Editor’s note: Jess Kimball Leslie is a writer based in New York. She is working on a collection of essays about life after the Internet.
The great story of Silicon Valley: A company, once ahead of its time, ceases to innovate for almost a decade while continuing to make billions off its legacy business model — ad sales. Then that once-great company dies.
In the proud American tradition of AOL, Yahoo, and GeoCities, I present YouTube. Ever notice how its homepage looks almost the same as it did in 2008? No, really:
For the first time in a decade, YouTube’s dominance as the destination for video content is being challenged by rivals like Facebook. While the press admires the success of Bethany Mota and tours the lush new coastal YouTube studios, Facebook has spotted the company’s many weaknesses and is going on the attack.
There’s still plenty of hope for YouTube, however. Here’s how the company could shore things up in 2015.
Worry Less About Replacing Traditional Television
In the past year, YouTube spent a fortune on its two new production studios, intended as well-equipped playgrounds for its most valued and viewed performers. The idea is cool, sure, but I don’t think it should have taken precedent over re-thinking the YouTube experience (more on that in a bit).
The best YouTubers don’t emerge from high-tech studios, they emerge from out of nowhere. Smosh, PewDiePie — just some of the talent YouTube loves to trot out for its press pieces — succeeded despite the YouTube system, not because of it. They built audiences in a cluttered, ugly, ad-soaked swamp, where 100 new hours of competitive video are uploaded every minute.
Unlike at a movie studio, YouTube did not rescue PewDiePie from obscurity. Instead YouTube got on board in the 11th hour, when the success had already happened and the risk of failing was so low that only an idiot could have lost money.
Unlike the great studio mavericks of past and present, YouTube’s executives are not gamblers, nor are they artists. YouTube’s approach to talent is more actuarial that artistic, and that’s fine (I guess, sigh), but the company shouldn’t pretend to be something it’s not.
Realize That You’re Sitting on the Next Coursera — Hollywood Edition
I once got to witness a Seinfeld writer sharing YouTube clips with fellow Hollywood writers, and it was a totally miraculous event. Working artists use YouTube’s bank of content as a movable feast; they get together on Friday nights and share clips ranging from Nichols & May sketches to Bill Hicks rants and discuss what makes each piece great. This is how the modern artist studies their art form. The dialogues that successful performers are already having around YouTube clips is, well, world-changing for anyone who wants to learn how to tell a story.
Imagine YouTube bundling and selling master classes with accomplished entertainers. (In addition, imagine the company following in Apple’s lead and thinking about design first instead of ad sales, therefore creating something worth paying for.) Imagine lengthy collections of YouTube clips, curated and narrated by your favorite star. Imagine Shonda Rhimes on writing great cliffhangers, or Tina Fey on improv.
Premium content brings us to a vital side point: YouTube should allow us all to buy our way out of advertisements, out of endlessly closing pop-ups throughout the entire length of a clip.
Bad ads are another crucial point for YouTube to address this year. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an ad in a heartlessly inappropriate place, like right before a family tries to raise money to treat their kid’s cancer. How is it that YouTube so frequently embodies the very worst of the old-world Internet (unaware of its context), and the very worst of the new Internet (wildly obsessed with ad sales) at the very same time?
Imagine YouTube with a mood selector on its homepage, à la Beats. Beats is brilliant because it considers the why before the what. Why do I end up at YouTube.com? Sometimes my brother-in-law is visiting and we like to watch weird 1990s mashup videos. Sometimes I could use a laugh at work. Sometimes I want to find some cute animal videos to laugh at with my kid before bedtime.
Imagine YouTube asking questions like:
Who are you with? (A little kid — so the content must be G-rated, etc.)
Do you feel like being: grossed out; inspired; entertained by goats
YouTube needs the Beats questionnaire for video. This is its new mini app, its Messenger.
Become a Better Time-Killing Destination Site
YouTube has an incredible advantage over most Internet properties: It’s No. 3 on the Alexa Top Sites lists. No. 3! And it’s not even trying! I’ve had a YouTube account for a million years, I watch all kinds of content on it, and still the best its homepage can do to guess at what I’ll like is this:
- The dominant image is an advertisement (gross).
- I have no interest in any of that recommended content.
- I have no idea how that content surfaced to my main pain in the first place, which makes me think YouTube is kinda dumb.
- I have no way to feed back into YouTube’s algorithm and say I hate their content, as suggested, for “me.”
- The content is presented void of any context. How about some editorial, ratings, written jokes, or any other myriad ways that it could be made more meaningful?
- Even BuzzFeed knows point No. 5, and they are the intellectual toilet of the Internet.
Copy the Gawker “bored at work” business model; hire some editors. YouTube should challenge itself to perform more like BuzzFeed, which, for all its faults, does immediately engage the user off of its homepage content and context.
Facebook is always able to kill off its rivals because it’s the content destination side of the world. YouTube is the one company that, with a better user experience, could genuinely compete as another destination. It’s only one Alexa ranking away.