The negative YouTube effect

I'll be the first to sing YouTube's praises. While I don't tend to gravitate to the vast majority of videos that have made the personal video-your-way site famous, I do appreciate what the site has accomplished. It has succeeded where no other video site has--making it easy enough and trendy enough to help people painlessly share videos online. In many ways, the YouTube of today reminds me of the original Napster, what with its critical mass of videos. Search, and ye shall find.

That said, I'm noticing a disturbing trend coming out of the YouTube mania. YouTube video is great for watching on an iPhone or other portable device; but, let's face it, the image quality is more like what you'd expect from video at the turn of the century. The video quality is friendly for quick dissemination via broadband networks, but at a resolution of 320-x-240 pixels, and a data rate of about 250kbps, well, let's just say you won't be watching YouTube videos on your new, 1080p high-def TV.

And therein lies the rub. Already, we're fast approaching an all-high-def society. By February 2009 -- barely a year-and-a-half away--high-def is going to be an option. And yet, in the heat of the YouTube craze, I see so many people relying on YouTube to share and archive videos that it makes me wonder about the underlying problem: What good will those videos be in the long-haul?

The YouTube quality problem encompasses more than just the special interest communities that rely on YouTube to archive obscure and common video clips to YouTube's vast repository (ahem--want to see what Soviet gymnastics was like before the breakdown of communism? No problem.)

Increasingly, I'm seeing digital cameras--both still cameras and camcorders -- billing themselves as YouTube-friendly. Casio just launched its second digital camera with a YouTube capture mode, the 10-megapixel EX-7100; Sony's Net-sharing CAM (introduced earlier this summer) should be shipping soon; and RCA and Flip Video have both offered very similar, inexpensive dedicated camcorders that shoot at 640-x-480 resolution.

While I can see the convenience of such devices, and shooting in YouTube mode -- or, for that matter, capturing low-resolution video on a mobile phone -- I can't help but think of these solutions as a disturbing stopgap. Yes, they are convenient and easy to use, and yes, just like the video recording mode in a digital camera, they're better than nothing in a pinch. However, just as I'm concerned when I see people relying on YouTube to archive things, I'm concerned with the trend that purposely reduces image quality in order to optimize output for YouTube. If you use one of these devices to capture a precious memory today, in a year or two, that memory will be relegated only to viewing in a small window on a computer screen -- you'll cringe when you see the quality on anything else. The generation of lost videos, anyone?

I'm of the opinion that it pays to capture higher-quality images from the get-go--be they digital still images or video images. You can always downsize the resolution, but there's a limit to how much you can improve an image that's missing the information begin with.

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