Remember Ted Williams, the homeless man with the golden radio voice who went from panhandling to big bucks deals to national television programs over the course of this week? The original YouTube video of Williams was posted by a Columbus Dispatch reporter, racking up 12 million pageviews in the matter of a few short days. At the time, The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal praised the newspaper for its forward-thinking, new media-friendly approach: “When a reporter came across a homeless man with a stunning Golden Age of Radio voice, they did not write a milquetoast profile or use it as a news peg for a series on the plight of the homeless in Ohio. Instead, they made a short, cheap video of the man, Ted Williams, and posted it to their website.”
But it appears the Dispatch has had second thoughts about being at the epicenter of a viral sensation: As of yesterday afternoon, attempting to view the original video on YouTube would reveal the above takedown notice: “The video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by The Dispatch.”
The video is, however, available on the Dispatch‘s site, and to its credit, the Dispatch has provided embeddable video players for the original viral video and subsequent Williams-related coverage.
As someone who runs a website, I can understand the frustrations of success on a third-party platform: A while ago, Geekosystem put up a moderately successful YouTube video (of every one of Roger Klotz’s laughs from Doug, in case you were wondering), and only a small fraction of the video’s admittedly un-Williamslike 30,000 hits found their way back to our site. Good for branding, maybe, but blogs and news sites do live and die by traffic. While this past week has to be the most the Columbus Dispatch has been mentioned nationwide in recent memory, possibly ever, the physics of YouTube traffic mean that they almost certainly got a fraction of those 12 million YouTube hits. It remains open to debate whether the video would have caught on to the extent that it did if it was anywhere but YouTube; while Williams’ remarkable talent made a nigh-instant impression on so many people who saw the video, YouTube (and to an extent, Vimeo) remains the slickest and fastest video platform for fast propagation online via other blogs and news sites.
Moreover, the genie has been unbottled; there are already dozens of mirrors of the original video across YouTube (we’ve replaced the taken down video with a mirror video in our original article on Williams), and even if those are taken down, more will rise legion to replace them. For better or for worse, viral videos become immortal and impossible for their creator to control once they reach a certain magnitude far smaller than the Williams video; in my opinion, the best strategy is to keep the original up so as to provide a ‘canonical’ version that dutiful bloggers and reporters will link to and use. Moreover, the video is now all over a gazillion big-network newscasts; it’s not like people can’t already see it via many other outlets legit and illegit.
Taking down a YouTube video without explanation after this long a window does not achieve the goal of magically redriving 100% or even 10% of the eyeballs that would see it in the other place, and it pisses off the people who have shared it with others and given the Dispatch free publicity only to find their links broken a few days later. Mathew Ingram puts it more succinctly and tartly: “that is just really, really dumb — once again, the legal department wins a Pyrrhic victory over common sense.”
Update: The editor of the Dispatch responds: “At no time was The Columbus Dispatch trying to prevent anyone from seeing our video. In fact, it has remained available since it was originally posted to dispatch.com. It has also been reposted on YouTube under our copyright.”