Monday, January 21, 2013

The YouTube Frontier: The Future of YouTube

This is the third article on a series on Youtube! You can read part 1 and part 2 by clicking their respective links.

Though we mentioned it in the first installment of this article series, let's talk about Gangnam Style again.

The story of Gangnam Style is one that encapsulates all of Youtube's phases of development. It was a music video that could only exist on YouTube thanks to the website's business model. It "went viral" and gained massive notoriety worldwide. Taking the #1 most viewed spot on YouTube along with hitting the billion-views mark, Psy went on to star in - and heavily theme - Youtube's year in review 2012, alongside YouTube's other significant traffic-contributors.

YouTube has found a way to reconcile its free platform with the old media industries, and has earned its niche in online entertainment. Concerns about the website's sustainability seem to be decisively gone. The question, however, is what the website may become.

The YouTube celebrities are converging. YouTube's talents are prolific, and they're collaborating more frequently. They are giving real weight to online entertainment as a career. With the ad revenue that they raise, YouTube also has every reason to invest in helping its YouTubers.

The fact of the matter is that longer, higher-quality content on YouTube receives greater return on investment. Higher-quality content leads to more views, and longer content means more time for ad exposure. YouTube has every reason to encourage partner channels to make their weekly-scheduled programming, because it leads to greater profit. Quality entertainers get rewarded with income and resources to make better videos. As YouTube grows, the benefits for its entertainers grow as well.

That same group of entertainers may come to be responsible for a greater and greater portion of (worthwhile) YouTube programming. 

YouTube is a behemoth to run, and the efforts of the highly-talented minority of prolific entertainers are gaining steam. It may eventually be the case that the video output of some 50 to 100 total YouTube channels will be enough to entertain most people and keep YouTube funding high (taking the structure of more traditional television or radio). If we ever reach this point, then what financial reason will YouTube have to keep its video-uploading services accessible to everybody?

The thousands of cat videos on YouTube are short and generally low quality, bogging down bandwidth that could be better directed towards money-making content. As online entertainment gets better organized, will a cost-benefit analysis ever favor a more streamlined and exclusive YouTube? Will YouTube ever oppose the continued hosting of one-off videos, and fence off the frontier they created?

My guess is, no. But it's interesting how easy it would be for YouTube to make that choice.

YouTube could keep upping the resources available to established entertainers, putting them at a greater and greater advantage to someone just starting out on the online scene. With the increasingly disparate quality between an amateur's video and a professional online entertainer's video, it can get harder and harder for the amateur to capture people's attention.

That is, unless the amateur knows how to network. With all of the interpersonal relationships that have formed between content creators on YouTube, a successful new channel might require knowing a Ryan Higa that can promote you. This is pretty similar to most other lines of employment - "It's not what you know, it's who you know". In the realm of YouTube, the who is increasingly becoming as big as the what.

It may even be that today's content creators become tomorrow's arbiters of quality control. YOMYOMF functions as a studio and a production hub for new online content. Maybe one day it'll also function as a talent agency, looking for new blood to make new content under its header. In fact, the channel was already behind the Youtube talent-seeking show Internet Icon, which promised the winner, among other things, face-time with a "top hollywood" agent. Will established YouTube channels have a future interest in being the gatekeepers for online fame?

Luckily, there are plenty of counter-arguments to this depiction of a more restrictive YouTube. The big factor to consider is that online media is generally still fundamentally different from movies and TV shows.

Online videos are mass-consumable. They can take 3-5 minutes of your time on average, and you can watch them on a flexible schedule. Contrast this to television's half-hour slots, which must compete for your attention on highly-regulated broadcast channels. There is no competition between online videos; one video's success does not threaten the success of another.

YouTube and its celebrities form what appears to be a very positive community. They have a deep appreciation for where their success comes from, and would likely welcome and encourage new content by completely new creators.

Online videos are easy to access, and are also easy to stop watching.  This means that talented people can get recognition they deserve, and have incentive to keep pushing their talents to create great new content. This also means that the low-quality, forgettable, "bad" content can be naturally filtered out by a lack of views (with some unfortunate exceptions).

Most importantly, YouTube remains a free platform for self-expression. Even if nobody is watching your video, wouldn't you still feel proud of your creation? When our current YouTube celebrities were starting out, they were not planning or expecting anything to come from their videos. Those lack of expectations did not prevent them from making videos for the amusement of their friends, or for themselves. Few people last in entertainment who go into it for the money, and YouTube is no exception. You have to love what you're doing.

All that can be said for sure is that the YouTube platform is not only ubiquitous, it's getting more influential in our culture. YouTube and its contributors are in a uniquely powerful position, and it will be on their shoulders to shape the future of entertainment. Only time will tell where things will go from here. Call it a hunch, but I think YouTube will stay a free and open frontier for a very long time. How's that for a feel-good platitude?

Okay, I think I'm done with YouTube for now. Next week, we'll talk about something completely different!

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