By Virginia Heffernan
I love YouTube—everything about it. So I am bound to praise the YouTube app for iPhone and iPad, which was updated last month. And I will praise it without reservation. The YouTube app looks nifty, steers like a BMW, has swift navigation and lavish sharing features. But most of all I’ll praise it because the YouTube app is YouTube.
YouTube is a Fort Knox of digital video: It seems clear by now that no company will match YouTube’s staggeringly successful combo of invaluable content and impeccable code. It’s a massive public service—and ad-supported, so free to users. Seventy-two hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. Every month, people watch more than four billion hours of video on YouTube. YouTube just is video, the way Amazon is books. If you like video or film—and if you ever even once need or want to see a news clip, a comedy clip, a music video or just about any moving picture—you will turn to YouTube. Chances are good that, maybe without knowing it, you will turn to YouTube today.
And yet YouTube needs love. We take the miraculous, intergalactic video depot for granted, as if it were air or the Internet itself. And YouTube deserves at least as much credit as the Ivy League Facebook or the fancy-teacup iPhone for kicking off the Internet’s glorious second and third acts.
For one, YouTube opened to the unwashed polyglot Internet hordes well before Facebook or the iPhone. It launched, free, in 2005. (The mad expensive iPhone launched in 2007. Facebook was available to Harvard students in 2004 but didn’t welcome the rest of us until 2006.)
For two, YouTube was a giant big-tent social network from the start, complete with pages and usernames and user-generated content. Untold zillions of users worldwide still reach out to their fellows in cyberspace through the raucous, unmoderated comments section on the site’s nigh-infinite number of available videos.
For three, YouTube introduced palm-sized video before iPhones existed to play it. That big, tantalizing play arrow finally broke video consumers of the nasty habit of ownership and entered them into the stream of digital existence—an intuitive and natural way of living with art, in which you play video and music, you don’t own it.
What’s more, somehow YouTube made its infinite library spin and spiral through cyberspace, and you could watch anything without the commitment of downloading. Anyone remember buffering? That’s what Web video was like before YouTube.
So there, in YouTube, is the Web as we know it today: social media, video and mobile—fast.
But YouTube belongs to Google, just as, of course, the iPhone belongs to Apple and Facebook belongs to Facebook. The current Internet oligopolies have a corporate rivalry like no other in American history. They don’t compete for pieces of a pie. They compete for the whole oven. The flour mill. The fruit trees. The sugarcane.
And with the right code and the right power grab, each company threatens at any time to shape-shift and become all these things. Facebook can become search. Apple can become content. Google can become social media. For that reason, the companies watch one another with aggressive anxiety, like Krushchev and Kennedy. Years ago, DARPA—a predecessor to the Internet—adopted the brilliant mission of “Creating & Preventing Strategic Surprise.” Every technology company since then acts on this Cold War-sounding mandate.
So that brings us to the YouTube app. I don’t want a digital device without YouTube anymore than I want a digital device without Wikipedia or any other of the great repositories for the best—and stupidest—that’s been thought of and created in pixels on the Internet. (YouTube for video; Wikipedia for knowledge; Kindle for books; Pandora for music; Poetry for poetry; and so on.) So when I learned in September that Apple’s new mobile operating system, iOS 6, was designed to exclude YouTube from its lineup of default all-star apps—just as it had excluded Google Maps—I determined not to stand idly by and let Apple’s latest effort at strategic surprise cost me my YouTube.
To its credit, Google handled the apparent snub by Apple with good Silicon Valley sangfroid. The company announced, off the bat, that it was happy to have some distance from Apple. (Apple keeps tight control over the default apps on its products, and as long as YouTube was a default app it couldn’t show, for example, videos with ads.) Next, Google created a better version of the Maps and YouTube apps and let the indispensability of the products speak for itself.
The new YouTube app has a sparkling new interface, which it richly deserved, having labored under a kitschy, vintage-TV look for way too long. The design comes with a secret navigation panel that affords neatly delineated genre categories for discovering videos ("Howto & Style," "Sports," "News & Politics") that are much more useful than sitewide popularity lists.
You can also share video with a couple of swipes. You can watch, for example, the terrifying NSFAnywhere "Extremely Scary Ghost Elevator Prank" video—I refuse to link—and in a split second hustle that creepy video out the window to a pal via Twitter, Facebook, email, text messaging and, of course, Google+. You feel like you’re in a state-of-the-art Hollywood wireless screening room and not some musty library stacks paging through microfilm.
Texting a video to a friend turns out to be fun. With a couple of thumb brushes to my iPhone I sent a friend the link to a fake TED Talk from the Onion. He rolled it on his iPhone and returned a "rofl" within minutes. It was really like watching something together—a small but gratifying phenomenon that’s been promised since the first hints of “convergence” (the blending of Internet and TV) but that I’d failed to enjoy until now.
It’s uncanny—that’s the word for this app. It’s hard to believe the thumbnail-size YouTube logo, sitting right next to Clock and my Weather app, is a gateway to YouTube’s dazzling curatorial accomplishment and incomparable collection. But it is.