YouTube’s Dark Side

How the video-sharing site stifles creativity.

Nick Douglas was online on Thursday, July 19 to chat with readers about the article. Read the transcript.

The Internet was supposed to make the video world egalitarian. No longer would an oligarchy of content providers—a few TV networks, a couple of major movie studios—control what we watch. The Web gives creative people a potential audience of millions, as well as countless venues to display their creations. But that’s not how things turned out. Web video isn’t an oligarchy, it’s a dictatorship. You’re either on YouTube or nobody’s watching. This dominance has a downside: The popular misapprehension that YouTube and Web video are synonymous has limited our sense of what online video can be.

For the most part, the Internet really has decentralized publishing. Photobucket, the most popular photo-sharing site, has lively competition from Webshots, Flickr, Shutterfly, and other services. Bloggers use WordPress, Google’s Blogger, TypePad, and lots of other platforms. YouTube, though, gets 60 percent of all online video traffic—that’s up from 43 percent a year ago. What’s going on here?

Until recently, file formats and bandwidth costs made sharing video online a gigantic pain. Most viral videos were e-mailed around, or stayed on small Web sites that buckled under sudden rushes of traffic. In order to watch videos in your browser, you had to download all sorts of plug-ins. Mac-made videos often didn’t work on PCs, and vice versa. Then, in 2005, YouTube launched, fixing all of those annoying problems.

YouTube instantly trumped sites like Vimeo, Veoh, and Grouper by converting all uploaded videos into Flash videos that almost anyone could view. * The site’s second genius ploy was its permissiveness. While the staff quickly removed pornographic uploads, YouTube wasn’t as hasty to take down copyrighted content: music videos, clips from TV shows, and sports highlights. YouTube’s first big moment came when someone uploaded the Saturday Night Live sketch “Lazy Sunday” in December 2005. Since NBC hadn’t posted a copy itself, everyone went to YouTube. By the time the TV networks and music studios figured out that a third-party site was siphoning away their traffic, Web surfers already thought of YouTube as the one and only online video clearinghouse.

Once YouTube grabs a viewer, it doesn’t let go. While the site got 43 percent of all visits to video sites in 2006, it earned 54 percent of page views—that means YouTube users stick around longer and watch more video than people who browse on competing sites. Next to every clip, YouTube lists up to 20 related videos, as well as other videos by the same creator and four “director videos,” all promoted with an enticing thumbnail. With so many tempting links, it takes a lot of self-control not to veg out and clip-surf for hours.

What it comes down to, then, is that if you want your video to be seen, you have to post it on YouTube. In August 2006, Noah Kalina posted the video “A photo of myself every day” on Vimeo and YouTube. Since then, the Vimeo clip has gotten 100,000 views, the YouTube version more than 6.2 million. The outstanding, critically beloved video blogger Ze Frank refused to post his videos on YouTube; at the height of his fame, he got 30,000 viewers per day. That would have made him a B-lister on YouTube. In five months, a 15-year-old boy known as Daxflame has earned 40,000 to 140,000 views for each of his 85 YouTube videos without any publicity.

How can other sites compete?, Revver, and Metacafe tried to distinguish themselves by paying for videos. A year ago, the makers of the “Diet Coke & Mentos Experiments” got famous on YouTube, then made $28,000 in six weeks on Revver from postroll ads. But two months ago, YouTube began offering revenue-sharing to its most popular creators. Now, its traffic numbers and huge base of ad clients make it the no-brainer destination for videomakers who want to get rich quick. The site’s allure will only snowball as YouTube uses its clout to broker deals with the likes of Apple and EMI.

But not everyone is welcome on YouTube. While the site has done a remarkable job building up the infrastructure that allows people to watch videos on the Web, it has also created a number of barriers to entry. The site bans nonpornographic nudity, places a 10-minute limit on most uploads, and has a resistance (so far) to including live streams. You won’t find the brilliant sitcom Break a Leg on YouTube—the episodes are too long. (Disclosure: I have a bit part in a future episode.) And if you want live streaming video, you’ll have to go to Ustream or Stickam. Other sites try to stretch the limits of online video, but YouTube’s artificial restrictions set the stylistic tone—since every YouTube clip is short, we haven’t come to expect or demand to see long-form video elsewhere.

When I launched my own video blog in February, I decided to join the YouTube avoiders. While I have problems withYouTube’s rulebook, my biggest turn-off is the site’s more-is-better ethos. The most popular videos in YouTube’s history are music videos, TV clips, and lowbrow home-video footage; the same is true for this month’s top clips, which include commercials, a TV interview, and a Timbaland video. It’s not YouTube’s fault that people want to watch Timbaland, and the site does try to funnel content to original work: YouTube features user-created content on its front page and sponsors contests like the Sketchies to promote original sketch comedy. It’s no accident, though, that the most prominent number on each YouTube page is the number of “Views.” The site puts on a good front about the primacy of user-generated content, but YouTube’s real message is that in the world of online video, quality is less important than mass appeal.

Of course, it’s likely that people would gravitate toward short, funny videos and copyrighted content even if YouTube didn’t exist. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, while YouTube turns into a morass of crap culture, the main innovations in video are coming from other sites. If we accept the idea that online video gives power to creators but ignore the obvious power of the environment in which those creators act, we’ll never see online video evolve beyond dance routines and a dog on a skateboard. As YouTube matures, its dominance will continue to dictate how most creators and consumers think of video. The site recently ran a 70-minute independent feature film, likely its first test in stretching beyond the short-video market. This could mean a renaissance for independent video and a way for aspiring filmmakers to attract a mass audience. Or, the race for traffic could just lead to a new kind of popularity contest. Which would play better on YouTube: Eraserhead or Big Momma’s House 2?

Correction, July 20, 2007: This article originally implied that YouTube doesn’t require any Web browser plug-ins. YouTube videos do require a plug-in, the Flash player. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)