The Problem of YouTube
Aymar Jean Christian / University of Pennsylvania
Few people have heard of Strike TV. The web video network, started in 2008 by Hollywood professionals protesting during the writer’s strike, was an act of revolt against the industry. But it was also a protest against the industry’s antithesis: YouTube. Caught in the middle, between an industry trying to control the web and the user-generated Internet, filmmakers, writers and directors decided to strike out on their own. “There wasn’t an outlet online for us,” founder and CEO Peter Hyoguchi told me. “There’s not a lot of incentive for a Hollywood professional to put something on YouTube when it’s going to be shoulder to shoulder with a cat jumping on a piano.” Strike TV started its own website, while still cross-distributing on YouTube, to showcase independent films and web series made by professionals working outside the industry system: content intended to have crisper writing and cinematography than YouTube’s most popular videos.
After five years of domination, YouTube is synonymous with web video. Yet almost since its early years, the site has had strong detractors and competitors, mostly from corporations seeking more control over content and more advertiser-friendly spaces. The problem of YouTube has always been about control over the growing market for web video. Over the last few years a new group of YouTube detractors has emerged: independent and professional filmmakers and entrepreneurs like those who populate Strike TV. The complaint is about control, again, but also highlights broader qualms about the digital economy. Plainly, YouTube has come to represent the chaos of the web itself, the chaotic home to amateurs churning out low quality content to rack up views from low ad rates.1 What YouTube’s critics seek is a more sustainable and less “viral” way to fund non-corporate content: a sustainable industry for independent web video.
A late-summer imbroglio reveals the tension. In what has become its own genre of reporting, The Business Insider published a list of “the richest independent YouTube stars,” all of which earned more than six figures.2 The top YouTubers are personalities who vlog, with a handful but growing number of independent filmmakers making comedic shorts. Business Insider’s list set off a debate in the “other” web video community: filmmakers who are professionally oriented making more expensive-to-produce episodic programs: web series, primarily. Tubefilter, the community’s main site, called it an “identity crisis.”3 YouTubers are great at building audiences4 but not the market necessary to fund a larger number of independent professionals, they claim. It has been good to several dozen personalities who have built up viewers, but it hasn’t created anything like television: advertiser-friendly, capable of bringing in new professionals, stressing quality (production) along with quantity (“views”).
The core of the argument against YouTube is simple: the site is “viral.” Few people beyond the small, relatively stable group of YouTubers have been able to replicate their skill at getting millions to tune in consistently. Advertisers, save Old Spice, are growing disillusioned.5 In interviews with independent producers, I’ve heard this time and again: YouTube puts the focus on “views” not on building quality audiences for inventive and “quality” forms of storytelling. Simplicity aside, they have a point. To be sure, YouTube is a complex site, easily misunderstood.6 YouTube is both a place for “amateurs” – the best of which are no longer amateurs and get lucrative product placement and TV deals7 – and corporations distributing content like music videos. It’s a social networking site and a broadcasting one. It’s a complex organism with its own internal tensions.8
But talk to filmmakers, many of whom spend thousands of dollars creating often complex and lush narratives (music videos, sitcoms, dramas, docu-series) and they lament how difficult it is to break through the sea of content. The past couple of years have seen growing disenchantment with the “long tail,” the idea that the web has created viable markets for those beyond the elite few.9 Matthew Hindman argues, somewhat persuasively, the Internet actually creates large inequalities. A few sites dominate traffic, overshadowing a large number of sites without many views at all and a noticeable “missing middle.”10 In the world of web video, the missing middle consists of sites who get more views and traffic than the unseen masses, but not enough to generate revenue and mass visibility: the recently profitable Huffington Post is at the top, the blogger in his basement at the bottom, and few blogs can survive in between, the theory goes. Independent filmmakers, like the ones Strike TV wooed, are in the latter category. YouTube seems to be replicating this dynamic, long thought to apply only to corporate sites (Google, CNN) and the minor blogs and user-generated content that can’t compete. The top YouTubers are the tip of the site’s iceberg, and they are the only ones making six figures.
Web video entrepreneurs and companies have been fleeing. First went the mainstream media and its stars, who created comedy sites as anti-YouTubes: NBC, TBS and HBO count among the few serious efforts, all of which eventually shuttered, except a few, like FunnyOrDie or Viacom’s Atom. Sony has developed Crackle as space for highly quality web series and films, working with brands for product placement and branded entertainment. Of course Hulu is the most visible “YouTube killer,” its ideological antithesis, the corporate grandpa to YouTube’s youngsters.11 None of these sites have matched YouTube’s dominance in revenue, video views or unique viewers, but they do make money, in part because they curate their content. As opposed to the vast sea, they give advertisers a small pond, clean and closed.
Seeing Hulu’s success, a handful of independent entrepreneurs are now trying to replicate its walled-garden model. Banking on low-cost, high-definition videos, they offer a chance for filmmakers to reach niche audiences and match them with advertisers so they can make money: a place for semi-skilled artists rather than, say, upstart personalities, to crudely caricature YouTube’s stars. Strike TV was among the first. Many, like MyDamnChannel and Babelgum, focus on comedy, while others, like Koldcast or Strike, are omnibus sites focused on producers with interesting ideas. Over the last year, sites targeting minorities have debuted, trying to connect black, gay, Latino and women-produced shows with hard-to-reach audiences: RowdyOrbit, GLO TV Network, Digital Chick TV, VisionTube, BetterBlackTV, among others.12 YouTube, while diverse, is a tough space for minorities to break out.
“I’ve been on YouTube but there’s a limit to how much you can get out of it,” VisionTube’s creator and mainstream media veteran Charles Williams told me in an interview. He started the site for multicultural web series and films after hearing the troubles of black filmmakers. “We would love to take our stuff off of YouTube,” they told him. “We actually professionally thought about this [their work], cast it and produced it.”
The debate over YouTube is hardly surprising. New media, from radio to television, often create new opportunities for a diverse group of players: amateurs, professionally oriented independents and corporations. When opportunities arise, people rush in and tussle over the future of the market and the meaning of the medium.13 What the web adds is the greater potential for a “middle” ground between amateurs and corporations. With low barriers to distribution, independents – film school graduates, skilled amateurs and corporate refugees – have access to advertising and viewers.
But creating a sustainable market for independent video is hard. A lot of puzzle pieces need to come together. Independent video networks and filmmakers need to learn from YouTubers’ skill at getting buzz and views. The press needs to shower as much attention on the middle-market as they do television (Hulu) and user-generated content (YouTube). Policymakers need to safeguard net neutrality. Video measurement needs to be streamlined. Advertising rates and targeting strategies need to mature. Instead of searching for “YouTube killers,” web video creators would do well to work towards a diversified market, like that for cinema, a place where Hollywood, independents and industry outsiders focus on separate markets, ultimately profiting and benefiting from each other.
1. Strike TV Logo
2. Author’s screen shot
3. Author’s screen shot of Crackle website
4. Author’s screen shot of Visiontube website
Please feel free to comment.
- The parallel debate in the world of web publishing is over “content farms.” See MacManus, Richard. 2009. Content Farms: Why Media, Blogs & Google Should Be Worried. ReadWriteWeb, 13 December, http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/content_farms_impact.php. [↩]
- Wei, William. 2010. Meet The YouTube Stars Making $100,000 Plus Per Year. Business Insider. 19 August,. http://www.businessinsider.com/meet-the-richest-independent-youtube-stars-2010-8 [↩]
- Hustvedt, Marc. 2010. The Web Series Identity Crisis. Tubefilter. 3 September, http://news.tubefilter.tv/2010/09/03/the-web-series-identity-crisis. [↩]
- Miller, Liz Shannon. 2010. The Lessons YouTubers Teach Us. NewTeeVee. 30 August 30, http://newteevee.com/2010/08/30/the-lessons-youtubers-teach-us [↩]
- Louderback, Jim. 2010. There, I Said It: Screw Viral Videos. Advertising Age, 30 August. [↩]
- Green, Joshua. 2008. “MisUnderstanding YouTube.” Flow. 8 August. [↩]
- YouTube’s Lucas Cruikshank is the site’s most successful crossover to TV, see Cohen, Joshua. (2010). ‘Fred: The Movie’ Draws 7.6 Million Viewers. Tubefilter. September 20, http://news.tubefilter.tv/2010/09/20/fred-the-movie-draws-7-6-million-viewers. For examples of how brands use YouTubers, see Slutsky, Irina. (2010), Meet YouTube’s Most In-Demand Brand Stars. Advertising Age, 13 September, http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=145844. [↩]
- See Burgess, Jean and Green, Joshua. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009, and Jarrett, K. 2008. Beyond Broadcast Yourself: The future of YouTube. Media International Australia, 126, February, pp. 132-144. [↩]
- Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2008. [↩]
- Hindman, Matthew S. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. [↩]
- Christian, Aymar Jean. 2010. Is Hulu Winning the Web Video Wars? Televisual. 29 July, http://blog.ajchristian.org/2010/07/29/has-hulu-won. [↩]
- Christian, Aymar Jean. 2010. Rise of the Black Network? Online and On-Air, Growing Alternatives to YouTube and BET. Black Web 2.0. 15 October. http://www.blackweb20.com/2010/10/15/rise-of-the-black-network-online-and-on-air-growing-alternatives-to-youtube-and-bet. [↩]
- Radio is a classic example. As Susan Douglas noted in her history of early radio: “amateur operators constructed their sets of meanings around radio, meanings with which large institutions had to come to terms.” Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, xxvii. For a broader perspective on the cycle of new media, see also Wu, Tim. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York: Knopf, 2010. [↩]
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Thanks, Aymar, for this informative column. I learned many new things from it, and will follow up your references and sites mentioned to learn more. Currently I am also reading Alex Juhasz’ web book Learning from YouTube http://mitpress.mit.edu/learningfromyoutube
Your column adds to this perspective very well. My own particular interest is how these outlets are new places to see documentaries. Do you have any ideas which sites, besides SnagFilms, have a lot of documentaries? YouTube features a kind of actualites, but the terribly low quality of the image is very off-putting to me. That is why some sites with higher quality image might be more appealing.
Some of the issues you discuss around the long tail, which has very little middle ground, also apply to podcasts. Even if I want to be democratic in my listening, the podcasts made out of radio shows are much higher quality than the others, so they become default listening and are the ones I collect on my iPod.
Hope to read more by you in Flow, Julia Lesage
Thanks for reading! For documentaries, I think you’re right that SnagFilms is really the marquee property. Many independent filmmakers without distribution upload their films to Vimeo, which has built its brand on being higher quality than YouTube, though it has an upload limit. Blip.TV might have a few as well, and they pay users. YouTube is working with distributors to get more feature-length films on the site, and that includes documentaries, but it’s really not where it should be — and mostly includes films distributed in theatres (higher budget documentaries).
Nevertheless, SnagFilms has been raising more money and expanding, so perhaps they can actually push forward the market for docufilms online.
The issue of “quality” in new media economies is a big one — more production requires greater discrimination between products. Hopefully I and others will be writing more about it.
I just saw Juhasz’ book. It’s very inventive and exciting!
Anyar: Thanks for this! A thought: I recently commented about why no one watches quality film on YouTube on a great indie film blog “Truly Free Film,” in a conversation there about why there is no money to be made for indies online. I think it has a lot to do with already sedemented viewing vernaculars as well as the murky, unsupported middle, that you describe so well:
“Now the matter of YouTube is another thing entirely, and in this case, I’d say that it is because vernaculars of viewing are already “badly baked” and people only want to watch fast, funny, innane things when they put their browser there.”
“Badly baked” might be the right phrase. They’re trying to change it though, and there have been a lot of developments since I wrote this piece, including rumors Google would buy Next New Networks and news today of a big push toward “celebrity” channels, which doubles-down on their personality-focused identity but opens the door to higher quality independent video (like what Atom and Crackle have been gunning for).
Really fascinating article, Aymar. I think you have hit on a lot of key points regarding something that will have an ever increasing impact on our lives.
YouTube is expected to be too much. It’s your one-stop shop. It’s the amazon.com of content consumption. It is expected to have the latest movie trailers, popular advertisements, indie webs series, learning seminars, amateur content, and joke videos (and this is just to name a few).
It can be everything because it is the essence of the democratization of media. Anyone with a cell phone and an internet connection can submit a piece of media for distribution on the same stage as major corporations or production companies. There are many benefits in putting media creation in the hands of everyone, however, we should not expect the results to necessarily be worth watching. To paraphrase John Landis, who recently spoke at USC regarding the democratization of media: how many years have pencil and paper existed? And how many truly great books exist in the world today?
There is very little organization of content on the site (and how could there be with a seemingly infinite amount of videos uploaded every second of every day), yet YouTube is expected to have it all. Because of the fact that anyone can submit anything, YouTube is almost like US television in the network era, whose viewership was so broad in scope (it had to cater to everyone) that the content itself became marginalized and bland at best. Society now is segmented (just look at the proliferation of specialized niche-market cable channels) and from a financial standpoint, YouTube is struggling to fit in. The reason why “funnyordie” or “Atom” has had any success is because it has formulated and branded its own niche market. When you go to funnyordie.com, you as a viewer know to expect short spoofs or sketches, sometimes with celebrity involvement, that generally relate to current pop culture headlines. It is almost like a cable channel spinoff of YouTube and therefore, is able to target a very specific type of viewership. YouTube is unable to brand itself in this way and because of its mission to democratize media (with very little regulation), it will continue to be a place that has it all, but with very little focus, and thus economic potential. This may not necessarily be a bad thing to the viewers, but it will certainly puzzle corporations looking for a way to monetize internet content for a long time to come.
Great choice of topic, Aymar.
I have a strong opinion about youtube because I come primarily from the perspective of the video producer – I have directed and uploaded a vast assortment of content to youtube throughout the past five years. I have created and uploaded many types of videos, to vastly varying degrees of success (measured in combinations of view count, and what I would call “street cred” and job offers).
I would seem to fit into what you call a the “missing-middle” producer; I have been a film student for the last five years and have been struggling and hustling to gain some kind of success, partially with the help of sites like youtube. I am not a big company, and I am not a “youtube personality.” I have posted documentaries, viral comedy, experimental art, pop music videos, experimental music videos, and short narrative films.
I have not made one cent from youtube, and I would never hope to. Instead, I have gained what I would call “street cred” by producing popular videos online that may or may not have helped me gain scholarships, job offers, ect.
The only direct “success” I have found on youtube has been the success of getting lots of people to watch and comment/interest over my videos. For instance, I posted a documentary I made about Chinese Metal Bands in Beijing. The film has made about 15,000 views during the past 3 years. In youtube “viral” terms, that is an absurdly small number. But to me, that is a huge audience that I have no other way of gaining. I have other videos that have made that many views in one day, but those are the rare ones.
As a visual artist, the definition of “success” is a personal one. Would I rather make a few thousand dollars from a short film, or would I rather have hundreds and thousands of viewers and “fans” of my art. I personally would choose the fame over the fortune. And the reason people will watch some of my videos over and over again is because it is absolutely free, and that is the way I would like to keep youtube.
I take issue with the idea that youtube is “a tough space for minorities to break out.” If anything, youtube is a very important place of communication between subcultures – for example trans people have thousands of videos about different techniques on gender performance. I think that these alternative “minority” youtube sites you mention are just hoping to make an extra buck by targeting specific subcultures, but in the end I don’t think they will allow the same kind of important mass dialogue that the youtube “space” offers.
As a young filmmaker trying to “make it,” yes, it is true; youtube does not give me direct monetary gain in any way. However, it indirectly has opened up job opportunities for me and by being a “free service,” as allowed thousands of people to enjoy (or enjoy criticizing ☺) my work. I honestly believe that youtube is a great “proving ground” for young filmmakers. It is very difficult to break through the sea of content. However, if you can intelligently target a specific audience and create a work of art that has a real importance to them, you may get thousands of views and connections that may open more filmmaking opportunities for you in the future.
One last note: VIMEO
The video community that was left out which I think should be addressed, is VIMEO. I would call Vimeo: “The middle-upper-class-white-man’s-Youtube” because that is who the producers seem to primarily be. I pay extra on Vimeo to upload my reel in higher video quality than on youtube. The site’s layout is “classier” than youtube’s and so when I’m showing my work to a select few (people that will higher me for jobs, and my artsy colleagues), I will refer them to my Vimeo page. If I’m trying to reach a more broad audience, I use Youtube because EVERYONE is used to using it, and I depend on the view count for street cred.
Thanks Aymar, it was very interesting to read.
The biggest part of Youtube is, as many people have said, it has the biggest video library and is expected to have everything, and therefore everyone goes to Youtube to search for what they want to watch.
When it was built for the first time, it was not for big corporations or professionals, but it was more for individuals who wanted to express themselves out to the world by uploading user generated video clips, and I believe what mattered at the point is more about how many people would be interested in their stuffs rather than the quality of the video. The type of content was not specified but this concept that anyone could upload anything they liked/taped was clear enough, and it soon became the first stop to upload/search for videos and this is how Youtube has developed and was able to build such a strong viewership.
Still, whether the quality of video is better or not, as long as people can get successful amount of “views,” it would not helpful to have direct monetary value out of Youtube, but at least for people like indie bands, it is a very good place to promote themselves by uploading music videos since it has the biggest viewership in the world, and it would somehow eventually lead to monetary success.
I agree that it seemed that the goal of Youtube was never to have truncated narratives that followed the format of a television show and that for the most part was made as a platform for a more informal dialogue. I think for the most part people turn to youtube to see amateurs engaged in extroadinary activities, crass comedy,DYI’s,animals engaged in extroadinary behavior or to view their favorite clips from professional content. I think the problem that professionals have trying to break through the sea of content is that they still don’t understand the appeal of the content and how to infuse that in to their material. This can’t be blamed on lack of imagination, because in order to get money to make said content you usually need a co-orperate sponser to fund the production and the product ends up bland and commercial.
Ian A: You’re right, Vimeo is an interesting counterpoint to YouTube. Without built-in advertising (a “partner program”) it keeps its non-profit, filmmaker feel. A lot of professional web video makers prefer it, since there’s less focus on “views,” which they know they won’t be able to monetize anyway, and more on the quality of the production. ‘Very Mary Kate’ I think is a great example of this (and a success story, as it’s now on CollegeHumor).
Re: Street cred. Street cred is important, though it’s increasingly difficult in a crowded marketplace. YouTube can work for people, but it seems more and more producers need a “YouTube strategy”: focusing on the site itself, networking and making new video much more consistently. If you’re young or have a lot of free time it can really pay off.
Also, since writing this, more info has come out, and we now know that thousands of YouTubers are actually making five-figures on the site. (See: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/b.....xQKbwOthoI). It’s great news. But most of those are, I assume, individuals. What so-called “professional” production allows is employment for multiple people (editors, boom operators, etc.), and that’s I think part of the argument of the people I talk to: consistent revenue for all film workers.
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Good stuff from Youtube. Thanks for sharing.