Something about the Web environment

Consider, as an alternate scenario, the story of Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, three former employees of the online payment site PayPal, who decided in early 2005 the Web was ripe for an upgrade in the way it handled video and sound.  Video, of course, was not native to the Web, which had begun its life fifteen years before as a platform for academics to share hypertext documents. But over the years, video clips had begun to trickle their way online, thanks to new video standards that emerged, such as Quick-Time, Flash, or Windows Media Player. But the mechanisms that allowed people to upload and share their own videos were too challenging for most ordinary users. So Hurley, Chen, and Karim cobbled together a rough beta for a service that would correct these deficiencies, raised less than $10 million in venture capital, hired about two dozen people, and launched YouTube, a website that utterly transformed the way video information is shared online. Within sixteen months of the company’s founding, the service was streaming more than 30 million videos a day. Within two years, YouTube was one of the top-ten most visited sites on the Web. Before Hurley, Chen, and Karim hit upon their idea for a start-up, video on the Web was as common as subtitles on television. The Web was about doing things with text, and uploading the occasional photo. YouTube brought Web video into the mainstream. 

Now compare the way these two ideas – HDTV and YouTube – changed the basic rules of engagement for their respective platforms. Going from analog television to HDTV is a change in degree, not in kind: there are more pixels; the sound is more immersive; the colors are sharper. But consumers watch HDTV the exact same way they watched old-fashioned analog TV. They choose a channel, and sit back and watch. YouTube, on the other hand, radically altered the basic rules of the medium. For starters, it made watching video on the Web a mass phenomenon. But with YouTube you weren’t limited to sitting and watching a show, television style; you could also upload your own clips, recommend or rate other clips, get into a conversation about them. With just a few easy keystrokes, you could take a clip running on someone else’s site, and drop a copy of it onto your own site. The technology allowed ordinary enthusiasts to effectively program their own private television networks, stitching together video clips from all across the planet. 

YouTube went from an idea to mass adoption in less than two years. Something about the Web environment had enabled Hurley, Chen, and Karim to unleash a good idea on the world with astonishing speed. They took the 10/10 rule and made it 1/1. 

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson

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