From Edu To Non-Profits, YouTube Aims To Walk The Path To Good

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Is This Activism?

YouTube may be best known for its viral sensations, lawn gnomes, and feline shenanigans, but the site’s massive collection of content has given rise to plenty of more benevolent — and, some might say important — trends.

Like helping non-profits including charity:water harness the power of video to connect to millions of viewers. And serving up lectures from major universities, opening the doors of learning to remote villages hundreds of miles away from the nearest school. In short, YouTube has done a lot of good so far. And it’s hoping to do a lot more.

Hunter Walk, a long-time Director of Product Management at Google who has steered YouTube’s product side for years, recently decided that he wanted to spearhead YouTube’s social good efforts. Granted, the role he wanted didn’t exactly exist yet, but he managed to convince YouTube chief Salar Kamangar to let him create it.

Walks’s new, self-appointed mission: Bake ‘good’ into any part of YouTube he can.

He explains that plenty of YouTubers have worked on projects to support social good efforts in the past, but there’s never been any consolidated effort to do so. So these days he wanders the company’s halls, asking people if they’d be interested in launching an expedited support queue for non-profits, or a new white-list feature for schools. He says he rarely gets turned down — adding that YouTubers tend to view it as pro bono work, and they’re generally happy to help.

Walk says that he views YouTube’s relationship with ‘good’ as supported by three main pillars: Causes & Non Profits; Education; and, finally, Activisim and Free Expression.

YouTube’s special relationship with non-profits goes back to 2007, when the site began giving them free access to features typically reserved for premium content partners. These include videos that are longer than fifteen minutes in length and the ability to include a special Donate button that lets users contribute money. Non-profits also have the unique ability to include links to external sites using YouTube’s annotations feature (which they can use to drive people to a petition or ‘further information’ page, for example) — no other partners are allowed to use annotations to link off-site.

And today, as one of the first fruits since Walk took on his new role, YouTube is launching a ‘Playbook’ of best practices that non-profits can use to effectively produce and distribute their YouTube videos (YouTube first launched a broader-ranging Playbook last July, and it plans to launch more vertical-specific guides in the future). Walk says that non-profits have more features coming soon as well, including the ability to live-stream video, which is currently in testing with a handful of partners.

Walk’s second pillar — Education — is also fairly well established on the site. YouTube’s Edu Portal features thousands of videos from the likes of Harvard, Yale, and online schools like the incredible Khan Academy. This educational content has been watched a whopping 22 billion times on the site already.

Walk says that up until now YouTube has been primarily focused on acquiring all of this content to build up its library. Now, it’s beginning to focus on the second, and equally-important step: curation. Teachers and scholarly institutions will increasingly be able to build out and share lists of their favorite videos, drawn from any of the site’s EDU channels.

And YouTube is also focusing on making the site more school-friendly. Historically some students have had issues watching YouTube because their school’s firewall blocks the site (apparently it’s easy to waste time on YouTube). To help remedy this, YouTube is testing a ‘YouTube for Schools’ domain that will schools will be able to whitelist. This would enable students to watch videos as they please, but only content that appears as part of the Edu part of the site.

With these additions and others, Walk says he’s hoping to make teachers’ livers easier, and to give people who don’t have classrooms the power to listen and learn about anything.

Which brings us to Walk’s third pillar, which he dubs Activism and Free Expression. This pillar has more to do with how people are using YouTube, than it does with any particular improvement the site can make.

Walk recalls an experience he had during a trip to Baghdad two years ago, when he asked a 17 year-old girl what she used YouTube for. “It allows me to understand what the world cares about”, she said. And the ability to watch a variety of camera-phone footage and news reports from various media outlets helped her arrive at her “version of the truth”.

Walk also points to 2011′s Arab Spring, when social media services helped Egyptians spread news with each other — and around the world. Despite the fact that Egypt blocked the Internet for 5 days during a two-week period, Walk says that the number of video uploads in that region actually shot up 72 percent to 100,000 videos.

Another interesting stat: the highest usage of YouTube per capita/Internet user is in Saudi Arabia. The reason? Walk says the less diverse the media sources available to a user through traditional routes like television and print, the more important it becomes to them to find other content. Which is why Walk says YouTube is committed to providing its entire corpus of content to all of its users.

Walk didn’t have any upcoming features to discuss around this third pillar, but based on my conversation with him, it’s the one he’s most passionate about.

He made it clear that, despite plenty of forthcoming hurdles around government censorship, YouTube is committed to hosting and freely distributing footage of the demonstrations, the speeches, the atrocities, and the joyous celebrations that will shape the world in the years ahead.