Thursday, April 18, 2013

YouTube: What happens when TV goes online

What happens when this thing we think of as television goes online? At the heart of this question is the very issue of the massification of media that grew out of the centralized, industrialized structures of the 20th century vs the demassification we're seeing in this century, with the extreme fragmentation of audiences, platforms, and content categories.

As this takes place -- and we are experiencing this shift in real time -- we have the opportunity to run some little experiments, which I will chronicle here in a series of blog posts. I want to tackle a few issues:

  • Look at the extent to which this thing we have become accustomed to as the electronically transmitted visual medium ceases to be television, enmeshed as it is with all sorts of industrial, commercial, and cultural considerations, when content and distribution shift to an online environment. 
  • Consider if this new platform, with its wild west, open to anyone ethos, threatens the omnipotence of television in any significant way.
  • Document the spillover of practices from online video to TV and from TV to online video.
It's all up for examination, so today on the blog, Part 1 in a currently open-ended series on ways to think about YouTube, the world's leading online video platform, that has been called everything from an "infinite gallery of...poor fools dancing, singing, eating, washing, or just staring into their computers" (Keen, 2008) to a new global media paradigm.

Young woman staring into computer, 2008.  6.7 million views as of 4/18/2013

Let's start with some basic binaries of the world of television, and its attendant systems, hierarchies, and strengths, and do a quick compare & contrast with the anything-goes world of YouTube.

At first glance you would think -- as most of us did when we first experienced YouTube -- that it had little chance of dethroning, or even affecting the course of  mainstream entertainment; mainstream entertainment being what it is as a result of decades of investment, talent cultivation, rigorous audience analysis, and marketing and promotion. Why some people would post to YouTube seemed a simple enough proposition, but why anyone would watch this unfiltered grab bag of home movie clips for more than the experience of a brief oddity was largely mysterious.

And even the founders of YouTube weren't sure what their platform was best for. In fact, in its earliest incarnation in Spring 2005 there were dating site elements on the home page as online dating was a big growth industry at the time, and one of the initial ideas was to use the online video repository as a way to meet people while on the web.

Fast forward to today, and scan some YouTube stats, as of Spring 2013:

  • 1 billion active visitors per month 
  • 72 hours of video uploaded per minute (up from 48 hours per minute in 2011, 24 hours in 2010, 14 hours in 2009, and 9 hours in 2007) *Note: As of May 20, 2013 the figure for hours uploaded per minute is 100.
  • Tens of millions of channels, started by everyday people.
  • Tens of thousands of of YouTube partners, i.e. content creators that meet the criteria to monetize their uploaded videos.
  • A few hundred YouTube Original Channels, an initiative launched in the fall of 2012 which showcased content creators from the worlds of music, comedy, sports, fashion, health & fitness, beauty, design, and assorted lifestyle channels, as well as channels carrying the names of well-known celebrities like Jay Z and Tony Hawk and lesser known performers like Smosh and Nerdist.A first round of $100 million was announced in October 2011 followed by a second round of investment of similar size in October 2012. More to come on the YouTube channel initiative in forthcoming blog posts.
So how did a website that wasn't even the first, or second, but the fifth entrant to universal video uploading (preceded by MetaCafe in July 2003, Vimeo in November 2004, Google Video in January 2005, and Daily Motion in March 2005) grow into the de facto video library of the world, one that would alter both our experience and definitions of visual entertainment?  The reasons for why one company succeeds while others flounder, or become also-rans, are many, but a pretty convincing discussion on this question can be found here.

But back to YouTube, and its extraordinary growth curve that brought it from single digits hours of video being uploaded per minute for its first 4 or so years of existence, to the first sea change, around 2009, when numbers jumped from uploads of 10 hours/minute to 25 hours/minute, 72 hours of video/minute by 2012, 100 hours/minute by the end of 2013 and almost certainly more by the time you're reading this. On the consumption side YouTube is at approximately 4 to 5 billion views per day.

And you could say -- and many have -- that this is a 'so what' statistic, that it only proves that because there are no costs associated with uploading video to YouTube there are no disincentives. When cost of entry is zero, why not enter? You can use YouTube to post videos of your kids and pets, you can use it to showcase your budding, or even middling talents as a singer, comedian, animator, makeup artist, etc. Does this then make it a digital dumping ground? The answer would be yes, but that in the case of YouTube it turns out not to be a bad thing, despite the high costs of storage, streaming, and keeping the site running.  These kind of economics would never pass muster in the world of mass media, which is all about carefully created content and carefully segmented audiences, but online, where shelf space is potentially infinite it can work.

Consider these numbers, though a few years old, but note that 63% of videos posted to YouTube receive fewer than 1,000 views, and just 1/3 of 1% receive over 1 million views. My hunch is that while there are now more videos achieving millions of views than in the early days of YouTube (as reported in an earlier post here), the prodigious volume of videos posted (72 hours per minute and growing) keeps the relative percentage of hit, or popular, videos quite low.


And yet, while the YouTube curve of videos uploaded per minute and views per day grows exponentially, there's this data (from 2011, though the relative numbers have not changed a lot since then) which shows that for all its corralling of eyeballs, YouTube is still a bit player in the view catching sweepstakes.  For TV's 150 hours viewed per month (in the U.S.) YouTube gets just three.

So why all the hubbub? And how could this possibly be working, working in the sense of efficiently providing audiences what they want to see, and working in the financial sense, as in how is this economically feasible?  Some of the answers, it turns out, lie in the counterintuitive.

See the next post in this series here.

But first: don't miss The Gregory Brothers' musical history of YouTube, on the occasion of its 8th anniversary, told in 3 mid-tempo minutes.

Related Posts: 

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching The Niches 
YouTube: When the going gets weird...YouTube goes mainstream?
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014
Platform Capitalism, or why your parents don't understand the Internet