I frequently find myself in my father’s basement office to pick his brain. I like to ask him random facts about how guns fire, what his college experience was like, does he think space travel is possible, and many other things. Many times, I’ll ask him about “the early days of the Internet”, back when pictures on computer screens were just beginning to be common, monitors were large and clunky, and even starting the internet required listening to a banshee cry, alien transmissions, followed by two garbage trucks crashing into each other… Dial-Up.
Some of the best stories were about those pesky, yet compelling e-mail chain letters. I remember my father laughing to himself as he told me about an early viral video he had gotten in an e-mail chain. It was a Claymation skit about a drive-in incident at a Jack in the Box. After surrendering to the fact that he just couldn’t explain it right, he pulled up his laptop and after only searching a few seconds, he found that old video on YouTube.
Chad Hurley and Steve Chen were employees at PayPal in May of 2005 when Hurley officially created the YouTube beta site. Later, in November, the company became a corporation with offices located above a pizzeria and a Japanese restaurant. It wasn’t until October of 2006 that Google purchased the company.
Did Google anticipate what YouTube would become? It’s hard to know because it has changed so much over the years. From 2005 to the modern day, YouTube’s content has expanded and evolved into so much more than cute cat videos. While cute, silly, and pure evil all have a platform, YouTube has become a go-to site for culture, news, politics, and education as well. Surprisingly, as YouTube has evolved, so has the media industry, creating an effect far beyond expectation.
Some of my childhood memories include sharing random YouTube videos with friends. There was the classic, “Charlie Bit My Finger” the animated music video for “Axel F” (which featured the world’s creepiest animated frog), and several horror videos of moving rocking chairs before a corpse-like face would pop up and scream bloody murder.
For the most part, that was YouTube’s content at that time. Since then, it has become more varied. YouTube is now home to millions of vlogs, talk shows, web-series, and comedy series. It hosts thousands of how-to videos and live streams, spreading ideas and information on everything from politics to pop culture, education to quick-fixes, and comedy to promotions. All this is easily found through quick searches and spread through social networking.
Channel’s like Rhett and Link’s “Good Mythical Morning” has taken the internet by storm. Good Mythical Morning has over 12,000,000 subscribers plus recent spin-off channels and a podcast. Each episode features the comedy duo discussing random topics, doing taste tests, or doing projects and experiments. At the end of every episode, they feature a short video from a fan declaring, “…it’s time to spin the Wheel of Mythicality!”
The Good Mythical Morning team is able to view and respond to comments from their audience on every video. This level of audience interaction is unprecedented which helps to build a stronger fan base than traditional video media such as television and cinema.
This may seem like an inevitable or commonplace change to the media industry, but not only has audience interaction increased, the separation between commenters and creators has significantly blurred. Screen Junkies’ channel features a popular series called “Honest Trailers”. Their videos are formatted to have a similar feel to a cinematic trailer, but instead of promoting an upcoming film, a narrator nicknamed “Epic Voice Guy” points out all the flaws in the already released film in a witty break-down of plot holes, character inconsistencies, and general nonsense.
The movie industry has noticed Honest Trailer’s success which draws attention to their films, and despite some negative criticism, many films are now encouraging Honest Trailers to do an Honest Trailer analysis of the new releases. Shortly after the premiere of Marvel’s Deadpool, Honest Trailers had actor Ryan Reynolds featured in Deadpool’s Honest Trailer, playing on Deadpool’s classic fourth-wall breaks. Honest Trailers has a network within the film industry and with movie fans. Honest Trailer fans get to suggest the next Honest Trailer by posting a movie in the comments section. Filmmakers are finding that this interaction increases buzz.
From the outside, YouTube appears to be a film creator’s dream and nightmare all in one. YouTube is a free service, so creators can’t necessarily depend on their audiences for income. Yet, YouTube also looks to be an opportunity for total creative freedom. With no producers, directors, or higher-ups dictating the YouTuber’s every move, the content on YouTube is as diverse as the people creating with it.
“I choose YouTube because it gives me freedom to make the content I want to make and tell the stories I want to tell,” James R., creator of the animated comedy channel, The Odd 1’s Out, said, “If I worked on a T.V series, I would have a boss telling me what to draw and create, and that’s not fun... I’ve been doing YouTube full time for about a year and a half (so I’m pretty new); I think the change in how we get our media has only helped my YouTube [channel]. More people are watching YouTube instead of T.V.”
YouTube is also becoming home to a wide range of news and education content. Channels like Nerdist News are bringing niche news to their subscribers; focusing on pop culture, politics, science, film, and much more. Nerdist News focuses on pop culture and popular fan-bases in fantasy and science-fiction movies and television.
Others have used YouTube to spread social and political messages. Jared Carmen created a video series on education curriculum issues. Like many other YouTuber’s, the message driving power of YouTube still requires a team effort to produce. Carmen said, “In my case, there were two people involved: One, the Subject Matter Expert (SME) and the media/techie. I was the voice-over/talking head and Oak Norton filmed and uploaded to YouTube. Vlogs are branded to the face you see in the video, but I suspect that in many cases there is a team producing it. Marketing is the other piece — in the case of one of the videos that I did, that went viral(ish — a couple hundred thousand views) was heavily marketed on Facebook, email, and blogs.” Obviously, those who are trying to affect change want their messages to go to as wide an audience as possible. Because of YouTube, many are succeeding.
Education channels like Ted-Ed, Philosophy Tube, and the three VSauce channels are reaching world audiences on topics of science, mathematics, history, philosophy, and more while explaining the concepts in entertaining and creative ways. VSauce, the original VSauce channel, has reached over 12,000,000 subscribers by creating thought-provoking videos on far-fetched and bizarre scientific and mathematical concepts, like what it would be like to travel into a black hole or how to count to infinity. These videos are increasingly used in traditional classroom settings. Tiffany Hess, a Vice Principal at Liberty Hills Academy shared the following: “Our teachers often like to create what we call a “unit study” which is something that is particularly effective for many students. We build a lesson around a topic using a short lecture, a class discussion, a hands-on project, and a video. There is nothing like watching a volcano erupt, a space shuttle lift off, or a video of Robert Frost reading an original poem. Video adds that third dimension to a lesson.”
The comments section on YouTube videos also gives creators a powerful interactive tool to accompany the subject of the channel. Oliver Thorn, the creator of Philosophy Tube, has dedicated his channel to giving away a free education in philosophy. “YouTube… seemed like the best way to reach the most people: all people need is an Internet connection and they can learn from anywhere in the world!” Thorn said, “I like to do videos answering comments... because people being able to ask questions helps them learn better and also makes it more fun! I do think comments facilitate quick and easy answers, so I have experimented with leaving them off as well so people have to go away and think more.”
Channels on YouTube can take a variety of approaches to the creative freedom afforded by YouTube’s platform. Some keep their content very focused, others create hybrid content, with multiple series on one channel. Nerdist News takes this approach by having their original news content, with a comedy sideshow, an educational science applied to pop-culture, and parody music videos and comedy shorts. This approach is interesting in that all the content still applies to the specifications of their audience, but is still a varied content creator.
When video content isn’t necessarily a creator’s main focus, YouTube can still be a powerful tool for spreading information. K. M. Weiland, creator of the award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors, mentors authors with invaluable articles on the writing process. Her work also includes the IPPY, NIEA, and Lyra Award-winning books Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. While videos are certainly not the center of her work, she uses YouTube to create short videos with quick tips for better writing. “YouTube was the clear choice for me, since it was the industry leader in self-produced videos, with a huge built-in audience,” Weiland said, “Its affiliation with Google meant it not only had a great native search engine, but also that its videos would rank well in Google searches.”
Weiland diligently responds to questions and comments from her readers. Weiland continues, “The interactivity was one of the main reasons I was drawn to YouTube. It is social “proof” that the videos are connecting with the right audience. It also gives me a chance to respond to comments, address problems, and gleans future ideas that will be most helpful to the people watching.”
This evolution of YouTube has not only influenced audiences but also the creators themselves. From a social media platform for sharing home videos and funny clips, YouTube had its humble beginnings, but has now become a respected media platform. Many have started careers through YouTube. Vlogs have expanded the popularity of their creators to make related merchandise and books marketable. VSauce creator Michael Stevens recently teamed up with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage to do a touring show across the United States called BrainCandy Live, bringing the scientific charisma of two different media outlets together in a live performance. Comedy animators such as The Odd 1’s Out, JaidenAnimations, and sWooZie have all attended vid-cons (video conventions) to meet fans of their content. Nerdist News has been featured in comic-con panels. The influence of the YouTube community has bled outside the lines of the internet.
All this appears to paint a picture of YouTube as a rags-to-riches success. YouTube gets over 1 billion hours of views every day, and careers have sprung from its free platform, but what about Google itself? YouTube’s parent company is Google, owned by the conglomerate giant, Alphabet Inc. YouTube has only in recent years begun to offer significant ad-space in its interface, and in an article by Business Insider in 2015, YouTube had consistently been losing money for Google every year. What are the numbers now?
Google is viciously protective of its earnings statistics. The only numbers released on Google’s ad revenue is $12 billion for “Google-owned sites,” in 2010. YouTube’s contribution to Google’s revenue is hidden somewhere in that number. Currently, it’s estimated that YouTube and Google Play contribute only a little over 15% to Google’s revenue, but there’s also the projection that both services will grow to contribute 24% by 2020.
Clearly, Google sees the value in continuing to build up YouTube, and it will be exciting to see where the video platform goes next. Did Google intend an explosive outcome like this back in 2006? Perhaps, or maybe it was a random success, like one of those e-mail chain-letter videos. Either way, it has become a significant part of the media millions consume every day.