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Baby, you're a YouTube star

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Augusta Miller at age 15 months in a video her mother uploaded to YouTube. (Courtesy: Zoe Miller via YouTube)

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Augusta Miller at age 15 months in a video her mother uploaded to YouTube. (Courtesy: Zoe Miller via YouTube)

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Augusta Miller at age 15 months in a video her mother uploaded to YouTube. (Courtesy: Zoe Miller via YouTube)

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Augusta Miller at age 15 months in a video her mother uploaded to YouTube. (Courtesy: Zoe Miller via YouTube)

In her most critically acclaimed moment on film, Augusta Miller is in her car seat holding a sippy cup. The opening notes of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” play on the radio as she sits quietly, seeming to contemplate the lyrics of the classic 1980s rock anthem. Then the music fades and Augusta, age 15 months, looks perplexed and a little angry. She begins to wail and extend her arms skyward. When the music is turned back on, she is pacified. When the music is cut again, she cries until it comes back.

“It’s like a calm washes over her,” Augusta’s mom, Zoe Miller, 34, observes from off-camera. The video is a part of a series Miller has posted to YouTube entitled (with tough in cheek) “My Brilliant Daughter.” This episode led to a sequel a few months later, when Augusta developed the ability to sing along.

There’s no telling how many parents like Miller post videos of their infants and preschoolers on sites such as YouTube, MySpace or AOL Video, but it's clear that tens of thousands are doing it. Even as they confront privacy issues, parents use the video sites to connect with family and friends or share their children with the virtual world. Truveo.com, a video-specific search engine, has thousands of videos starring young kids in its index. A YouTube search for the words “cute” and “kid,” returned more than 20,000 videos; “funny” and “kid” returned almost 80,000.

“I started thinking, this will be funny for the grandparents,” Miller said recently, explaining why she put the videos of Augusta online. While uploading the videos, Miller used YouTube’s keyword tagging system and soon earned the respect of Journey fans across the Internet. People she had never met were leaving comments.

“Your daughter is brilliant! Journey and Steve Perry ROCK!,” one fan who goes by the screen name bib1956 wrote of the first video.

“At first it kind of creeped me out,” said Miller, a computer technician. “Then I thought, well, I did it to myself by putting those tags on there and now I just think it's kind of funny that people have discovered her from all over the place." Miller, who lives in the Midwest, is careful never to give away her location too specifically in any of the "My Brilliant Daughter" videos.

While impressive, the 600-plus views that Miller's first Journey video has received haven’t quite made it a YouTube blockbuster. “Star Wars according to a 3 year old,” the site’s latest viral smash to feature a toddler, recently scored more than 4 million views in two weeks. (In that video, hilarity ensues when a 3-year-old girl tries to explain the major plot points of the first Star Wars movie.)

Yet the majority of parents who post on the site deal in more mundane content. Videos of first steps or birthday parties are far more prevalent than foul-mouthed toddlers or diaper-wearing “American Idol” hopefuls.

For many parents, YouTube presents a way of sharing the same kind of home movies that families of an earlier generation might have watched together in a living room on holidays or at reunions. The easy-to-share videos connect with grandparents and family members in far away places without chewing up e-mail “inbox” space. “It’s a very big world out there and we’re able to make it a little smaller,” said Mike Levinstein, 31, father of 8-month-old Jonah, the star of TheLevinsteins.com.

Mike and his wife Leah use YouTube to host videos of their son and his play companion, their 2-year-old pug. The couple is living in Ohio while Mike earns his master’s in higher education administration, and they want to keep in touch with their extended families in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

YouTube’s privacy settings allow users to limit who is able to view their videos by designating who can watch or comment on them, but parents such as the Levinsteins are comfortable with anyone in the online community seeing their home movies.

“We don’t show the front of the house, we don’t put the address out there,” Levinstein said. “We’ve taken a lot of measures in our home and in our lives to make sure that we’re secure. I don’t think that being public is endangering him. If we ever felt that it was we would change it immediately.”

That view is shared by privacy experts.

“I don’t think we should live in total paranoia and fear that if we put a picture or a video of our kids online, that immediately places them in danger,” said Stephen Balkam, chief executive of the Washington-based Family Online Safety Institute. “Common sense is really what’s required here. The video of the tween or teenage kid acting out in a risky way is far more problematic than, say, parents posting their 1-ear-old walking for the first time.”

Balkam's institute is a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which launched this month as part of an agreement struck between MySpace and 49 state attorneys general. It will review, among other concerns, identity authentication and age-requirement enforcement on social network sites including YouTube.

Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, an online safety and education group, urges parents to use privacy settings and to be judicious about the videos they post. “We just need to weigh our wanting to be proud and showing off images of our kids with the risks that we’re posing because of sharing,” she said. “The best way to do it is to control who sees it. Look at what you’re posting before you post it and decide you really want to make it public.”

Users often find out how public such videos are only after they’ve posted.

Ken Wong, 39, a web designer in Toronto, has been sharing videos of his 21-month-old son, Joshua, on YouTube since Joshua’s birth. His friends often pass links to the videos onto friends, whom Wong might not know.

“When they finally meet Joshua, they're like, ‘Oh my God! I've watched you since you were a little baby.’ It’s really cool that way,” Wong said. “I didn’t expect the whole viral element.”

When Joshua approaches school-age, Wong said he may set the videos as strictly private, so that only those to whom he has granted permission can view them. Ultimately, parents who post online let their comfort levels dictate what goes up and who sees it.

Of course, it will be a few years before the stars of these videos will be able to give their own user feedback. “I do sort of worry that he’s going to get really mad,” said Wong. “At the same time I hope he thinks it’s cool.”

E-mail: mbl2128@columbia.edu