The Beast With A Billion Eyes

In just seven years, YouTube has become the most rapidly growing force in human history. Where does it go from here?

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David After Dentist

For every minute that passes in real time, 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube.

You can turn that number over in your mind as much as you want; at no point will it stop being incredible. Sixty hours every minute. That's five months of video every hour. That's 10 years of video every day. More video is uploaded to YouTube every month than has been broadcast by the three big TV networks in the past 60 years. And the pace is accelerating: last year the rate was only 48 hours per minute. William Blake once wrote something about seeing a world in a grain of sand and holding eternity in an hour. YouTube hasn't reached that point yet, but it's well on its way.

There's never been an object like YouTube in human history. It gets 4,000,000,000 page views a day, which adds up to 1,000,000,000,000--that's a trillion--a year. It has 800,000,000 users (about the same as Facebook) who watch 3,000,000,000 hours of video a month (that's 340,000 years). Human civilization now generates massive quantities of video footage simply as a by-product of its daily functioning, much as some industrial processes generate toxic slurry. Before YouTube there was no central catchment for all that video; now it drains into a single reservoir, where we as a species can pan through it and wallow in it endlessly.

In October 2006, when Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion, it seemed possible that the company had screwed up on an epic scale--YouTube's rivals would split the market, or the Net would crash from all that video traffic, or YouTube would be sued into nothingness over copyright violations. But no: YouTube's rivals failed to thrive, the Net has held, and YouTube hacked out elaborate technological solutions to its copyright woes that even the plaintiffs had to admit were pretty cool. YouTube has eaten everything in sight.

YouTube's morbid obesity is a mixed blessing. It's a good thing for us in that it's handy to have all that video in the same place. It's good for Google, because check out all that traffic. But YouTube is becoming a difficult proposition for Google. After all, YouTube isn't like television. When you turn on a TV, you're presented with a limited number of options, which you know something about and which you can count on to be fairly professional-looking. On YouTube, the search engine is sifting through a billion options, literally, and you hardly know anything about any of them. You can't just turn YouTube on and chill out the way you do with TV.

This accounts for the one very small number among YouTube's many giant ones: 15 minutes. That's how long the average user spends on the site per day. Whereas the average American spends nearly three hours a day watching TV. And make no mistake: TV is the competition here.

The other consequence of YouTube's runaway success is that it's expensive: it costs Google a lot of money to keep the billion-eyed beast alive. It has to keep a lot of servers humming to store all that video, because YouTube never forgets, and it needs big, fat expensive pipes to keep those videos streaming 24/7, 365. Google isn't made of money.

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