How YouTube Works

YouTube Image Gallery In 2007, CNN and YouTube partnered to let average Americans ask debate questions to presidential hopefuls. Here, the Republican candidates answer YouTubers' questions. See more YouTube pictures.
YouTube Image Gallery In 2007, CNN and YouTube partnered to let average Americans ask debate questions to presidential hopefuls. Here, the Republican candidates answer YouTubers' questions. See more YouTube pictures.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

In February 2005, three PayPal employees launched the beta test version of a Web site called YouTube. They designed the site to let people share videos with the rest of the world. In November 2005, Sequoia Capital invested more than $3 million in the site, and a month later YouTube emerged as a full-fledged Web destination. It didn't take long for the site to become popular, and in November 2006, Internet search engine goliath Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion.

As the company has grown, so has the scope of the videos on the site. In the early days of YouTube, you could find videos showing interesting locations, crazy stunts and hilarious pranks. You can still find that sort of content today, but you'll also see political debates, musical performances, instructional videos and unfiltered war footage. In 2007, YouTube even provided members with a way to interact with potential United States presidential candidates. YouTube members submitted video questions, and CNN featured some of them in Democratic and Republican candidate debates.


­YouTube has also become the center of several controversies. One of the most publicized controversies involves copyright infringement. YouTube doesn't prescreen videos before they appear on the site -- members upload thousands of videos every day. Sometimes, YouTube members will upload television shows or clips from movies to share with other people. If the YouTube member doesn't own the copyright to that material, there could be trouble.

Another controversy is currently brewing in the YouTube community itself -- the battle between the online community and corporations. YouTube has formed partnerships with major television studios like CBS, NBC and the BBC and with organizations like Universal Music, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Notable celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton have also joined YouTube. Some YouTube members feel that these wealthy organizations and individuals are squeezing out the average contributor. They argue that average user videos are competing with people and organizations that have huge budgets and extensive resources, and some members suggest that these groups and celebrities are using underhanded methods to ensure their videos rise to the top of YouTube's various video lists.

­What is this loyal YouTube community? In this article, we'll explore YouTube channels and communities and learn some neat YouTube tricks. We'll also examine the YouTube video player, tour YouTube's main pages and discover the difference between the different types of YouTube accounts And we'll even take a look at YouTube's rules and guidelines as well as at the company behind the videos.

Before we delve into all things YouTube, it's a good idea to look at what the site is all about -- videos. In the next section, we'll learn about YouTube's video player, the video formats YouTube accepts and how members can help viewers find their work.

YouTube Videos

YouTube videos are all in Adobe Flash Video format, which has the file extension designation of .flv. You've probably encountered several different video formats on the Internet, each with its own dedicated video player. These include:

  • QuickTime, from Apple, plays files that end in .mov
  • RealNetworks RealMedia plays .rm files
  • Microsoft Windows Media can play a few streaming file types: Windows Media Audio (.wma), Windows Media Video (.wmv) and Advanced Streaming Format (.asf)
  • Adobe Flash player plays .flv files and .swf animation files

Flash Video has two big advantages over other formats. First, it has high compression ratios, which means .flv files tend to be smaller than other formats. Second, Flash Video requires a flash player applet rather than a stand-alone video player.


Creating a Flash applet is a fairly simple coding task -- there are several Web pages that can guide you through the entire process. YouTube's Flash player has the standard bells and whistles, including volume control, play, rewind and a couple of buttons that allow the viewer to minimize or maximize the viewing screen.

In order to view YouTube videos, users must have Macromedia Flash Player 7.0 or higher installed on their computers. Since the player is free, there's no cost to the user to get his or her computer up to speed. YouTube's player only works with .flv files, but fortunately users don't have to create or convert files into that format before sending them in.

YouTube accepts video files in Quicktime (.mov), Windows Media Video (.wmv), Audio Visual Interleave (.avi) and Moving Pictures Expert Group (.mgp) formats. Users upload video files in one of these formats and YouTube converts them into .flv. YouTube calls the period between uploading a file and the completion of conversion processing time, which varies depending on the size and format of the original file. YouTube says that processing time might only take a few minutes or could require several hours. If a video takes longer than eight hours to upload, YouTube suggests that the video's creator remove the video and try uploading it again.

In the next section, we'll take a look at YouTube's layout.

YouTube Layout

This screen greets new YouTube users when they log onto the site.
This screen greets new YouTube users when they log onto the site.
Screenshot by

First-time visitors to YouTube might feel a little overwhelmed when they arrive at the main Web page. The page shows thumbnails of videos currently being watched by other users, a list of promoted videos, a larger video window on the right featuring a sponsored video and a list of featured videos farther down the page. There's also a search field that visitors can use to look for videos about a particular person or subject.

The main page has tabbed links to four other important YouTube sections: videos, categories, channels and community. Each tab lets you search for videos in different ways. Let's take each tab individually:


  • The videos tab takes you to a page where you can browse videos based on various statistics, including the most recently uploaded videos, the most viewed videos, videos with the highest member ratings and videos that many members have picked as favorites.
  • The categories tab arranges videos into broad subject categories, like autos and vehicles or entertainment. YouTube doesn't decide where videos should go -- the video's creator designates the appropriate category when he or she uploads the video.
  • The channels tab divides videos into sections based on the type of member who uploaded the videos. In other words, you can search for videos uploaded by comedians, directors, gurus, musicians, nonprofits, partners and sponsors. Videos within each category are not grouped by subject matter.
  • The communities tab divides videos into two sections: groups and contests. Groups are organizations formed by YouTube members focused on a particular subject or theme. Contests are competitions and games sponsored by YouTube members -- each contest has different rules and prizes.

In the next section, we'll learn more about the different member accounts offered by YouTube.

YouTube Accounts

A new YouTube account contains several empty fields for future videos that the member will download.
A new YouTube account contains several empty fields for future videos that the member will download.

You don't need an account to watch videos on YouTube. If you want access to some of YouTube's other applications, you'll need to sign up for a membership. Most YouTube memberships are free, and you can change your account designation at any time.

Account types include:


  • The basic YouTube account, called the YouTuber, allows members to upload videos, comment on other videos, rate videos with a one- to five-star rating system, designate videos as favorites, create a personal channel (YouTube's version of a member page), subscribe to other members' videos, share videos and befriend other YouTube users.
  • Originally, members with director accounts could upload larger video files than average YouTubers. Eventually, YouTube allowed all members to upload larger files. Today, directors can personalize their own member channels with performer information and logos, and their videos appear on the directors channel on the main YouTube channels page.
  • Comedian accounts are for people who upload videos that are intentionally funny and promote their careers. Members with a comedian account can include a schedule of performance dates on their personal member channels.
  • Musician accounts are for members who want to promote their musical talents. Like comedian accounts, members with musician accounts can include a schedule of performances on their personal channels.
  • Guru accounts are for people who have a high level of expertise in one or more subjects. Their videos are designed to teach people how to do something, how something works or generally educate the viewer. Gurus have a special section for personal information in their personal channels.
  • Nonprofit accounts are for nonprofit organizations to promote philanthropic causes and gather donations. YouTube allows nonprofit organizations to include a donation application from Google checkout on the organization's channel page.
  • Partners are people or organizations that have formed a partnership with YouTube. Partners provide content to the site and share in revenue generated from advertising. Account holders can include huge corporations like major television studios or individual YouTubers who have achieved a high level of visibility and popularity.
  • The last category of memberships is sponsors. YouTube sponsors pay to have content featured prominently on YouTube's homepage.

In the next section, we'll learn about YouTubers' personal channels.

YouTube Channels

Channel pages, like this HowStuffWorks one, include information about the channel's owner and all of his or her uploaded videos.
Channel pages, like this HowStuffWorks one, include information about the channel's owner and all of his or her uploaded videos.

When you become a YouTube member, YouTube assigns a personal channel to you. The channel has divisions designed to display a short personal description, thumbnails of videos you've uploaded, members to whom you've subscribed, videos from other members you've picked as favorites, lists of members who are your friends and subscribers and a section where other people can comment on your channel.

You can visit another member's personal channel by clicking on his or her user name. Here, you can view all of the YouTuber's videos as well as all the videos he or she picked as favorites. You can even see the other members to whom the YouTuber has subscribed. Personal channels let you explore YouTube as a social network rather than as a simple video database -- you can find users who like the same kinds of videos you do and find out what they are watching.


When you first create an account, your personal channel is a digital wasteland -- all the sections are empty. Fortunately, YouTube makes it easy to turn your personal channel into an attractive virtual destination. After filling in your profile information, you can adjust your personal channel's color scheme. You can pick one of YouTube's suggested color schemes or create your own using hexadecimal color values.

Using a simple menu, you can change the layout of your personal channel. You can choose to display or hide sections, and you can choose whether they appear on the left or right side of the Web page. These options let you make your channel unique.

Once you've set up your channel, it's time to fill those empty fields. Explore the site and look for videos you really enjoy. You can watch videos and click on the favorite link to add the video into your personal channel's "favorites" section. You can subscribe to the person who uploaded the video to keep up with his or her uploads -- a screenshot of the member's latest video will appear in your personal channel's "subscriptions" section. When you upload a video of your own, it will appear in the top right section of your channel (unless you've changed the layout options). As you upload more videos, you'll fill the "videos" section in your personal channel, and the latest clip will feature in the upper right side of your profile.

YouTube is all about sharing. In the next section, we'll look a little closer at the YouTube community, the people who post and their videos.

YouTube Community

YouTube's community page shows featured selections of popular groups and contests.
YouTube's community page shows featured selections of popular groups and contests.

There are many ways YouTube members can interact with one another. You can send private messages or make a comment for everyone to see through a user's personal channel. You can also comment on individual videos unless the video's creator has turned off that feature.

Some YouTubers prefer to turn off the comment feature in an effort to avoid trolls -- members who leave insulting comments. Another annoying comment byproduct is spam. Some YouTube accounts seem to exist only so that the user can leave comments advertising a particular Web site or YouTube video in as many comment sections as possible. Fortunately, YouTube has provided users with an option to block specific accounts from commenting on videos.


Some YouTubers want to keep every comment, even negative ones. That's because each comment on a video contributes to the clip becoming one of YouTube's "most discussed" videos. When a video lands on the most discussed list, it's featured on YouTube's videos section, which can result in a dramatic increase in viewers. On YouTube, it really is true that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

YouTubers can even leave video responses to another video. The member wishing to comment films himself or herself and uploads it to YouTube as a comment. It's possible for two or more members to engage in a video conversation or debate by uploading video replies to one another. YouTube has a Quick Capture tool that allows members to record a video using a Webcam and upload it to the site using a single application, which works great for video responses.

Another way users can interact is to rate one another's videos. Under each video is a rating mechanism that ranges from one to five stars. YouTube members can rate videos (non-members can only watch and enjoy). YouTube automatically tallies user ratings and features the highest rated videos on the videos page.

Many YouTubers use their accounts to express admiration or condemnation for other YouTubers. Behind every prominent YouTuber is a small army of supporters and detractors. There are many passionate and sometimes fiery videos on YouTube focused on other members.

Not all community interaction is between YouTube members -- YouTube also has an official blog where members can read up on new developments on the site. YouTube staff members write the blog entries and use the space to announce new events, contests and interesting YouTube applications.

In the next section, we'll look at the rules and regulations that YouTube community members are expected to follow.

The Rules of YouTube

A quick sample of some of the videos on YouTube might lead you to believe that anything goes. In reality, YouTube has a strict set of rules that all members must follow. Specifically, it's against YouTube's policies to post videos that:

  • Are pornographic or sexually explicit
  • Contain frontal nudity (though bare behinds abound on YouTube)
  • Feature graphic violence
  • Include disturbing or disgusting video footage
  • Violate copyright laws
  • Contain hate speech, including verbal attacks based on gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion, disability or nationality
  • Reveal other users' personal information

While YouTube employees often browse user videos, there are too many uploads -- more than 65,000 per day -- for staff members to view everyone to make sure it meets community guidelines.


YouTube relies heavily on community members policing the site. Every video has a link under it titled flag. Clicking on this link will alert YouTube staffers that someone believes the video content violates YouTube's terms of use. Staffers review every flagged video, and if they agree that the video violates YouTube policies, they'll remove the clip from the site and send a warning to the video's creator. If the violation is really extreme, YouTube might also delete the creator's account. They don't base it on community dislikes though as the most disliked video on YouTube is still viewable.

Some content has landed YouTube in hot water with national governments. In April 2007, Thailand officials ordered a countrywide ban on YouTube when the Thai government identified a clip as offensive to King Bhumibol Adulyadej. YouTube removed the video and agreed to ban any other videos that contained material offensive to the people of Thailand. In August 2007, Thailand lifted the ban on YouTube [source:].

Members who use YouTube responsibly know that there's no shortage of cool features. In the next section, we'll learn about the tricks YouTube provides to make Web pages and videos more exciting.

YouTube Tricks

The video toolbox is a place where members can share their tips about video production.
The video toolbox is a place where members can share their tips about video production.

YouTube would probably be a popular Internet destination even if it were only a video database, but the site is much more than that. YouTube constantly develops and shares new features and applications that make the user experience more enjoyable. YouTube strives to make every task user-friendly, from viewing a video to creating one of your own.

One of the great things about YouTube is that you don't have to be a member to take advantage of one of its best features: embedding videos. Every video page on YouTube has a field containing the code you need to embed the video on another Web page. Anyone browsing YouTube can copy the code, go to another site and paste it into the site's HTML code. So, if you write a blog about car maintenance and you find a great video on YouTube about engine repair, you can embed a YouTube player in your blog and your viewers will be able to watch it from your Web site.


Non-members can also share videos by clicking on the share link. After a user clicks on the link, a share video box appears under the video where the user can type in e-mail addresses and a short message. Then, the user clicks on send message and sends an e-mail to the list of contacts with a link to the video.

YouTube also has a section called the video toolbox, which features videos that teach you tips and tricks of video production. There are videos about lighting, video editing, camera angles, sound production and special effects. You don't have to be a YouTube member to watch these videos.

Another YouTube section is the TestTube, where YouTube offers new applications for beta testing before rolling them out to the entire site. Some of TestTube's applications include:

  • Active sharing, which shows other YouTubers what you're watching.
  • AudioSwap, an application that lets you change the audio on your video. YouTube created this application so that members could remove audio that was under copyright and replace it with officially licensed music.
  • Remixer, a program designed by Adobe Premiere Express that lets you make edits to videos already loaded into YouTube, including transitions and effects.
  • Streams, which are chat rooms where multiple people can watch and comment on the same videos simultaneously. It's like being in a movie theater and chatting about the film with your friends, but without the risk of being kicked out by an usher.

Perhaps the most useful feature on YouTube is the search function. When a YouTuber uploads a video, he or she can fill out fields for the title, description and tags to include key search terms. It's up to the YouTuber to make sure all appropriate search terms are included. Smart YouTubers know that it pays to throw in a couple of common misspellings of search terms as tags. Unscrupulous members will throw in popular terms that have nothing to do with the actual videos. This artificially boosts the videos' visibility, though it probably doesn't help the video get good ratings.

Just who are the masterminds behind this site? We'll take a look at YouTube the company in the last section.

YouTube the Company

YouTube cofounders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley accept the Webby Person of the Year award at the 11th Annual Webby Awards on June 5, 2007, in New York City.
YouTube cofounders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley accept the Webby Person of the Year award at the 11th Annual Webby Awards on June 5, 2007, in New York City.
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

While YouTube's policies and software are fairly transparent, the company's financial structure is more mysterious. YouTube began as a private entity created by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim (Karim would later leave the company to continue his education). In the beginning, YouTube had no means of generating revenue -- it depended on investors like Sequoia Capital, which provided enough funding for YouTube to emerge from beta testing and go live in December 2005.

YouTube needed investments to stay afloat. Video footage, even in compressed Flash format, uses a lot of bandwidth, and companies must pay for the bandwidth they use. YouTube's popularity was both a blessing and a curse. It had become a major Web destination, but it also meant that bandwidth usage was on the rise. YouTube doesn't say how much bandwidth it uses, but articles published in 2006 claimed that YouTube streamed up to 200 terabytes a day [source: Forbes]. A terabyte is one trillion bytes.


Despite the fact that YouTube and its hosting provider, Limelight Networks, don't share their business accounting information, plenty of blogs guess about how much money YouTube must pay monthly for all that bandwidth. Most estimates are around $1 million per month, though some bloggers place the amount closer to $5 million. Either way, YouTube's bandwidth costs are just one of its expenses. Other expenditures include employee salaries and digital storage fees.

In November 2006, Google purchased YouTube for a reported $1.65 billion [source: New York Times]. YouTube still hadn't implemented a revenue strategy. The site's popularity continued to rise, but there wasn't a way to capitalize on it. Google began to look for ways to incorporate advertising on YouTube without alienating the YouTube community. In August 2007, Google began to introduce advertising in a few YouTube videos.

YouTube's ads are overlays -- transparent banners that appear at the bottom of videos about 15 seconds after the clip begins to play. Although an overlay partially obscures the video, YouTube claims that users find the ads more helpful than annoying and that the ads are five to 10 times more effective than other forms of display advertising [source: Telegraph].

Some YouTube members were worried that Google's advertising strategy would earn money off the videos of average members. Google must have foreseen members' anxiety and announced that it would share advertising revenue with video creators. Not all videos feature advertising -- only videos with a lot of views or creators with a large subscription base get to participate [source: YouTube].

Whether or not YouTube is a financially successful organization, it's certainly an important entity. It may even represent the next step in how we access media. Many people in the television industry believe that in the future, televisions and computers will merge together. Viewers will be able to access entertainment on demand. YouTube's popularity seems to support those assumptions.

To learn more about YouTube and related subjects, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • YouTube
  • Sahlin, Doug and Botello, Chris. "YouTube for Dummies." Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2007.
  • Greenberg, Andy. "YouTube's Filter Fails to Please." October 18, 2007.
  • Jones, Ashley. "YouTube's Legal Issues Grow." EContent. November 2007.
  • "Social Video: Videoblogging & YouTube." Library Technology Reports. September-October 2007.
  • Klaassen, Abbey. "YouTube ads bypass user-generated video." Advertising Age. August 27, 2007. Vol. 78, Issue 34.
  • Graham, Jefferson. "Google plans ad 'overlays' for some YouTube videos." USA Today. August 21, 2007.
  • Rosmarin, Rachel. "Hunting Video Pirates." October 15, 2007.
  • "Ban on YouTube lifted after deal." The Nation. August 31, 2007.
  • Green, Tom. "The Rise of Flash Video." Digital Web Magazine. October 9, 2006.
  • Frommer, Dan. "Your Tube, Whose Dime?" April 28, 2006.
  • Thelwell, Emma. "Google launches first YouTube ads." August 23, 2007.
  • Helft, Miguel. "Google Aims to Make YouTube Profitable With Ads." The New York Times. August 22, 2007.
  • "Viacom Files Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Against YouTube and Google Over Unauthorized Use Of The Company's Shows." FindLaw. March 13, 2007.
  • "Google buys YouTube for $1.65bn." BBC News. October 10, 2006.
  • Helft, Miguel. "Contributors on YouTube May Share Advertising Revenue." The New York Times. May 5, 2007.
  • Blodget, Henry. "Analyzing YouTube's Revenue Potential." Silicon Alley Insider. August 21, 2007.
  • Delahunty, Jamie. "Thailand YouTube ban lifted." August 31, 2007.