Business Unusual

Happy Birthday YouTube, now grow up

YouTube is 14 and, like most 14-year-olds, it's going through some growing pains.

Instagram had a picture of a dog and foot as the first image on the service, Twitter’s first post just said “inviting coworkers”, and YouTube has a pretty average video of an elephant enclosure at a zoo and co-founder Jawed Karim noting that they have really long trunks.

Hardly the stuff from a company that went on to become the planet’s second most popular website; the world’s second most popular search engine; arguably the most extensive collection of video content considering as of 2019 about 30 000 days worth of video are uploaded each day.

Each day the equivalent of 720 000 one-hour length shows are uploaded.

YouTube upload stats as of 2019

At the Zoo, that video with over 60 million views that was the first uploaded to YouTube on 23 April 2005.

You may think that it would be impossible to watch all of that, but with almost a quarter of the planet visiting at least once a month, and on average spending about an hour watching, that makes for more content watched on Youtube than Facebook and Netflix combined.

If you are wondering what noble ideal saw the three co-workers from Paypal start the site in the first place, think back to a Superbowl with a half-time show featuring Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. A famous “wardrobe malfunction” had many who were not watching wanting to see what happened. It was not readily available online, and with that, a legend was born.

Officially the site was live in February 2005, but it on 23 April when the first video was uploaded. Karim’s zoo video is still live with 66 million views.

Things progressed quickly with Google making Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim instant millionaires less than two years later acquiring the platform for $1.65 billion in Google shares.

The first video to reach a million hinted at what was to come - at the time a Nike ad featuring Ronaldihno kicking a ball against a crossbar four times in a row while testing his new boots (at almost three minutes in length a very long video). Watch it for yourself and note the challenge with seeing something that appears incredible, but also unlikely and then decide if you would consider it real or fake.

The first video to get a million views was a piece of branded content for Nike

The other early success not posted by a brand was a video by a father of his two children. The older child Harry complains that his younger brother Charlie had bit his finger. That was posted in May 2007. By 2019 it had over 800 million views and earned enough ad income for the Davies-Carr family to expand their family and send their four children to private school. The child star Charlie is just a few months younger than YouTube itself and plans to become a vlogger, a career that did not exist when he was born.

The first video to get a billion views launched South Korea’s Psy's international career with his song Gangnam Style taking 159 days to reach the milestone. Since then another song, Despacito, has surpassed it both in terms of total views and the time to reach a billion views which it reached after 96 days. It reached two billion in 154 days and currently has the most views at over 6.1 billion views. The fastest to a billion is Adele’s Hello which needed just 87 days.

Charlie biting Harry's finger has over 800 million views and earned the Davies-Carr family enough to send their kids to private schools

The cost of success

For all the incredible achievements of the platform, its success also means it has some super-sized issues. The first was piracy; with so much content being uploaded the percentage that are copies of other people’s work threatened the brand with significant lawsuits. They set about solving the enormous technical challenge with an award-winning solution. In 2013 it won an Emmy award for creating a catalogue of over 75 million copyrighted works which it can detect if part or all of the work were uploaded automatically. It both prevents piracy but, if the original owner agrees, ensures that any money generated from the clip gets paid to the owner.

This year the Emmy's are awarding two of the founders lifetime achievement awards for their contribution to the creative arts.

The platform is not just a central place to find any video and to generate an income from it, it is the place to launch acting, writing, directing and filming careers. Each year it would create a big budget end of year video featuring many of the original creators and the clips that were most popular that year, but last year the 2018 version became one of the most disliked videos ever.

Here is where it gets complicated. Youtube is a commercial company and even with its $10 billion-plus revenues also has enormous costs.

The costs related to hosting all those videos, but increasingly also to manage what gets uploaded and which ones get promoted. It may have solved a big chunk of the piracy issues, but a more significant problem persists - harmful content. Just describing it is not easy, it could be anything from dangerous pranks, extreme opinions, fraudulent claims about products, conspiracy theories and terrorism-related content.

Kids programming is very popular. Anyone with a child knows about baby sharks now, but some videos uploaded as child-friendly featured themes and images that were not.

Pranks get lots of people watching and sharing, but the pressure to keep getting more dangerous had resulted in at least one death on camera when a woman fired a weapon at her partner who thought he could stop a bullet with a book.

Add the growth of flat earth and ant-vaccination videos to the long-running fake moon landing and 9/11 videos and the world’s second largest search engine becomes the source for significant misinformation.

The future of YouTube

Susan Wojcicki, CEO since 2014, has been first challenged with turning around the financial success of the platform. Unfortunately, solving that has helped attract the wrong kind of content getting noticed, when advertisers reacted to being associated with content that did not align with their brands, YouTube had to shift away from original work and move to more established and commercial brands.

Nothing wrong with that, but the shift to become an official music streaming site (now with a full subscription service to remove ads and offer songs or music video) to compete with other streaming services including Google’s own music service.

It also is working to create original commissioned programming to compete with streaming platforms like Netflix.

In reducing which accounts get monetised and how it sends the billions of viewers to watch more videos has angered some creators to the point that one tried to shoot staff at their headquarters.

It is hard to believe the scale of growth and the extent of the issues faced by this relatively young company. And even as it tries with human and machine means to counter the challenges to providing safe, credible and entertaining content the next wave of manipulation is beginning to take shape.

Videos generated by machines with subtle changes to the footage to fool the content detection systems are becoming more common. They are not looking simply for ad-revenue. When so much of the planet go to one location to watch a video that anyone can upload you are going to attract a long list of people wanting to get them to watch theirs sometimes for all the wrong reasons.

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