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26 December 2011

A New YouTube, Herding the Funny Cats

If you’re looking for evidence that the world just keeps moving faster, try this:

Time between the creation of Coca-Cola and hatred of New Coke: a century.

Time between the creation of YouTube and hatred of the new YouTube: six years.

The world’s largest video-sharing Web site introduced a new design this month, unleashing a wave of anger in blogs and online forums. It’s visible on YouTube itself, where a video explaining the changes has received more than three times as many dislikes as likes, and many of the attached comments couldn’t be published in a newspaper.

That negative reaction certainly has a lot to do with a general hatred of change (which is surprisingly strong on the Web, the only place that most of us visit seven days a week). People had grown accustomed to the YouTube home page’s messy, eclectic sprawl, and the new more organized and blandly tasteful look — arrived at in several stages over the last year — was bound to draw howls whether it was an improvement or not.

But beyond aesthetics lies a deeper change, one that the naysayers have perceived, explicitly or intuitively: the redesign is a muted but firm declaration that the party is over. It’s YouTube’s strongest step away from what will be seen as its short-lived early heyday as a largely unregulated repository of funny cats, anonymous guitar masters, angry Asian bus riders and countless other weird and wonderful things.

In place of that free-for-all will be a new YouTube, more commercial, more predictable and, its owners hope, more televisionlike. The underlying reason is money, of course, but the immediate issue is control. By cutting away the user-driven underbrush and shepherding viewers, especially those with YouTube accounts, toward TV-like content channels — an increasing number of them produced by corporate media partners — YouTube and its owner, Google, will gain more control by giving amateur videographers less exposure and funneling viewers toward fewer choices.

There’s nothing necessarily good or bad about these changes. Will the world be a worse place if it’s more difficult for a video of a baby biting his brother’s finger to draw 400 million views? Might the new content agreements YouTube has been signing with the Disneys and Madonnas of the world improve the overall quality of mainstream Web video, producing work that’s both more professional and more innovative? It’s too early to tell.

It’s not too early, though, to start feeling nostalgic for the loosey-goosey idiosyncratic charm of the YouTube that was. Wasting time in the office won’t be quite the same.

Refocusing choices doesn’t mean that there will be fewer of them. Hundreds of thousands of videos will still be uploaded every day, and if you’re looking for a specific video or subject, the search function is unchanged. But the new design de-emphasizes one way of using YouTube — jumping around randomly and serendipitously, with easy access to the most popular videos of the moment regardless of their provenance — in favor of a more regimented approach. The new Facebook-like vertical layout banishes formerly prominent content to the margins of the home page to make room for a dominant display of videos from the channels — collections of content from particular providers — to which a YouTube account holder has subscribed.

The top viral videos of the day used to have their own section on the home page, with thumbnail images. Finding them now requires clicking on a not very prominent tab, called “Popular,” buried in the middle of the new black navigation bar, below the tabs for your subscriptions. At the top of that bar, in the top left corner of the home page, is the symbol and engine of the new YouTube: a royal-blue, unmissable button labeled, “Add Channels.”

YouTube has always had channels — upload a video of your son brushing his teeth in the morning, and you’re the proud proprietor of your own channel. The odds are, though, that no one outside your immediate family will subscribe to it. On a continuum of millions of channels, from casual home-video makers through semi-professional content creators to celebrities and huge entertainment conglomerates, the effect of the redesign is to push the viewer toward the higher, more brand-name end.

This isn’t a hidden agenda. YouTube has been quite upfront about making itself a more televisionlike experience by bringing some order to the billions of videos in its inventory. An important distinction to remember: YouTube doesn’t want to be like a TV network; it wants to be TV.

What isn’t being said is that the new design and the emphasis on channels isn’t only, or even primarily, about what consumers want, or what would make their time on the site more pleasant or worthwhile. Note that with all the thought and money that went into the redesign, the experience of actually watching the video player appears to be virtually the same as it was before.

The more important audience lies in the advertising, media buying and television businesses, among the executives who have been watching homemade videos accrue millions of views and crying in anguish, “Nobody’s making any money off of this!” They probably don’t even mind that they’re not making money; they just wish that someone were making money.

YouTube has been making money, of course, based on the total traffic that those viral sensations help draw. When 1.5 million people click on a grainy video of an acrobatic move in a high school football game, revenue is being generated from advertising even if it isn’t specifically attached to that video. (Google does not release YouTube figures, but analysts have estimated its revenue at more than $1 billion in 2011.) And video creators or stars can make their own money downstream. Just look at Rebecca Black of “Friday” fame. (It’s preferable to listening to her sing.)

But how much more could YouTube make if it could sell advertising based on predictable viewership for specific content — in other words, if it could adapt itself to the planning and budgeting cycles of the people who have real money to spend, and allow for the kind of advance marketing that the film and television industries depend on?

So get used to channels. The only questions are what they will be and how well they will work.

I subscribe to 12 channels, but one of them, Machinima (produced by the gaming site machinima.com), offers so many videos that it routinely represents 80 percent of the 30 or so new postings displayed in chronological order on my home page, pushing others off the screen. And, as many angry commenters have pointed out, there’s no way to delete a video you’re not interested in or have already watched. In the old design, which minimized subscriptions, this wasn’t a problem; in the new design I may decide to cancel Machinima to give other channels a chance.

If you subscribe to several hundred channels — thereby approximating the size of a cable-television package — videos will be pushed from your feed even faster than posts or messages on Facebook or Twitter, and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see them. YouTube lets you watch any video at any time, untied to a broadcast schedule. But it does not currently offer the ease and simultaneity of choice of a cable grid, in which all your options can be scanned quickly and, crucially, you recognize most of them from a two- or three-word description. As long as each viewing option on YouTube takes up a significant amount of real estate, requiring both text and image to clue you in to the content, there will be no equivalent to TV channel surfing.

Maintaining its democratic, good-Internet-citizen bona fides by continuing to let anyone and everyone maintain a YouTube channel could threaten to swamp the more profitable content the site has been busily signing up. It will be interesting to see whether the rules are changed in the future to discourage or obscure individual and amateur efforts that might draw attention from partners like Disney and CBS. It will also be interesting to see whether subscribing to YouTube channels continues to be free. Once viewers have built up loyalties, will Google start thinking about revenue streams beyond advertising?

One thing we can be fairly sure of: While Classic Coke made a triumphant comeback, the odds that we’ll be seeing the old YouTube again are slim.


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