A Decade Later, YouTube Remains a Mystery, Especially to Itself
It’s way too complicated to explain this marvelous history quickly, but let’s try anyway
I am a professional creator of online video and I have had that job since the moment of its existence. I’m also something of a professional advocate for, and follower of, online video.
In the last ten years, YouTube has become so ubiquitously mainstream that the phrase “mainstream media” is obsolete. So on this arbitrary occasion, I feel a bit of an obligation to write down some of the history of the technology, the platform, the content, and the culture. Basically just a “how did we get here” from someone who, for a lot of it at least, was there. Let’s go:
OK, I wasn’t really paying attention to YouTube in the year after it began. No one was. But its growth was remarkably rapid. There were plenty of competitors, including Google Video, which actually launched before YouTube, and Blip.tv, which launched just a few months afterward.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think YouTube won out both by balancing just on the edge of legality, and by allowing (either intentionally or not) its creators to mislead users to score views.
This is not something anyone is terribly proud of, of course. “Gaming” the system—either with misleading titles or thumbnails or by encouraging viewers to do things (leave lots of comments, rate the video, etc.) that will increase the odds of algorithmic nirvana—is not just a YouTube thing; it’s an internet thing. This kind of gaming actually selects for dedicated user/creators who are willing to bend the rules for success. That worked out very well for YouTube.
The constant stream of copyright-infringing Family Guy and Daily Show clips fed YouTube’s exploding traffic. Uploaders of “user-generated content” (as YouTubers used to be called) were able to mooch off of some of that traffic, and so chose YouTube either when starting consistent projects or uploading potentially viral videos. YouTube built the initial audience, and the more content it had, the more that audience grew.
YouTube’s growth exploded in 2006. Ian and Anthony of Smosh, who began uploading in late 2005, were among the platform’s top native stars and they defined a lot of what it meant to be a “YouTuber.” I mention them specifically because of the dozens of folks who were around back then, Ian and Anthony are the only ones still at the top of the pack—a remarkable achievement.
Fueled by Ramen was maybe the first company to see YouTube as a place where music videos would go. The music video, which could never quite find a place on TV, has found its final form on YouTube. At this point, Vevo, the joint venture between Google/YouTube and the “big three” record labels, is responsible for a huge amount of YouTube’s traffic and revenue.
And then, at the end of the year, came the Google acquisition. A risky move that it’s hard to imagine today’s Google pulling off. Not only was it criticized for the wrong reasons (that it would be difficult to monetize and video hosting was ridiculously expensive, two problems Google was uniquely prepared to solve) it was also very risky for reasons no one talked about (copyright liability.)
Today’s Google actually failed to acquire the most interesting thing that’s happened to video since YouTube—Twitch.tv—probably because of liability concerns (about antitrust, not copyright this time). After years of sucking at live-streaming, Twitch figured it out for gamers while YouTube integrated Google Hangouts, a product built for corporate meetings. *sigh*
By the end of 2006, YouTube was a big freaking deal, helping to make “You” the TIME Magazine person of the year.
Many vital things happened to YouTube in 2007. For example, I started making videos, and was featured on the front page singing a song about the impending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…which changed my life a whole lot.
But the two actual important things that happened in 2007 were:
The Partner Program
In mid-2007 I got an email from a company that wanted to start a video platform that was very much like YouTube—except I would get paid. This didn’t really interest me because I was on YouTube to make things for people, not for money. Then, on August 17th, I got this message from George Strompolos, a YouTube employee who went on to start the multi-channel network, Fullscreen:
Congratulations — you’ve been selected to become a YouTube User-Partner! As a User-Partner, you will receive the following benefits:
* Enhanced channel page with auto-play and more branding options.
* Opportunity to “monetize” your videos for ad revenue sharing.
* Director Videos rotation.
* Inclusion in our partner “browse” area located at: Channels > Partners.
* You’ll be first in line for other cool stuff that hasn’t been released yet.
This was, I think, a direct response to new platforms attempting to poach YouTube talent. But it was also one of the most intelligent things YouTube ever did. By sharing revenue (something, by the way, no other social-content site does), YouTube created not just a content ecosystem, but an economic ecosystem. From Day 1, they gave partnered creators 55% of the revenue generated by our videos. As time went on and the rising tide floated a flotilla of boats, this became a pretty big deal for a lot of people. And eventually, a lot of companies.
Per unit of importance, Content ID is the most unknown of all YouTube features. Every video that is uploaded to YouTube is checked against a vast database of copyrighted content. How they do this with 60 hours of video uploaded every minute and a database that includes every movie, song, television episode, and copyrighted YouTube video in existence, I have no idea, but they do it.
This system allows content owners to do whatever they want with uploaded videos that use their content. So if someone uploads a lecture that uses a Crash Course video, I get to have my way with it. I can remove it from the site, monetize it for my own gains, or just leave it alone (I do the latter, personally). But for Lady Gaga, UMG, and the like, this is an entirely new and apparently significant source of revenue.
If 2007 was important for technology and monetization, then the next few years were all about a culture establishing and defining and loving itself. God, these were good times. YouTube put together a huge live show and brought a bunch of creators together to celebrate the platform at “YouTube Live.” They spent several boat-loads of money on this and then never did it again. I think that they realized YouTube as a culture should be independent of YouTube the corporation.
John and I went on our first tour, meeting fans all over the country and being shocked when hundreds of people showed up. The “YouTube Gathering” became a thing. Terminus in Chicago was where I sold my first CD (which I made on my wife’s lightscribe CD Burner). And “7/8/9" in New York City established the idea of the gathering as a fun, cool thing where about 10% of people would be well-known YouTubers.
These days, when YouTubers announce they’re going to a park and people should come see them, they’re being irresponsible and causing a potentially dangerous situation.
Overall, everyone just felt really lucky to be a part of this phenomenon. It didn’t hurt that traffic, viewership, and revenue were all skyrocketing.
With a huge amount of bias, I will say that (for me) this era peaks with VidCon 2010. This first VidCon was held somewhat ironically (and completely ignorantly) across the street from CAA. 1400 people gathered to celebrate and enjoy not just the creators but also the culture of creation that YouTube had inspired. Roughly 90% of attendees had active YouTube channels.
A local news reporter asked me if I thought this was the next ComicCon. I laughed at him. VidCon 2015 will sell out at around 20,000 attendees—so still not the next ComicCon—but these days, that question doesn’t make me laugh; it mostly terrifies me.
This distinction is completely arbitrary, but somewhere around here things got a little tumultuous. A number of different frustrations and problems came to a head that resulted in the most hated of all words on the social internet…CHANGE!
Some of these changes, though hated, were necessary.
YouTube took away some of our power in branding our own channel pages. This was super frustrating, but after seeing what users did to the “branding” of their MySpace pages, I could hardly blame them.
Eventually, people’s subscription feeds became so clogged with YouTubers attempting to out-upload their fellow creators and take up more feed space that YouTube had to go the Facebook route. Their decision to turn the “subscribed” state into just another data point in a suggestion algorithm (rather than a binary “show” or “don’t show”) is understandable, but will never stop pissing me off.
Of course, some of YouTube’s product decisions were just plain terrible, like the insistence on integrating Google+, despite the fact that the platform had already failed. Maybe they thought this would save it, who knows.
The G+ integration was touted by Google peeps as being the solution to everything from confusing log-in states to cruel comments. In fairness, it is easier now to switch between different channels and add managers to existing channels, but this took years. Comments, on the other hand, only got worse. Engagement with our videos dropped around 30% after the integration became mandatory.
It was perceived as a forced change motivated only by an attempt to save a failing product that no one wanted to use. And it was the first product that truly diminished YouTube’s relationship with its creators and with its users.
It’s easy to forget that in 2009, YouTube did not have pre-roll ads. Yes, the partner program had been around for years, but until pre-rolls, the number of views necessary to make a living was massive. And even then it wasn’t the kind of revenue you could base a business on.
Pre-rolls changed that, although ad rates remain far below what you would see on television or even Hulu.
This depression in ad rates eventually led to YouTube grasping at ways to satisfy advertisers’ demands for “more professional” content. YouTube’s Robert Kyncl, formerly VP of Acquisitions for Netflix, distributed over $100,000,000 to production companies (mostly of the traditional Hollywood variety) to produce “high quality” content. I received a bit of that money myself, which we used to create Crash Course and SciShow. Both of those channels became sustainable, but they are among a very small minority.
I’ve written before on the lessons learned from this initiative, but the TL;DR version is: YouTube is not TV, and we don’t need advertisers; they need us.
The mix of the very real fame being enjoyed by YouTube creators and the very real money being thrown around by YouTube changed the culture in two major ways.
First, diversity. As YouTube became a more legitimate-looking path to success, more people started getting into it. Of course, it was never clear exactly what content would catch on, but LOTS did. YouTube became much bigger than that insular little world in which everyone knew each other (excluding Vevo) of the 2006 to 2010 era. This was a good thing, and it has been fascinating to watch, even if I’m not really a part of it.
Second, with so much on the line, it stopped being all fun and games.
A few companies, starting with Machinima, began using a little-known YouTube feature that was originally intended to let trusted partners monetize new channels without going through the tedious “partnership application” process. Instead of on-boarding new channels they had created, they began bringing on existing, independent channels from creators YouTube had not yet partnered.
Partnered channels, aside from being able to monetize, were treated differently for copyright violations and often given extra features (including, in the beginning, the vital feature of being able to upload one’s own thumbnail).
These companies started on-boarding hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of channels into their networks, often in completely automated processes. In exchange for that on-boarding and a suite of services that were sometimes legitimate and sometimes completely made up, these “Multi-Channel Networks” (or “MCNs”) would take 20% to 50% of a channel’s revenue.
These MCNs, many of which have now been acquired by legacy media companies, were able to leverage this simple feature and become extremely important and powerful forces in the world of online video. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a culture of economically productive creators; there was an industry being layered on top of us. An industry that, looking back, seems to have done a lot more value extraction than value creation.
It feels very weird for that business to have been constructed on top of an economy that has been, for me, nothing more than a pleasant surprise. It’s especially strange how YouTube seems to have enabled this shift completely unintentionally. Weird.
2015 and Beyond
YouTube is always changing, and no one knows which new feature or project is going to change it forever. Just this week, they launched a new “Kids” platform that will live only on phones and tablets, and they’re reportedly working on a “subscription” version of the platform that will allow people to pay for ad-free viewing.
Here’s what I think: Ten years ago, a plug that had been placed in the institution of human connection started to leak. Somewhere around 2011, it blew out completely.
All of that pent-up energy of expression is impossible to aim in any specific direction. Once YouTube had been selected as the go-to destination, there was very little anyone could do to stop it from becoming extremely important and culturally impactful.
The only thing YouTube has to do is not try and put the plug back in. Sometimes I see them doing that—it infuriates me. It’s easier to monetize content that looks like TV because ad agencies are terrified of change. And it’s easier to deal with centralized power than distributed power. But forced centralization will only result in the pressure venting elsewhere (as we’re seeing with Twitch and Vine right now).
Believing that some special combination of innovative ideas and leadership is responsible for YouTube’s success is a fundamental misunderstanding of the root causes of this phenomenon. This last decade of uncontrollable growth happened because it was inevitable.
Diversification and competition is inevitable as well. In the last year, Facebook, Twitch, Vine, Vessel, and maybe even Tumblr/Yahoo have emerged as legitimate players in online video. I see this simply as an extension of the internal diversification of YouTube’s content that began in the 2010s. There is legitimacy, there is money, there is connection, and thus new platforms must arise to serve new kinds of content and underserved audiences.
We thought that there was only one place the plug would blow, turns out there are many, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for YouTube. It’s definitely a good thing for creators and audiences.
So if I have any message to my friends at YouTube it is this: Keep the plug open and the energy will keep flowing. Ten years on, it seems like a great deal has happened. But a quick glance at history tells me that we are only at the very beginning of this revolution.
Hank and his brother John have started several YouTube channels since 2007, including Vlogbrothers, SciShow, Crash Course, and Mental Floss. Their videos have been viewed more than a billion times. Hank is also the CEO and founder of VidCon, the world’s largest conference discussing and celebrating online video, which attracted more than 18,000 attendees in 2014.