March 3, 2008
YouTube's Downmarket Aesthetic

As part of ongoing work about YouTube and the nature of online video sharing we've been pursuing, I've been looking lately at the some of the reasons for the ascension of the service to almost generic status as a shorthand for online video-sharing. The reasons for YouTube's rise to Xerox status in the US are many and murky, some having to do with diverse matters like site design, early mover status, canny marketing, the width of the stripes on their sweaters and champions they picked up along the way. Undoubtedly, however, I think that one of the reasons for YouTube's particular success is the downmarket quality of the video on the site. This is due to change, with the service currently testing technology that's been in development for a while now to increase the video and audio quality of the site, so it is perhaps prudent to point to some of the reasons I think grainy quality equalled success in YouTube's case.

Looking back to the emergence of the site and the development of video sharing as a key application in the "second internet boom", one of the markers that seemed to distinguish YouTube from its competitors was a concern for connectivity and participation, rather than audio-visual quality. Flash encoded and sometimes bordering on unwatchable, YouTube's grainy quality emphasized speed, and set up a structure of relations across the site which I think played some role distinguishing it from other services hence and since - YouTube's principal interest has been in courting participants rather than forging deals with premium content providers. Certainly it hoped to attain these, and its relative successes and failures negotiating deals dominated discussions surrounding Google's acquisition of the service in 2006. Content drives the site, but pushing sponsored or 'professional' content to the forefront privileges a model of distribution over a model of participation, and YouTube's differentiation seems to have always been about mass participation in something that might approach an open access, commons style model. It might be over-stating the case to suggest the site has striven to the same sort of goals as other commons-type projects such as the Wikipedia, and any such proclamation should not be made without an acknowledgement there are significant political issues that need to be discussed, but there is an element in the success of the site that suggests this is at least an arguable point.

Looking back at the video sharing landscape at the time YouTube was building initial momentum, I came across an interesting chart. Comparing YouTube with eight other video sharing start-ups including Dailymotion , Revver, Vimeo, and ClipShack, it is interesting to note that the two key areas of differentiation between YouTube and the other sites are a data-cap and sharing options. YouTube had none of the former, meaning you didn't need to become a paying member in order to upload more. This wasn't unique, however, amongst market players - it is a model designed to encourage the broadest type of participation. A little surprisingly, however, it had fewer of the latter, something I hadn't really considered in the past. Embedability was part of YouTube's "killer-app", and the success of the service played some role in popularizing this feature as a significant option (more on that later). In November 2005, however, YouTube only offered a URL to the videos and the option to embed them in a blog - no RSS feeds and even no option to directly email the videos (though if you have the link this is somewhat redundant from a user-perspective). As one TechCrunch commenter points out, without an RSS feed, YouTube failed a key Web 2.0 benchmark - it didn't allow its content to be decontextualized into a personalized stream, a feature that seems to have been key to public perceptions about Web 2.0*.

So just what did make YouTube the generic option it became (in the US?)? This remains an open question, but I would argue a contributing factor might have been the de-emphasis on content deals and an emphasis on participation. Not capping the number of videos you can upload means everyone has the potential to be a "mass" broadcaster - The distinction between how much content you can put into the system isn't based on whether you can afford the access or licensing fees. YouTube capitalizes on the declining costs of distribution to open up the options to more players. Low-quality video plays into this, as it reduces the bandwidth demands up and down, but it also establishes a standard quality for participants. This doesn't make the playing field horizontal - those with better cameras, more skills, or a wittier script, say, will still produce content of different qualities. But it erodes one technical distinction between "professional" and "amateur", between "mass" and "niche", and at least dents the participation gap. It opens up the opportunity for different forms and genres of content, rather than making the service one that values the same principles with regard to quality - aesthetically, formally or generically - as broadcast-era mediums.

This last point, I think, is important because it points to the way participation is privileged across the site. YouTube makes everyone a participant, and while things such as the now defunct Director program created hierarchies of participation, YouTube on the whole, appears to be a system oriented towards a more horizontal model than other video sharing sites. A key distinction between YouTube and others is the privilege it gives to sponsored or premium content. Where these are marked out quite apparently on sites such as Veoh, YouTube takes a more low-key approach. Indeed, "premium" or "sponsored" content is advertised on the front page, but YouTube does less, it appears, to privilege this content at the expense of other, non-premium or non-sponsoring participants in the system. Indeed, looking at the current US front page (and they're developing a new front page) "promoted videos" are emphasized only through location; they're presented in a roughly coterminous manner (size and orientation) as the other videos on the site. Sponsoring content might get you onto the front page, but you're still an uploader putting videos into the service.

This is important for the growth of YouTube. In a co-created media landscape, the politics of participation require acknowledging the value of users as creators of the services participate in. Balancing the presence of "professional" and "amateur" media producers is crucial to the success of any mixed media venture that employs "users" as producers of value. By emphasizing that all uploaders are participants in the system, YouTube creates a space that does not privilege digitalizing the distribution of content but rather the sharing of video - an act subject to different modes of engagement and different politics of performance. It is a space where "amateur" uploaders are positioned as valuable, but as more than eyes that can be put in front of premium content. Like flickr, the significant feature that grows the site is not necessarily access to content but the relational politics of the community.

* Just as an aside, YouTube also doesn't feature a glossy logo in the right colors either - even the Faildogs logo is more quintessentially web 2.0 than YouTube.