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How YouTube Wants To Make Itself More Nonprofit and Activist Friendly

BY Nick Judd | Monday, April 9 2012

Activists used YouTube to release this breakdown of a Sept. 2011 confrontation with police.

When The New York Times began its coverage of the revolution in Egypt last year, YouTube videos led its blog posts. One of the most interesting experiments in online education, Khan Academy, began as a series of YouTube videos. Google's video-sharing site continues to power Khan Academy's tutorials. And YouTube has been reaching out to nonprofits with products like branding capabilities that aren't publicly available, and a feature that allows nonprofits access to a Google Checkout-powered "Donate" button.

Now early Google employee and former YouTube product director Hunter Walk leading is "YouTube for Good," an initiative formalized last year to make the video site more useful to activists, educators and nonprofits. The initiative draws on time contributed from existing teams inside the company, but also relies on a small and growing staff — when I spoke to Walk on Thursday, he was on the hunt for an engineer — to work specifically on products for those groups.

Walk joined YouTube in 2005, moving from the Google mothership in 2003, and ran its consumer product team from 2007 until mid-2011. He got the go-ahead to spin up YouTube for Good last fall, he told me.

From 2007 to 2011 Walk saw YouTube grow as a "global living room, a place where people could tune in and watch content with hundreds of millions of others," he told me.

"What blew me a way was not just the entertainment aspects of YouTube but that video could be a powerful medium for changing the world," he said. "In addition to being a global living room, we could also be a global town square and a global classroom."

The subtext here is that YouTube could improve itself for educators, nonprofits, and seekers of free expression, a grouping Walk uses to describe remix-culture enthusiasts as well as Middle East activists. YouTube for Good, he said, has been a recipient of the Google subsidiary's famous "20-percent time" — the slice of the workday that Google and by extension YouTube employees are allowed to use on side projects as they see fit. YouTube has shipped nonprofit access to livestreaming, something that also isn't publicly available, and is working with educators to "whitelist" educational content on YouTube so that it appears in schools.

"I don't think there's that much of a deviation form YouTube as a platform for any other type of video to YouTube as a platform for activism," Walk said.

As an example, he pointed to recently introduced image stabilization and light-filtering features implemented to help users clean up cellphone video.

"When you're thinking of things that are coming in from a shaky cellphone, this is something that can make videos more viewable and usable for your audience," he said. For watching rather than recording, YouTube now ships lower-resolution video as well as HD video so that people with slower Internet connections — like on a mobile phone — will be able to watch and respond.

"One of the undercovered aspects of the Kony 2012 video," Walk said Thursday, the day Invisible Children released a follow-up to that video, was "that there were 40,000 video responses of people reacting to what they had just watched."

In some cases YouTube may be presenting users with easier ways to obey its rules rather than break them. For instance, InformationWeek reported last week that YouTube will ship a feature that allows users to blur parts of a video — like a person's face — making it easier to color within the lines that the company has laid out for personal privacy on its platform.

Walk declined to comment on "forward looking features." But it's not difficult to imagine that this is the kind of solution that the growing YouTube for Good team will be asked to solve.

"It could mean that one month you're working on donation workflows," Walk told me when I asked him about what YouTube for Good would be doing, "and the next month you're going on a field trip to do research on Africa."

But there may be plenty of work to do simply on helping causes and nonprofits use the tools they already have. For instance: Invisible Children's first Kony 2012 video, the most prolifically shared to date with millions of views, has been removed from YouTube due to copyright claims, according to a YouTube takedown notice.