Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Since its premier (in 2005) YouTube has become one of the Internet’s best loved sites of (supposedly) free content. Music videos, amateur news, how to videos, personal narrative, video game replays, and a vast number of videos of animals being cute have all shared a space where watching anything required—seemingly at most—sitting through a short advertisement.
Yet change is coming. As was reported on the YouTube blog, in a post aptly titled “New ways to support great content on YouTube,” the site is beginning to experiment with a subscription model:
“a pilot program for a small group of partners that will offer paid channels on YouTube with subscription fees starting at $0.99 per month.”
The early partners for this effort are at almost comically opposite ends of the demographic spectrum: Sesame Street and UFC. Which is likely part of the point, to determine which user groups are most likely to pay for content, parents or fans of fighting? While this initiative is clearly starting quite small, and while it seems that much of YouTube will remain open without any subscription fees, it is nevertheless likely that these subscription services will only increase over time.
YouTube is trying to get in on some of the territory that Hulu Plus and Netflix have done so well in: charging relatively low monthly subscription fees to allow people to stream lots of content. What YouTube is attempting is to make it much more specific. Indeed YouTube (which is really Google) is responding to the old question of “why can’t I just subscribe to the channels I want” by saying “and now you can!”
From a certain perspective—one that YouTube is certainly emphasizing—this new subscription set up makes a lot of sense, for YouTube couches the upcoming subscription costs in the language of supporting the website’s uploaders:
“we’ve been building a YouTube partner program since 2007 that enables content creators to earn revenue for their creativity.”
There is a good point to be made here, for there are certainly legions of creative folk working hard to create the content without which YouTube would be far less successful. And many of these content creators may feel that the current set up of YouTube keeps them from being adequately financially compensated for their output. Thus, YouTube is trying to put itself at the vanguard of “supporting” the creative types, poor souls who are slaving away without proper remuneration in the era of downloadable content.
On the one hand this is rather easy to make problematic simply by noting that Sesame Street and UFC are not small filmmaking teams trying desperately to scrape together the funds to make another film. Indeed many of the groups most likely to benefit from some form of subscription service are media entities that have already achieved a strong level of success. YouTube users are (likely) familiar with Sesame Street and may recognize the value in paying a dollar a month to access its content, but the same probably wouldn’t be true of a group trying to start something new. Though perhaps YouTube’s intent is to keep requiring new entrants to offer their content for free until those creators feel that they have amassed a sufficient fan base to be able to charge them. Nevertheless, it would seem that the groups who will benefit most from the subscription model are largely the groups that would have been okay were it not for the subscription model.
Also unsaid, though certainly related to the above point, is the question of what portion of the subscription fee will go to YouTube (read: Google) and what amount of the subscription fee will go to the actual content creator? The subscription model will certainly direct some profits into the coffers of the creative folk, but it will likely direct roughly the same amount of profit into the coffers of YouTube. Thus, the talk of “better supporting content creators” is only partially true, it may be part of the equation but the group that is really going to reap the big financial rewards is YouTube/Google.
Yet the other, more important and overarching thing to keep in mind with this deal is how problematic the notion “YouTube used to be free” actually is. While it is true that YouTube did not previously have a paywall on content (including stuff from Sesame Street and UFC), the fact is that YouTube has never been free. Like most online content you have paid for YouTube every time you’ve used it whether or not you’ve entered a credit card.
YouTube tracks the videos you watch, how long you watch them, what videos you click on next, what comments you make, how many times you watch them, which videos you post elsewhere, what videos you give a “thumbs up,” which you “like,” which you tweet, and so forth. YouTube is a content platform, which in the act of using, allows you to (unintentionally) generate a hefty amount of valuable and marketable information that enriches YouTube/Google far more than the few dollars that eventually find their way to content creators. And this is to say nothing of the amount of money that YouTube earns from the advertisements you are exposed to on the site.
People who care about supporting creativity should be interested in models that allow for content creators to be supported (which includes financial support) for the work that they do; however, YouTube’s subscription model is less about funding innovative content than it is about further bolstering existing media properties and (even more) further enriching YouTube/Google. This is not about artists or documentary filmmakers, it is about YouTube wanting to compete with Netflix.
There’s plenty of entertaining, interesting, and thought provoking content on YouTube. But the information generated about you and captured by YouTube when you visit the site is the hidden cost already entailed in using the site. You pay with your privacy.
It remains to be seen how YouTube subscription services will develop, and how it might help support creative folks, but regardless: YouTube has never been free.