Happy Birthday YouTube, which turned five earlier this week. The site that started in February 2005 now apparently serves over 5 billion video streams each month.

I’ve been spending more time on YouTube recently, mainly thanks to Arthur’s compulsive viewing of classic theme tunes (seriously, like three hundred of those views are us). But the coverage of YouTube’s birthday got me thinking about the culture of YouTube and why it seems we haven’t yet found the right fit for it in government.

Frankly, there’s not much I can say, as everything you could want to know about the ethnography of YouTube is in Michael Wesch’s fantastic lecture, which itself has passed 1.3m views:

There are many great points Wesch makes about the psychology of the YouTuber, the intimacy of the relationship between user and webcam, and the backlash from the community against fraudsters. Strikingly, the most popular YouTube film of all time wasn’t about a celebrity, a famous telly clip or even a wardrobe malfunction, but this:

160m views. Boy bites finger. 160m times.

The way government has been using YouTube seems a long way from these finger-biting, funny, human heights. There’s been clever stuff, controversial stuff and some classic, pioneering stuff:

But on the whole, the basic man-in-suit format dominates, and the viewing numbers are generally in the hundreds even for quite major ministers and events. YouTube and film-making generally is taken relatively seriously by the participants and the subjects within government, but it doesn’t seem to be breaking through in quantitative terms at least. What can we learn from some of the big YouTube success stories?

1. The power of the how to
Lauren Luke built a profile and a business from sharing make-up tips via her webcam. She’s a natural presenter, sounds warm and engaging, and is seriously good at make-up. She offers viewers both a friendly face, an ongoing series and conversation, and practical, useful help in every film:

2. Video is a participative medium

There’s another lesson perhaps in the work done by the Home Office to tackle knife crime, which Ross first pointed me to:

Clever, and engaging. A film that reflects what I used to hear described as the ‘lean-forward’ nature of digital media, contrasting with the ‘lean-back’ legacy of traditional broadcast TV.

3. The darker side of human nature
Some of videos that have gone truly viral aren’t exactly… let’s say friendly to the subject. Viz the Numa Numa guy:


Now, it’s not exactly something I’d want to get my ministers doing, but there’s a lesson here. There’s a large part of YouTube which is about silliness and mockery, and maybe that’s where the really big numbers are. If you spend any time at all skimming YouTube comments under pretty much any film, you’ll likely come to Lev Grossman’s conclusion:

Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred

The intimacy between user and webcam, and between viewer and YouTube, and between teenager and comment box, can make YouTube a rather shady place at times, much like the world it reflects.

So let’s be more practically useful (like the DSA’s excellent channel). Let’s be authentic, unscripted and a bit wobbly. And lets use online video in the ways online video works best in 2010. But if it doesn’t go massively viral, that’s probably for the best.

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Nice. It does indeed feel like we’re still in the early days with government use of internet video. That home office campaign is a great example of what can be done with a bit more application and planning, rather than treating it as an add-on to business as usual.

As someone who rarely uses YouTube (apart from to post vids of my son for geographically distant grandparents) I’ve found this a pretty useful canter through the different types of use – from well managed infotainment to the more dubious ‘you’ve been framed’ stuff.

What about video blogging though? Or addresses like Obama’s weekly briefing on the Whitehouse channel? I wonder whether the men in suits would fare better if it was exclusive and planned, not just recording events that would probably be happening even if the internet had never been invented…