Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Better viewing through chaos

In the last post we looked at the coming of age of YouTube as an increasingly serious contender in online entertainment. Numbers so large that they are difficult to wrap our heads around: One billion unique users every month, over 4 billion videos streamed daily, over 6 billion hours of video viewed per month, and 100 hours of video uploaded per minute. In fact, YouTube viewing has become such a popular and mainstream pastime that JC Penney employees were tracked earlier this year and the results indicated that they had watched five million YouTube videos, from the office, over a period of four weeks. I raise this point because it's an example of the completely different context in which media and entertainment are now able to reside. Previously this thing called 'media' was something we experienced at home, or in our leisure time, on devices that were either tethered to rooms, or on Walkmans and Discmans (or even transistor radios, for people who go back that far...hello to you, if you do) that we wore while walking around, exercising, or on bus, train, and subway journeys. And it was something that came from locales of industry, generally hierarchical structures that let certain things past its gates, and kept others out, with the assumption that industry knew better than audience what the audience desired.

Model wearing early Walkman, 1980.   
As things shifted from the vaguely personalized, but still centralized, media model of, say, the Walkman days to today's anywhere/anytime/everywhere/all the time media, new ways of thinking about the production and consumption sequences and cycles become more important. The why people do what they do, along with the where, how, and under what circumstances, are immensely helpful in understanding new systems that at first blush seem to defy the logics we have used to guide us in the past. It is the desire of this blog to provide readers (and in the process the writer) with some insights into how we might better navigate this shift from fixed, filtered, and scheduled industrial-grade media to one where the experience of media is ubiquitous and self-serve and content is constantly in motion.

As we venture down that path we entertain such questions as:

Is niche content just for niche audiences?

- What happens when media content can be created by the individual and achieve free, global distribution, without the interference of gatekeepers?
- Will the result be something of interest to anyone outside of the person that posted it and his/her social circle? 

- Could an online platform designed without the elements of an organized system gain enough traction to take a bite out of the public's media consuming practices? 

- Are there forms of entertainment that a more freeform platform than traditional broadcasting can provide that could now find a 'big enough' (as opposed to mass media 'big') audience?

Earlier posts have looked at specific industries, such as music and film, and the new challenges that come as the pendulum swing toward digital. This series of posts looks at YouTube, the online video platform that spans multiple screens and moments, that breaks almost all of the rules created by the entertainment industry in the 20th century, as a framework for thinking about new channels of distribution and the new forms to which they give rise.

As is the case with so many startling statistics, the billions of this and that that we keep seeing pop up with regard to YouTube are, after all, just numbers. And numbers only mean something in the context of other numbers. So I whipped up a little compare and contrast table, using data from digital analytics firm comScore, to get a snapshot of how things have evolved in the online video marketplace over the past four and half years. (I picked this slice of time because I wanted to see the numbers before players such as Hulu and Vevo came into being, and  before Facebook enabled video embedding.)

And here's what we have:

Data compiled from comScore quarterly reports

Some takeaways at a glance:

  • Internet video went from essentially zero to 33 billion in a handful of years. 
  • The amount of online video has almost tripled in the 4+ year period being looked at here.  
  • Note: not included in the above table is the number of minutes spent on YouTube monthly, which is approximately 62 billion, spread across approximately 15.5 billion videos, for an average viewing duration of around 4 minutes. 
  • The plethora of small players and pirate sites make up almost half of online video viewing, but, nevertheless -- surprise surprise -- the world of online video is ruled by YouTube (or, since the late 2006 acquisition, Google, hence its appearance in the chart above under the umbrella of 'Google sites'). 

It's also interesting to observe that even in the wake of the arrival of the industry-sanctioned sites such as Vevo and Hulu, YouTube remains king. Everyone else, even Facebook, with its 1 billion+ users, and established online entities (e.g. Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo!) and offline entities (e.g. Turner, Viacom, ESPN, Disney) net only single digit share of online video viewing.

Although an average of 4 minutes of viewing does not make for a compelling comparison with television or even radio, the abundance and variety of video content now available online has created a group of new viewing experiences that don't fit within the rubric of television, but do speak to what segments of the audience definitely want.  While broadcasters and networks structures were/are skilled at making mass entertainment for mass audiences,YouTube is showing that it has great resonance with niches. And when I use the term 'niches' I don't only mean content for which there is a small or select audience, but also the things for which we didn't even have a category, such as five seconds of Dramatic Chipmunk (now closing in on 40 million views).

But it's not like these things are obvious, even to those in the higher echelons at YouTube. Just this week a YouTube executive admitted that even he had erred in his strategic thinking about what the service does best. "I thought YouTube was like TV", he said, "but it isn't." This after what the Wall Street Journal reported to be a $350 million investment in the original channels initiative during 2012 and 2013, the objective of which was to segment audiences, encourage longer viewing sessions, and to attract 'blue chip advertisers'.  Not at all Dramatic Chipmunk.

At its core YouTube is not like TV, and TV is not like YouTube, as much as industrial logic may want it to be. Just as radio listened to in your bedroom or your car is an entirely different experience from using Spotify or Pandora on your phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. These inherent digital differences help explain why, e.g, when Craig Newmark started Craigslist in San Francisco in the late 1990s (resulting in the world's largest online classifieds service) only in theory could it have been the domain of newspapers. And so it is with online video and the established players in broadcasting, such as networks and cable companies. Only in the broadest sense are, e.g, NBC and YouTube operating in the same space. In both of these cases cases -- i.e. online video and online classifieds -- the reason not a lot of attention was paid to the up and comers is that no one in the big organizations thought there was a serious threat to their core businesses. The new spaces were looked upon as fraught with issues such as inferior selection/quality and therefore small market share, not to mention assorted legal considerations, the loss of control that comes with interactive platforms, and the challenges of monetization. Overall the risks seemed to outweigh the benefits and the media-entertainment complex continued on its way. Ed. Note: And in possibly the worst case of fumbled industry ball, there's the music labels losing out to iTunes, a milestone which we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of this week.)

Yes, hindsight is a privileged position from which to judge the past, but that's not my objective here. I think we're all better served by a closer look at why large organizations that ostensibly had the
opportunity to stake out new ways of doing business did not. We can all imagine the talk around the meeting room tables, where these topics were likely raised once, if not several times. These new options were 'too off focus', 'too uncontrollable', and in a phrase 'not what we do'. It was the chaos that the new systems brought with them, chaos that posed a threat to the existing structure, that was simply too big to contemplate. Which just goes to show, particularly in matters related to technology and media, we can't use the categories that we currently have to think about how things may look in the future.

And this is what disruptive innovation truly looks like. The story of things considered (if considered at all) to be small potatoes, if not waste of time exercises. Products or services that were more limited and inferior to those of the major players and then, over a period of time, the incumbents are overtaken by the newcomers. Things of which we would initially ask "why on earth would I ever do/use that?" and then, in time, a logic to the chaos starts peeking through and "why would I do that" becomes "why not"? -- Twitter being perhaps the most poignant example of this why-to-why-not shift. At the same time, if there's not a saying like 'the difference between crazy and feasible is a couple of years', perhaps there ought to be.

In 2009 Alan Kirby used the phrase haphazardness to describe an essential quality of YouTube. "...Rhetorically everything is up for grabs...in process, made up...as it goes along", (p. 119) , or as John Hartley (2011) put it, rife with "unsystematic exuberance and unambitious content" (p.107) , yet, as he himself admits just a few lines later, YouTube ushers in an important new era of productivity and representation.

Upcoming posts will consider these topics in greater detail. I'll look at YouTube as an open and wonderfully chaotic platform, from which things of great interest and value can be constructed, both within the inherent chaos and within some of the structures of order that have more recently been layered onto it. And the rest, the approximately 2/3 of videos uploaded that receive fewer than 1,000 views and cost far more in storage and streaming costs than they will ever bring in via advertising, well, they just peacefully co-exist.  Only in the digital world could this ever be the case.

June 2nd, 2013 update:

I just found this enlightening blog post from YouTuber Hank Green, a participant in the funded YouTube original channels initiative with the channel Crash Course that offers up 5 to 15 minute videos on topics ranging from world history to chemistry and literature.

Though grateful for the support received from Google & YouTube he has referred to the effort as a 300 million dollar hole. Though a few bona fide hits emerged from the project, over 2/3 of the channels were not renewed with additional funding. Hank's channel has an impressive 735,000 subscribers and 39 million views and despite the cash injection received he maintains that when it comes to online video "it's now how good it looks, it's how good it is".

Related Post: Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching The Niches  

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