The Platform Exceptionalism of YouTubeJanuary 27th, 2020 · 26 comments
The major social media services are often described as fundamental platforms of the internet age. The companies that control these services use this argument to justify their astronomical valuations, and their critics use it to validate the need for regulatory intervention.
As longtime readers know, I’m often skeptical of this digital deification.
Services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram aren’t really platforms: instead of providing core functionalities on which others can build a diversity of useful applications (the standard definition of a platform), they instead offer closed ecosystems in which they carefully monitor and control user behavior.
These services are also far from fundamental. Nothing about web teleology, for example, implies that Twitter’s arcane mix of short-message formats, ampersands, and retweet ratios is an unavoidable technological advance. If Jack Dorsey shut down his Frankenstein’s monster tomorrow, few would wake up a year from now really missing what it added to the online universe.
Recently, however, I’ve been grappling with the idea that there’s one immensely powerful social service about which my skepticism doesn’t seem to neatly apply. I’m talking about YouTube.
To start with, unlike tweets or tagged photo sharing, streaming video is fundamental. The original HTML- dominated version of the web democratized and decentralized the publication of the written word. Online streaming video is doing the same for the moving picture, an equally, if not more important form of media for many people.
Furthermore, YouTube, unlike its peers in the pantheon of social media giants, really can act like a platform. Though it still offers a purposefully addictive and creepily-surveilled user experience at YouTube.com (few rabbit holes run deeper than those excavated by their algorithmically-enhanced autoplay suggestions), the service also allows its videos to be embedded in third-party websites, enabling it to behave like an actual platform that can support a wide array of non-affiliated communities.
I was thinking about this the other day when visiting Tested.com, a technology-oriented web site, primarily built around original videos hosted on YouTube.
A site like Tested could never exist if they had to develop their own reliable, international, low-latency, multi-platform delivery network. But with YouTube providing these core services, the site’s founders could instead focus on innovating content.
And with the advent of low-cost HD cameras and tunable LED light boards, the content on sites like Tested is starting to get pretty damn good, rapidly approaching the quality and user engagement of an old-fashioned cable channel, but at a fraction of the price. I’m equally happy watching the always fantastic Adam Savage in a One Day Build video on Tested.com as I am watching an episode of his current Discovery Channel show, Savage Builds, and yet the former cost thousands of dollars to produce while the latter required many millions.
(There’s still a lot of innovation required before these independent video sites reach their full potential — replacing a blog-style timeline format with a Netflix-style interface , for example, might go a long way to encouraging more engagement — but the potential is clearly there.)
YouTube, of course, would probably prefer that this long tail challenge to television would occur entirely within their own chaotic, and often wildly uneven web site, but this isn’t crucial to their survival: they can still play ads on videos embedded elsewhere and split the revenue.
I don’t mean to be an apologist for YouTube, as there’s a lot I don’t like about how their core web site operates, which somehow both numbs your mind while pushing your buttons, and has a way of leaving you feeling vaguely uneasy after too much time spent browsing offerings that bounce chaotically from solid to sordid.
But nonetheless, something interesting is happening with its platform functions. Whereas Facebook, Instagram and Twitter built their fortunes trying to tame the decentralized energy of the original web, forcing users into their walled company towns where behavior is tightly controlled, YouTube might just end up eclipsing them all in importance by enabling the opposite; boosting instead of dampening the ability of the individual to try their hand at building something original.