So much for laser-like focus: How YouTube is casually beating other social networks on multiple fronts

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 21, 2013

From The News Desk

The amorphous blob that is YouTube announced last night that it has passed 1 billion monthly users, joining Facebook and Google -- which owns YouTube -- in the Web's most exclusive club. This puts YouTube in a remarkable position as not only the world's most popular video service, but its most popular music streaming product, online broadcast service and, oh yeah, social network. By not focusing too narrowly on any one of these identities, it's managed to become the best in all three.

It is much easier to define why Facebook and Google are so popular than it is YouTube. Facebook is the go-to place for hyper-relevant news, storing images of friends and family, and communicating with the "social graph." Google dominates search. Both are focused on doing one thing really well.

But YouTube doesn't fit into any one box. The service is many things to many people, the place they go to watch someone jump from space, chat with the President, listen to their favorite music, and yes, view cat videos. Losing any one of those things wouldn't kill the service, but YouTube wouldn't be the same without each of those use cases. It is both independent from and dependent on its varied features. And, of course, its breadth: YouTube claims that 48 hours of video are added to its service every minute, and says that 1 in 2 Internet users visit the site.

Let's start with music: Nielsen reported last October that YouTube is the preferred music discovery tool of teens, beating both traditional radio and iTunes. Independent bands and record labels alike use the service to offer fans early access to an album, opting for YouTube over music-specific solutions like Spotify and Rdio.

Then there's the YouTube-as-streaming-service that might soon be released. Google is said to be considering a YouTube-branded service to rival Spotify, Rdio, MOG, and rumored products from Apple and even Twitter, which recently acquired WeAreHunted. The YouTube brand would be separate from Google's Play Store, which is essentially Android's version of iTunes.

YouTube is already widely used for music streaming, albeit in a roundabout way. The company already had to nix YouTube's ability to play music even when iPhone users had their screen locked with a recent update, citing "partners in the music industry" who prohibit background streaming. Third-party solutions, like Jasmine, that offer this functionality quickly became popular among jilted users.

Again, Nielsen's survey shows just how important YouTube is to teens' listening habits: Nearly two-thirds of teens surveyed use YouTube to listen to music. That beats out traditional radio, iTunes, and CDs. YouTube has become so important to the music industry that Billboard will take YouTube streams into consideration when determining the Billboard Hot 100. The service won't make-or-break whether or not an artist makes it on the list, but it will influence the results.

YouTube is increasingly becoming a broadcasting system unto itself, powering live broadcasts of Felix Baumgartner's jump from space, the 2012 presidential election, and product announcements from Google and even competitors, like Facebook. Possible paid-for subscription channels will allow YouTube to better emulate traditional broadcasters and create a revenue-bringing, channel-based system for content creators who want to, you know, make money off of their videos.even as the site cuts off some of the $100 million in funding for around half of its original content channels

Hangouts allow a layer of interactivity with, say, President Obama that broadcasters can't emulate. Viewers engage with their subject and have a conversation in an otherwise one-way broadcast system. Because YouTube and Hangouts are accessed on laptops, phones, and tablets, many of which are equipped with cameras, this two-way communication is possible. Doing the same thing with DirecTV is really just shouting at the television set. (Hangouts are considered part of Google+, but are often streamed and uploaded to YouTube as well, so I'm counting them with the service.)

Beyond that, BuzzFeed dubbed YouTube teens' top social network after a poll conducted by IPSOS MediaCT and Wikia found that teens spend more time on YouTube than Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram. That likely has more to do with the content that lives on YouTube than it does the site's social aspects, but YouTube is also a powerful platform for self expression.

Take the "vlog," for example. Many are posted in response to other videos or express a personal view -- they're essentially a Tweet or Facebook status update in video form. YouTube comments might be a blight against humanity and full of enough hate to fill the cosmos, but they are plentiful and "social," so they count as well.

YouTube seems like a simple service meant for cat videos, "Gangnam Style," and idiotic memes, but it's evolved into much more. One billion monthly users don't visit the service just to watch music videos, stream music, express their opinions, or catch a live broadcast with the hope of chatting with the President, they visit because YouTube is able to do all of those things in one place. It might not be as simple as Google or Facebook, and that's probably why it's so popular.

YouTube is what you -- and 999,999,999 other people -- make of it.

[Image Source: iOS Advices]