YouTube, the video sharing website launched in 2005, is ostensibly a website with a simple concept, where users may upload, share and connect over video content. From its small beginnings this website has expanded into a platform worth up to forty billion dollars, with over a billion people consuming its content every month (Sloane, 2015). As the site now operates on such a massive scale, along with it has emerged the new career and lifestyle path of the ‘YouTuber’. Youtubers make videos for a living, earning money from ad revenue that grows in relation to their audience size. At one point in YouTube’s beginnings these individuals made videos with no income, simply as a hobby, but over time their role and influence has evolved significantly, and the presentation of their lives has become a business, the YouTuber a brand. Since their emergence, YouTuber relatability has been intrinsically tied to their accessibility: as they display their lives through YouTube and a plethora of supporting social media platforms, they allow their audiences free, unmediated access through the utilisation of no-cost services based on models of advertising to produce revenue. However with the introduction of YouTube Red in late 2015, a paid for subscription service, this structure seems set to change.
Since the launch of the site ten years ago, YouTube, and those who earn their living through its platform, has seen a dramatic increase in its influence on modern culture. In the world of the YouTube elite, subscribers come in the millions, and whilst each of these YouTubers started making small videos in their bedrooms many have now become the first generation of YouTube ‘superstars’; benefiting from being popular within the new playing field of social media, where being watchable and regularly producing accessible content proves to be the perfect formula for a lucrative career. If one examines the actual content of these videos we find a curated blend of performance, autobiography and elements of traditional visual media, combined online in an effort to explore, establish and actively display each creators individual identity through free communication with an audience. In his discussion of liveness Philip Auslander refers to how television content, predecessor of the Internet, was seen as a ‘hybrid of existing forms’ (Auslander, 1999). At the same time as this publication, the concept of ‘Web 2.0’ was just beginning, with this term coined also in 1999 and becoming widely popular by 2004. (DiNucci, 1999) Whilst the name refers to several developments, the one that most directly concerns YouTube is the Internet moving from a medium of publishing to one of communication, and its subsequent identification as a democratising force of equality (Manovich, 2009). ‘The Internet allows us to speak to the world, to organise ourselves, to find and spread information, to challenge old ways, to retake control’ (Jarvis, 2009). YouTube is also credited as making possible ‘The explosion of user-created media content on the web’ and unleashing ‘a new media universe. (Other terms often used to refer to this phenomenon include social media and user-generated content.) What is important, however, is that this new universe is not simply a scaled-up version of twentieth-century media culture. Instead, we have moved from media to social media’ (Manovich, 2009). A new form of media has become increasingly popular, informed by its predecessors, and Auslander’s description has gradually evolved to also fit this new form.
Within this definition YouTube has held a firm standing at the forefront of democratised communication online for the past ten years. However the launch of YouTube Red in October 2015 marks a new development in the YouTube framework, and seemingly threatens this balance. Currently only available in the USA, YouTube Red is a paid for subscription service that sits alongside YouTube’s regular operations. For $9.99 per month users are promised ad-free content, offline and background play services, and a level of exclusivity never previously offered by the site. From 2016 YouTube Red will offer ‘exclusive access to YouTube Original Series And Movies, YouTube’s internally-produced premium video content from top YouTube creators’ meaning that, for the first time in YouTube’s history, specific content will only be available to those able to pay for the right to view it. Whilst YouTube staunchly argues that the introduction of YouTube Red will not affect its predominant ad-supported operations (YouTube Creator Blog, 2015) it seems that for both creators and viewers there are complexities in the argument.
YouTube is eager to define its Red service as additional (YouTube Creator Blog, 2015) to the existing ways in which the platform works, and when it comes to the YouTubers who create content it is emphasised that ‘with the launch of YouTube Red, our creator community will make as much or more money on YouTube than they would have without it. And on a per-user basis, a paying YouTube Red member will generate more money for creators than a typical ad-viewing, free user’ (YouTube Creator Blog, 2015). The benefit of a move away from the advertising model is an encouragement towards quality of content over quantity of audience: creators do not simply need view counts to dictate their earnings and so do not have to make work that appeals broadly to as many people as possible, or employ ‘clickbait’ tactics to elicit viewership. There is a possibility that, with the pressure of advertising alleviated, creators can instead hone in on niche markets of interest, producing content of higher quality and arguably of higher value to its audience, even if that audience is more select. In this way YouTube Red may not signify a threat to democratised media, but merely the next evolution in the realm of user-generated content. As opposed to an elite group of YouTubers with staggering audience sizes, the YouTube career may become more available, as multiple creators with specific talents and interests can generate income from smaller, more dedicated audiences. With the reduction of advertising, the online market has the potential to move from consumer-driven to interest-driven, and yet still be profitable for those involved.
Additionally, in the same way as one pays to view traditional media content, YouTube Red also makes room for the higher budgets and production quality of television and film to be utilised in a way that ad-supported online services have not been able to thus far. The exclusive content that will be created for Red users by YouTubers such as PewDiePie, The Fine Brothers, and Lily Singh amongst others will be scripted shows that signal a shift towards television production, with MTV’s Suzanne Daniels (Sloane, 2015) taking charge of original programming and PewDiePie reported to be working with members of the production team of The Walking Dead (Green, 2015). Whilst in recent years YouTuber video production values have increased significantly (Green, 2015), YouTube Red also offers another opportunity for the creation of higher quality content on its platforms. As creators are granted access to budgets and resources never before available to them, it seems viewers and YouTubers both enjoy increased quality and more refined content.
However, there are also concerns that YouTube Red holds the potential to create a ‘class system’ (Green, 2015) that has never been seen before online. Whilst there are other services who operate on similar models to YouTube Red, the most evident example of this being Spotify, never before has a social media platform moved from a completely free service to one that also holds extra benefits for those who can pay in quite this way. Whilst higher quality content is arguably a good thing, how beneficial is this model to users if they need to be able to afford such quality? Arguments over YouTube Red’s role online stray somewhat close to arguments in India over Facebook’s controversial Free Basics concept: those with enough money can access any content they wish, those who cannot may only see what the platform dictates. Additionally, the use of offline video or background play services have been highly demanded in the past, yet these new services are again only available to those who can pay, and key developments in the application for smart devices are deliberately withheld from those who cannot afford it. The power of free communication and usage promised by the Web 2.0 movement suddenly seems far less free.
At the same time, YouTubers and content creators also find themselves with less freedom. Any YouTube Partner, and therefore anyone who earns money from ad revenue, who refuses to sign the revenue share deal for YouTube Red ‘will have their videos hidden from public view on both the ad-supported and ad-free tiers’ (Constine, 2015) and as a report from October 23rd 2015 details ‘Today ESPN had to remove most of its videos from all versions of YouTube in the US. Because its other contracts prevent it from being on subscription services like Red, ESPN’s videos are now disappearing from the ad-supported tier of YouTube in the US.’ (Constine, 2015) The method employed by YouTube to enforce these contract agreements has been likened to bullying, and seems to be an example of an ever-decreasing freedom on the very site once hailed as the poster-boy for free communication. The threat of deliberately hiding the content of those who do not comply with the new rules of YouTube Red not only grants YouTube the power to greatly damage the incomes of those who have forged a career on this platform, but also greatly infringes upon the communication that has built these careers. The Youtuber/viewer relationship (in itself complex and difficult to define) cannot help but be altered through deliberate coercion and direct involvement from YouTube itself. YouTube ceases to become a platform for conversation and instead attempts to thrust itself into the dialogue, removing agency from both YouTubers and viewers in regards to accessibility and free choices to view. Moreover, this move sets a concerning precedent for decisions YouTube may make as it continues to develop in the future, and some are left wondering ‘what’s to stop it [YouTube] from altering the deal any further?‘ (Constine, 2015)
So, is there a way to find balance? To improve content without infringing on the freedom that has made YouTube the popular platform it is today? In some ways YouTube Red proves a better model than advertising, providing more money and resources to enable the production of higher quality content, and potentially enabling opportunities not previously thought possible, but at what cost? YouTube’s concerning approach towards its content creators, and the potential for division within its audience, leaves much to be desired with the YouTube Red model. It seems that, if an audience is really willing to pay for better services, direct support for the creators themselves is much more beneficial than going through the middle man of YouTube. There are a plethora of ways to support content creation, whether it be buying merchandise or through crowdfunding mediums such as Patreon, and by utilising these tools, while the YouTube Red developments have already gone ahead, there is less chance of YouTubers themselves having to compromise to YouTube’s demands in future if their audiences seek out these alternative methods of support. It is unclear what will become of YouTube Red, and at best one can only guess at better alternatives, but it seems that the best solutions to its potential problems are the same factors that made the website so popular in the first place: direct, free communication between audience and creator.
Francesca Willow is a London-based performer, writer and dramaturg. She originally trained in Contemporary Dance at Trinity Laban before studying an MA in Theatre and Performance Studies at King’s College London. She is open to a wide variety of work, but particularly loves collaborating with artists from other mediums.
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