the scope and reach of YouTube can at times rival the awe many felt upon viewing the first atom bomb test. It is the breathless awakening of seeing a new technological threshold crossed, from which there is no return—a threshold that shrinks the planet instantly.

But while the bomb remains in the hands of governments (for the time being, anyway), YouTube sits squarely in the hands of your next-door neighbor, the fry cook. And it's this fact that adds to the head-spinning wonder of it all.

Many today have a hard time remembering life before YouTube, and yet, astonishingly, the site is only five years old this month. What clever twist of technology will irreversibly alter the planet in the next five years—or is the pace now quickening?

When Mozart worked his magic as a young prodigy, he hit the fast track to fame. But how speedy was it? For Grayson Chance it was 13 days. Videotaped at his school recital on a recent mid-May afternoon, he was signed to the same label as Lady Gaga before the month could end—after more than 17 million viewers watched the 12-year-old's jaw-dropping performance.

Flip a switch, watch the red video light turn to green, change a life forever.

On a living room chair three years ago, a little boy bit his older brother's finger. Based on the number of YouTube views to date, it's possible every adult in America has now seen this.

We are all just one idea, and half a month, away from international fame.

They say a pair named Chad and Steve came up with the idea of YouTube and proceeded to open a little office above a pizzeria in San Mateo. One year later Google offered to buy their creation, handing Chad and Steve enough capital to purchase 5,000 pizzerias.

YouTube now boasts two billion page views per day and comes in 24 different languages. If you want to watch all the videos offered, you'll need no fewer than 1,700 years. Since being sold, it's become the third most popular site on the web, just behind Google and Facebook.

Only God could make an offer for it today.

Where will it be in another five years? Pursue the question online and you find predictions of a single video channel waiting for us all. TV is going to vanish, you'll learn, and the internet will offer but a single video channel for each consumer. The channel of "You" will be created from a vast spectrum of content providers and will reflect your own personal interests and desires. You'll search for nothing. The content will find you directly via a mix of sophisticated algorithmically driven technical and social signals. The internet will know who you are and what you want. Your own YouTube browsing will have helped educate it.

That may scare or delight you. The choice to join this brave new world, or opt out, is yours. But there is a thrill in simply observing the action, neither running from it nor fully immersing in it. To sit back and marvel as these wheels spin can be akin to reading of the goings-on in outer space. Last week, for instance, the science pages told of a massive black hole weighing more than a billion suns that had broken free from its place in a galaxy and was speeding away at 670,000 miles an hour.

It's to this end of the cosmos that some of us have to turn to feel that same sense of tingling awe at the speed and magnitude of things. The distant stars, or the screen on our laps—in 2010, both have the ability to kick-start the same rhapsodic philosophizing.

Then again, some may wax with just as much profound wonder at the sublime sensation that accompanies two minutes of a baby's irrepressible laughter.  

 
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