Clicks over content

YouTube is an advertising company, not a video platform

By Adam Westbrook 30 April 2015

Despite its promise to 'broadcast yourself', YouTube only cares about advertisers - forcing even its biggest names to look elsewhere.

In February this year YouTube celebrated its tenth birthday with some stunning statistics. The video sharing site now boasts one billion users; every 60 seconds, 300 hours of video are uploaded to its servers. Four years ago, it was just 24 hours of video a minute, and even that sounded incredible at the time.

It is numbers like this that make what I’m about to say seem almost nonsensical. I write this, by the way, not as a media analyst or a journalist, but as a professional filmmaker who makes videos on YouTube.

YouTube is a boon for consumers: millions of videos, for free! It’s also a pretty tidy deal for advertisers, with ad revenues surpassing the $5.6 billion mark last year.

But, like most platforms in the long-tail economy, YouTube is a pretty poor deal for many of the people who make those videos. The people who invest more time, passion and energy into their work; the ones who spend money making something better than it needs to be; the ones who dig deep to create something unique, risky and full of soul. They are the losers.

The problem starts with language. YouTube doesn’t call us artists at all, but “content creators”. What we make is not art, but “content”. It is a toxic word which, as YouTube musician Jonathan Mann so brilliantly explains, is behind so much of the malaise around creating and publishing on the Internet.

Content = revenue

To YouTube, he says, our work is “…not a video. It’s content. It’s quantifiable, it’s interchangeable. An algorithm looks at how many ‘users’ ‘engaged’ with this particular piece of ‘content’ and sells ads against it accordingly.”

With those billions of dollars in ad revenue last year, one thing is beyond doubt: YouTube is not a video platform, it’s an advertising company. The blood, sweat and passion of its millions of “content creators” is nothing more than fodder against which to sell iPhones to teenagers.

Popularity contest

I don’t blame you for thinking “so what?” A lot of ‘content creators’ – from Alfie to Zoella are doing rather well out of this deal.

The first problem is that this relationship inherently equates success with popularity, a dynamic that ripples right through the ecosystem. This encourages YouTubers to seek to be popular rather than good and therefore effectively limits the style and content of videos before they are even made.

“The message from inside YouTube is pretty clear” says Mann. “We content creators should be optimising our content for maximum advertising revenue.” In other words: make something that will go viral, or you don’t count.

‘Doing a viral’ is the pipe dream of the vast majority of video makers, professional and amateur alike – far more than in any other medium, I’d argue. As such we ignore the real potential of video: to make substantial and meaningful connections with real human beings over time.

The second problem, from YouTube’s point of view anyway, is that this toxic relationship is encouraging an increasing number of the platform’s biggest stars to look elsewhere. When Vessel, a rival video platform from by the team behind Hulu, launched this spring, it convinced scores of YouTube’s most popular channels to preview their videos to its paying audience a week earlier than on YouTube. Vimeo, the twin rival for the last ten years – and a far more supportive environment for video makers – has also wooed big stars away.

Meanwhile Hank Green, one of the most popular YouTubers there is, recently bemoaned the site’s advertising-orientated ecosystem, and encouraged creators to seek better ways of earning a living online.

“[YouTube has] put a dramatic emphasis on getting the most views possible, not just per video but per day. The result: A kind of hyper-frequency, with some gaming channels uploading three to five videos PER DAY. Without volume, it’s hard to make it work.”

Without its ‘content creators’ YouTube is nothing. And yet the platform’s actions and words suggest these people are not its priority.

Free comes at a price

In fairness, YouTube is experimenting with revenue models and recently announced plans to roll out a subscription option later in 2015. There is also hope as more creators experiment with alternatives; it’s too early to tell whether Vessel will take a big chunk out of YouTube’s influence, but it’s clear the space is beginning to open up for niche competitors.

Elsewhere, Green is encouraging video makers to break free from the advertising dynamic by asking their fans for money directly, through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or Patreon.

“[Paying for videos] encourages a different kind of content” he argues. “Instead of challenging creators to figure out how to get the highest view counts, creators have to puzzle out how to make the most valuable content. How can I create something that someone will watch and say, “I would feel better if I had paid for that.”

It’s very early days, but perhaps we’re seeing the roots of a consumer movement which encourages paying for digital products and services that are free by default. Of course, there’ll always be the freeloaders and illegal downloaders, but we’re learning the hard way that ‘free’ always comes with a price: whether it’s an ocean of ‘content’ instead of meaningful art, or something as serious as our privacy.

YouTube’s place in the history of this medium is well assured, but sometimes I wonder about its future. As long as it continues to encourage and reward advertising-friendly “content” it’s not just users who might move on, but its viewers too.

The world doesn’t need more content, you see. It urgently needs more art.