On April 15th, YouTube channel therealweeklynews posted a sensational video claiming that YouTube would launch a major redesign of its front page “in the next couple of days” as part of a plan to highlight content from its corporate partners and (allegedly) phase out user-generated content to make the site more like the network-only web-syndication site Hulu. The video was inspired by a March 30th report on business blog Silicon Alley Insider (by way of ClickZ) announcing that YouTube would be redesigned to “make the site more attractive to the content creators who make the kind of stuff Google could actually sell ads against.” Supposedly, the new site would feature three tabs for content from its corporate partners (“Movies,” “Music,” and “Shows”) and only one (“Videos”) for user-generated content.
While the details of these reports turned out not to be entirely accurate, something did change on April 16th. YouTube launched a redesign which, among other things, features a “Shows” tab as “a new destination” for corporate content. The YouTube team emphasized that this would not impact user-generated content on the site, stating: “This addition is one of many efforts underway to ensure that we’re offering you all the different kinds of video you want to see, from bedroom vlogs and citizen journalism reports to music videos and full-length films and TV shows.” On the same day, CNET News reported that YouTube had struck new deals to host content by a variety of entertainment companies, including Sony Pictures, CBS, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Lionsgate, Starz, and the BBC.
Even though the “changes” did not emerge as expected, the “HuluTube” video nevertheless sparked a controversy among YouTube video bloggers, partners (users who earn money by placing ads on their videos), and community members. In “You vs Us vs Them: A HuluTube Postmortem,” we collected voices from the YouTube community with the following questions in mind:
- What defines “community” on YouTube?
- How can corporate content and business interests coexist with a community of user-generated content creators?
- What do “you” actually mean to YouTube?
Three weeks later, the debate rages on. therealweeklynews recently responded to his responders, accusing the YouTube partners speaking up in defense of YouTube, several of whom are featured in our video, of being “corporate shills.” YouTube partner TheArchfiend responded again, speculating that therealweeklynews might himself be a “shill” for YouTube. But setting aside the name-calling for a moment, we ask you to step back and consider the larger issues at stake.
The HuluTube controversy points to a growing tension between YouTube’s user community and its shareholders. On Friday, April 3rd, financial services company Credit Suisse estimated that while the site’s revenue is up overall, YouTube will lose $470 million in 2009, largely due to the bandwidth costs of hosting user-generated content. While the Web 2.0 revolution, exemplified by sites like YouTube, has changed the way we navigate and communicate online, it has yet to present a sustainable business model. Farhad Manjoo writes for Slate:
“User-generated content” is proving to be a financial albatross. Two years ago, Time magazine named “you” its Person of the Year for doing your small part in fueling the Web 2.0 revolution. The magazine argued that by collecting and distributing the creations of millions of individuals, the Web is upending the way we learn about what’s going on in the world around us. There’s no doubt this is true…. Yet even though they’ve changed the way we live, sites that collect and share content produced by all of us haven’t done the one thing many tech evangelists said they’d do–make a ton of money. Or, in many cases, any money. There’s a simple reason for this: Advertisers don’t like paying very much to support homemade photos and videos.
Daryl Horner inadvertently put it best when he said, “This is a machine…and you are the most important part of this machine.” In the context of his video, this comment was part of an argument that viewers aren’t clicking on ads often enough to support the site (and, by extension, partners who personally benefit from ad revenue). While this may be true, users aren’t the only factor in the equation. The content of user-generated content is also at issue for advertisers. As Manjoo (and vlogger John Green in our video) point out, YouTube’s most popular content doesn’t always sit well with advertisers–they don’t want their products associated with a water-skiing squirrel. As long as YouTube continues to depend on ad revenue, it appears that some form of compromise is in order.
Yet the question of who YouTube’s most valuable users really are, and of who is selling what to whom, is not easy to answer. No matter who “you” are–an independent video-maker, a corporate content provider, a partner, a troll, a commenter, or simply a passive viewer–you have something at stake in YouTube.
We encourage you to add your voice to the debate.