Dot-com boom days are here again. YouTube launched 19 months ago. Today, Google bought the company for $1.65 billion in stock. What does it mean? If we needed any more proof that Google intends to be one of the masters of the media universe for the foreseeable future, well, here you go. YouTube, it hardly needs belaboring, is the kind of global phenomenon that delivers an irreversible shift in how media is produced and consumed, à la Napster. But unlike Napster, YouTube has at least partially succeeded in convincing established media companies that it can be a partner, and not a mortal enemy that must be destroyed. Along with the deal came a flurry of licensing announcements with the likes of CBS, Universal and Sony BMG. That doesn't mean the GoogTube Goliath will be completely immune from a swarm of copyright lawyers descending upon it like a horde of locusts. But it suggests that this new beast will survive their onslaught.
Which, from a global point of view, is probably a good thing. YouTube isn't just the easiest, most popular way for people to share and view video on the Internet. It is the necessary next step in the democratization and enrichment of global cultural intercourse.
A quick example: For nearly a month, I've been checking in regularly to several India-related blogs that comment on Indian music and movies. Embedded YouTube links to short clips ripped from Bollywood films are routine. These clips are undoubtedly copyright violations. But they've also been a tasty introduction to an (increasingly less) alien popular culture that has enriched my appreciation of what the world has to offer, culturally speaking, and increased my appetite for the full, unexpurgated product. Seeing and hearing is believing. I feel as if a firehose of Indian culture has suddenly been blasted at me. We've long known that the Internet collapses time and distance. The seamless sharing of video and music means that cultural barriers are also prone to crumbling.
The global conversation will be GoogTubed. Tanks rolling in a Thailand coup? Find it on YouTube. It's one thing to read reports posted by bloggers moment by moment from Bangkok. It's another thing entirely to see Thai generals with their hands clasped in Buddhist prayer, against a backdrop of portraits of the king and queen, announce their takeover on live TV (with a surreal slinky jazz introduction to boot).
A self-made spoof of outsourcing at a Burger King drive-through window? The glory of Al Yankovic's "White and Nerdy"? David Ortiz winning Game 5 against the Yankees, as seen from a fan's digital camera?
From the silly to the severe, the world seems a richer, closer, more interconnected place now that user-generated video and mash-ups and cut-and-pasted clips are illustrating, commenting upon, mocking and recording the world second by second. Naturally, people were sharing video on the Net before YouTube, just as there were search engines before Google. But the two platforms dominate, and help immensely to facilitate, their chosen domains. Their marriage is potent. Not long from now, I'm going to hear a rumor of a riot in Shanghai or a rave in Bangalore. I will Google it, and I will see it. Maybe I will be enlightened or amused or rocked. Maybe I'll be depressed or disgusted or immediately distracted by something else. Whatever -- the opportunities for connection and conversation just continue to grow.
UPDATE: A strong letter aggressively disputing that Youtube plus Google will have anything to do with the democratization of cultural discourse.