The following article was originally published in Openwide Volume 16, Issue 5 and online here. It was a collaboration with the Arts & Entertainment editor, Ksenia Kolodja, and explores the many aspects of Youtube.
Youtube as an Online Community
Part of Youtube’s growth can be attributed to the reposting of existing media content – like ripping scenes from television shows or newscasts – but a large part of Youtube is original content. People making videos for other people. They come in a variety of formats such as vlogs (the video blog), tutorials from Photoshop to makeup, homemade lyric videos, fan videos, webisodes, original sketches, gaming videos, challenge videos, parodies, pranks, education videos (shout-out to KhanAcademy) and many more. Youtube has become more than just a video platform, it has become its own online community. Conventions, similar to Comic Con, have been established across the world for Youtube. Vidcon in Anaheim, California is one of the most well-known; in 2015 it saw 21,000 fans, creators, and industry leaders come together for the 3 day conference. Toronto’s own “Buffer Festival” is hosted every October and celebrates everything online video.
Exponential unchecked growth?
Youtube’s popularity is forever increasing – in 2015, revenues reached $1.51 Billion US dollars; more videos are uploaded to the site every 60 days than the 3 major US television networks have produced in the past 60 years (Quora). In 2013, it was recorded that marketers spent $2.8 billion to advertise on Youtube, which is more than what they spent to advertise on broadcast television (Quora). It’s no surprise that Youtube is big, but the potential of this platform is still relatively new. However, with so much potential, is Youtube really changing the game? Is it the democratizing platform some praise it to be or it is perpetuating existing problematic media trends?
So many questions, so little time
When we began writing this article, we had a hard time narrowing down what to talk about. There is so much one can say about Youtube, but we wanted to focus on how we know Youtube – through its original content and respective online community. In particular, we wanted to focus on Vloggers. Ordinary people that have become not-so ordinary through Youtube. Through our discussions we learned that not all vloggers are the same, and there seems to be this growing gap between established “big” vloggers and upcoming “small” vloggers. Isn’t Youtube for everyone? It’s free – anyone can pick up a camera, or phone, and upload something! While Youtube for the most part is an open and welcoming platform, and this cannot be ignored, there are structural aspects that arise complicating things.
For starters, the online platform itself had to re-evaluate the way it rates and displays videos. It’s no surprise Youtube privileges early adopters. It was much easier to cultivate an audience when you were among 1000 vloggers rather than 1,000,000 vloggers. Now, the audience pie is bigger and it’s harder to get a slice. Before 2012, the homepage used to rank videos was based on view counts. However, view count is a poor indicator of quality and relevance to the viewer, especially when so many people can game the system. The measurement becomes meaningless when people upload clickbait, misleading thumbnails and video titles, or pay for views. As a result of decreasing relevance, most users chose to bypass the homepage and go straight to their subscription feed or favourite channels. This made it harder for new content to get through, and content with low view counts struggled to appear in search results. The structural algorithm, much like Facebook’s engagement algorithm, favoured some content over others.
In a video posted by Computerphile entitled “Youtube’s Secret Algorithm,” Cristos Goodrow from YouTube explains how the algorithms are changing to deliver more relevant content to viewers. In October 2012, a new algorithm was unveiled “aimed at rewarding video content that really engaged viewers and kept them on Youtube for as long as possible” (Reelseo). View count became less important than watch time. Goodrow explains in the video how if you click on a video and it’s not what you expect it to be, you will not stay and watch it. However, if you click on a video and it is what you were searching for, you will watch it. Therefore watch time becomes a new measure for viewer engagement and preference. Other measures include audience retention (how much time someone spends on your videos) and session watchtime (how much time someone spends on Youtube after watching your video, regardless if what they’re watching is on your channel). All these metrics favour time spent on Youtube, which could help explain why Pewdiepie is one of the biggest accounts out there. He is a Swedish gamer who uploads video game commentary, and the length of some of his videos can reach up to 41 minutes. It’s easy to spend hours on his channel, and the algorithm rewards him for this by having him appear in “recommended” or “popular uploads” more often than other Youtubers. This type of strategy is evident with other vloggers who have end screens that link to their other videos, encouraging viewers to stick around and continue watching. While it’s an improvement from the archaic metric of a view count, it is not without its complications.
Fancy algorithms aside, there are many aspects on the vlogger side that contribute to this divide in vlogger popularity. Famous Youtubers and conventional beauty go hand in hand. Many Youtubers have fans because they’re hot – allowing for teenage fantasies to bloom a bit more easily. These fans are the ones that accompany their favourite Youtubers to conventions, and participate in social media communities dedicated to honouring them. Drastic change to appearance is generally limited, even with makeup. Without the “proper” genetics, it’s necessary to work a bit harder to be unique. This can also give the wrong message to viewers, suggesting that one needs to be conventionally beautiful in order to be successful.
Additionally, many popular Youtube creators also have connections with those in the similar subscriber range – or at least, create them. Through collaboration videos and cross promotion, they are able to bounce off of each other’s successes and collect a higher following. There are many niches like this on Youtube, such as members of the British Youtube community who all live relatively close to one another, and are thus able to collaborate in real life. Connections are key, but without them, it becomes difficult to get the word out about a channel. However, there is nothing about the Youtube collaboration community that seems exclusive. From a viewer standpoint, it looks as if you can message someone whose channel you admire and ask to collaborate on a video. Yet, you might have a harder time getting through to their inbox if you’re relatively unknown. The old fashioned way, plugging your own channel on someone else’s video, can come across as spam, and is looked down upon by other users for being annoying.
As the quality of videos on Youtube increase, high quality equipment becomes another prerequisite for Youtube popularity. DSLR cameras, tripods, lighting, and editing software are all essentials in creating the best videos. Without this kind of equipment, establishing a following becomes even more difficult. Gone are the days for which viewers would settle for quality less than 720p or audio that is hard to hear. What this does is increase barriers to access, as quality equipment and accessories do not come cheap. iPhone quality is comparable, so not all is lost. But it is also a privilege to have thetime to create and edit videos. For earlier vloggers who have yet to make money from this hobby, it’s all investment and no payback for a while, and this is not feasible for those that rely on working full time to make it through the month. This means that contributors with great ideas are sometimes overlooked simply because they don’t have the resources, or great contributors do not start a channel because the bar has been raised.
Not all is lost
Youtube can be seen as a space where existing media trends are recreated. Where the rich, beautiful, and well-connected rise to the top of the homepage. Where music channels such as Vevo unfairly dominate feeds. Where pre-roll ads rack up view counts even though they’ve paid to be there. Or where vloggers and their audiences are sold to the highest bidder in terms of product placement or ghostwritten books. However, as creators, fans, and Youtube itself continue to reflect on their platform, these issues are constantly addressed with solutions always on the horizon. Youtube still is used simply for a way to express creativity, and it’s a great platform. Many people don’t mind having less than 10 views on their videos if it means they can still put out their content for free. It’s a useful platform that connects like-minded individuals and provides them with means to communicate, by creating content or through participating in discussion. Youtube, and online video, offers a more active viewer experience. Communities and fandoms have sprung up as a result of Youtube, and these positive consequences should not be tossed aside. Youtube is a business, but that’s not all it is. As long as people continue to care about Youtube, it will continue to be nurtured and grown into a platform we can’t even predict.