First Look: We Take YouTube RealTime For A Spin

Earlier today we reported on YouTube’s plans to roll out a new real-time product that adds a new social layer to YouTube, allowing friends to share the videos they’re watching with each other in real time, without having to turn to outside chat programs or Twitter.

I’ve just taken the new product for a spin, and it’s pretty clear this will add another dimension to YouTube’s virality and its role as a social site. Before now, there hasn’t been a particularly compelling reason to establish friends on YouTube, aside from subscribing to videos a user uploads. If you had a funny video to share, it was easier just to do it via IM. RealTime changes that.

RealTime appears as a toolbar at the bottom of every YouTube page with three main items. The most prominent button is an indicator showing when you have Realtime sharing turned on, obviously to ensure that you don’t accidentally share some videos you aren’t too proud of watching. The ‘Online Friends’ tab shows which videos your friends are currently watching (if any) and their recent history. It also allows you to send an invitation to come watch the video you’re watching, which will pop up on their screen (you can turn notifications off). This is where the real power of the new product lies, as it allows friends to instantly share videos with each other.

Finally, there’s a button for ‘Watching Now’, which allows you to see any random YouTube users who happen to be watching the same video as you. This isn’t a privacy issue because you’re only shown in the list if you opt-in, but it seems pretty pointless. A chat feature with other users could potentially be entertaining (though I’d hope for some decent filtering given the YouTube comments I’ve seen), but what’s the point of a list of people I don’t know?

Aside from that that, I have a few more gripes with the toolbar. Unlike the toolbar on Facebook and some other services, the YouTube toolbar disappears and reappears every time you load a page. This is hardly a game-breaker, but it’s still sort of annoying. I also think that there should be an option to have all of the videos your friends are watching pop up as notifications – in the current version, they have to invite you in order for a notification to appear. But the product is still an early Beta, so there’s still plenty of time for these issues to get squared away.

YouTube is using an invitation system to deploy RealTime, which in some ways parallels the approach Gmail took when that product first launched. Every user to get invited gets another 25 invites of their own, which makes invitations hard to come by at first, but sufficiently accessible to allow the service to grow quickly. In order to invite someone to RealTime, you have to become their friend on YouTube – you can’t just send them an Email to activate it. This is a bit of a hassle, but it also gives YouTube a chance to build out its social graph. That said, YouTube could make the process a little less difficult – in the current system, you have to first invite someone to become your YouTube friend before you can invite them to the Beta (you should be able to send a single link that accomplishes both).