THE SXSW ISSUE
The week of March 8, 2015
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The daring future of YouTube

By Rae Votta

You start on a makeup tutorial, letting Michelle Phan teach you Lunar New Year beauty tips. Then you’re watching the beauty guru collaborate with Rosanna Pansino on a cupcake recipe.  Suddenly you’re hungry and off on a YouTube bender: recipes, a vlogger’s rant about working in fast food, a viral candle complaint, an Old Spice ad that you can’t help but share, PewDiePie playing through virtual-reality Zelda, and then somehow you’re watching babies tasting lemons for the first time. There’s no light at the end of a YouTube rabbit hole.

Trying to define the future of the massive video-sharing site is like trying to define the future of the written word. It’s no single genre. It encompasses the future of the moving image as a whole.

In the beginning, YouTube was simply a space to share video content, with no agenda beyond the spread of information. In part, it was a reaction to the fact that after the infamous Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident of 2004, site creator Jawed Karim, then at Paypal, was annoyed he couldn’t find a clip of the moment online. YouTube was a repository for such major media moments, but it was also the playground for everyday people to upload any clip of themselves, their families, or their environments. From that came the birth of the modern viral video. Over time, the ability to court fame and advertising revenue led to the evolution of the YouTuber, a person who curated a channel with a fanbase that can rival the reach of many TV networks or indie films.

As YouTube transitioned from the medium of the video to that of the personality, its trajectory has shifted. In trying to define the future of YouTube, the common inclination is to relate it to the film or TV industry, or even the publishing industry. But YouTube isn’t analogous to books or movies. YouTube spans every imaginable segment of creativity, from vloggers discussing the minutiae of life to full-fledged film productions, cooking shows, music videos, and niche phenomena like ASMR sleep therapy. Variety is the key to YouTube’s success and the key to its continued growth. There’s no specific kind of content that makes the medium sustainable for a star because such a wide variety of stars are doing sustainable work. Instead of going niche, YouTube is as broad as humanity itself.

Trying to define the future of YouTube is like trying to define the future of the written word.

Want to watch videos of people unwrapping toys, or telling you about their sexual identity, or teaching you how to cook? YouTube has a thriving ecosystem of everything imaginable.

The economy of authenticity

“Controlling the creative process leads to authentic videos on YouTube,” explained Megan Westerby, a former marketing VP at Collective Digital Studio, a media company that works with a number of prominent YouTube channels. “There are hundreds of small decisions, from how something is lit and framed, to the length of shots and whether you use VO or sound effects, to annotations and calls for action. Like any platform that allows for creativity, there are people who have tried new things that then get adopted as platform standards.

“Authenticity on YouTube is figuring out the mix of platform-standard tropes you want to use and the things you put a spin on to be yourself—and we’re talking about hundreds of micro-decisions that essentially determine what your personality looks like to the world. It’s amazing to me people can pull off having distinctive styles in such a fast-paced environment.”

Of course, authenticity can become a loaded term. As YouTube talent manager Sarah Weichel points out, much of YouTube’s content is scripted, and “authenticity” is often lobbed around to the vlogger set in relation to their brand deals or new projects.

Variety is the key to YouTube’s success and the key to its continued growth.

“I think we tend to rely too heavily on the word ‘authenticity’ surrounding YouTube content, explained Weichel, who works with such YouTube personalities as Hannah Hart and Kingsley. “As the digital landscape matures, I think it’s easy to point the finger at creators who are trying to build out their brands and say, ‘That’s not authentic.’ But in comparison to entertainment on a whole, YouTube is and always will be the most authentic content out there. But more importantly, why do we feel the need to use this word? Why do we continue to measure the value of YouTube content by its authenticity? When did we decide YouTube content has to be authentic to mean something?”

Sign o’ the times

YouTube was founded 10 years ago last month, although the first video on the site wasn’t uploaded until April 2005. According to a recent report, the site generated $4 billion in revenue in 2014, up from $3.5 billion the year prior. Challengers to the YouTube status quo have arisen over the years, from locked ecosystems like Viacom or other major networks that prioritize their own streaming and video offerings to other open systems like Vimeo that try to play into the curation- or artistic-minded demographics. Vessel, for example, plans to coexist with YouTube but offer windowed exclusivity to syphon viewership and advertising and subscription dollars. Other platforms are doing just fine with video content, original and syndicated, like Hulu or Netflix.

YouTube is the hub, however, the central driving force where the barriers to entry are simply a camera and/or a computer and an Internet connection. As Sarah Ullman recently wrote for the Jungle, YouTube is now a name brand. To search online is “to Google” and when you sneeze you need “a Kleenex,” and for anyone to start the path of independent video creation online, they are “a YouTuber.” That doesn’t mean those YouTubers are married to the platform. Quite the opposite: YouTube’s success has opened up many more avenues.

“Why do we continue to measure the value of YouTube content by its authenticity? When did we decide YouTube content has to be authentic to mean something?”

“I think it is important to draw a distinction here, that YouTubers’ futures are not dependent on YouTube’s future,” explained Weichel. “YouTube is going to continue to demand more and better from creators. YouTube will roll out new products. YouTube will change its algorithm… again! We won’t have any control in YouTube’s future. However, what we do know is YouTube will be the leading platform for content creation and, perhaps more importantly, community.”

The importance of partnerships

What does this mean for the already established cabal of YouTube talent or for 2015’s hopeful breakthroughs? For one, it means more focus and more capital flooding the market in 2015 in an attempt to capture these dedicated fanbases. That means creators can be picky about what brands they want to work with and who they talk about with their precious YouTube minutes.

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“I say no a lot,” explained Tyler Oakley, who commands a 6 million subscriber audience. “Anything I’m not interested in, anything that doesn’t give value to my audience, anything that isn’t fun. I’m looking for things my people will care about; I’m looking for things I have a genuine passion and interest in. If that all aligns, then that’s a good partnership.”

Getting that trusted partnership is more valuable than ever in the advertising space. In 2014, the stars of YouTube are more recognizable and trusted than mainstream ones for teen and tween audiences. That means ad dollars that once flowed toward traditional commercials and brand endorsements of the latest movie star are moving more in the direction of a vlogger with a million subscribers. No one is taking away Jennifer Aniston’s Aveeno ads just yet, but YouTuber Grace Helbig is selling you St. Ives and rapping in anti-smoking ads that live online and air during the Super Bowl. For now, digital and broadcast are going to play in the same sandbox, but as the culture shifts, so will the money.

For now, digital and broadcast are going to play in the same sandbox.

“In our youth-obsessed culture, everyone pays attention to what teens like and what they’re doing,” said Westerby. “Whether or not youth culture gets any respect is the greater question. We’re at an inflection point where the greater cultural importance of digital celebrities, especially YouTubers, is starting to not only be recognized but respected by traditional outlets—in part because there’s a lot of potential money to be made.”

A digital divide

While there’s a lot of focus on the top creators, the ones with the million-plus subscribers, that doesn’t preclude YouTube from being a ground for new breakouts even in 2015. There’s just a bigger hurdle to their financial and viewership success in an ever-crowded marketplace.

“There’s this general thought that digital and social media are great equalizers, that anyone can go out there and become famous,” said Westerby. “It’s true that there are fewer gatekeepers than in a broadcast-dominated media framework, but it’s not true that anyone can create great content. Sometimes the hangups are with equipment—vlogging does have a higher barrier to entry than blogging, when it comes to both tech needs and skills—and some are with the creative process. People who can conceive, shoot, edit, and then write great copy for a video are special.”

“It’s really exciting when top creators or channels ‘break through’ in a mainstream sense and brings new ‘legitimacy’ to online creators,” added Corey Lubowich, who makes videos as part of the comedy group Tin Can Brothers and previously worked with YouTube musical theater artists Team StarKid. “However, those extreme successes translate into a much harder time ramping up if you’re a new creator. It’s become an ecosystem that is very heavily weighted at the top. It seems to be all or nothing. Creating something that generates moderate income and is not a blockbuster seems difficult.”

“It’s become an ecosystem that is very heavily weighted at the top.”

YouTube may be the only social media system that inherently shares ad revenue with the creators who make the system thrive, but those AdSense payouts are paltry when you’re only amassing tens of thousands of views on a video. Westerby points out that creators are making money off general videos a month after the video is posted, meaning to make anything big or challenging, capital is needed in advance. That’s what has allowed crowdfunded and advertiser-funded video models to flourish.

“Everyone is still trying to figure out how to make a living,” Lubowich said. “YouTube is doing their part to attract more advertisers to the platform, but I think more varied business models that don’t rely primarily on ad revenue are going to be the big story this year. As part of that, many YouTubers are already going ‘off platform’ to create videos and bring other content to their audiences with different distribution platforms and monetization strategies.”

As mainstream brands and media outlets continue to buy into digital on digital’s own terms, that’s where today’s YouTubers are starting to see real rewards on their years of hard work.

“I’ve been doing digital video for 10 years, from before YouTube,” said What’s Trending founder and host Shira Lazar. “For me, it’s so great to finally see networks and digital media companies coming in and saying let’s collaborate. They’re not just saying they’ll do it on their own; they’re going to do it with people who are passionate about it and already doing it. I think that shows where we are heading, and that’s exciting.”

Illustration by J. Longo