What is YouTube good for?

We all know that YouTube is the number one place for video on the Web, right? Bigger than Google and Yahoo, with 100 million videos or so every day (although MySpace is gaining). And we know that its popularity, according to some, is based largely on copyrighted content like the Lazy Sunday video and the other TV clips and music videos people post, and that other sites offer people more financial participation in the popularity of whatever they post. And we know that YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley is a superstar and that dollar figures like $1-billion get thrown around a lot.

But is copyrighted video really what YouTube is all about? Obviously, there’s plenty of copyrighted content on there — some of which may have been uploaded deliberately by the creators, such as the new music video from Ok Go (choreographed using six Treadmill exercise machines running in different directions). And then there are the ever-popular “mashup” movie trailers like Brokeback to the Future, which is quite hilarious. But a lot of what is great about YouTube (for me at least) is the other stuff — the unusual, the weird, the bizarre, the extremely personal. And I suspect a lot of other people are the same.

On one end of the spectrum there are the stupid dog and cat videos and the “Evolution of Dance,” but there are also moments of real brilliance like the clip of 12-year-old “FunTwo” playing Pachelbel’s Canon note for note on the electric guitar. And then there’s people like the geriatric British pensioner who has become an unlikely star. But one of my recent favourites is “lonelygirl15,” who is carrying on a back-and-forth relationship with her boyfriend via webcam from her room.

Why do I find this fascinating? I’m not sure (Update: I totally missed a NYT blog post about her here). Lonelygirl — whose name appears to be Bree, and whose (apparently religious) parents prevent her from going on a hike with her boyfriend Daniel — is cute, but otherwise unremarkable. She stares into her webcam and talks about being mad at her parents, and at one point she and Daniel argue on camera about something or other. And yet, most of her video clips have been downloaded more than half a million times, and some have close to a thousand comments. She is number three in the “most viewed channels” this month, and number 25 on the most-viewed of all time.

I think that’s what I find fascinating. Is talking to complete strangers about your life somewhat disturbing and even pathological? Perhaps. And yet, it seems like a natural evolution from the blog, which evolved from the diary. Already, there are commenters who assume that Daniel and Bree are acting — and perhaps they are, in a sense. Maybe they too will get their own TV deal, just like another teenaged YouTube star called Brookers. Fascinating stuff.

Update:

The NYT’s Screens blog (by reporter Virginia Heffernan) has an email response from lonelygirl15 here.

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