Once upon a time, when Web 2.0 was new, there was an online platform that people could use to share videos they made of their cats playing piano, their children reacting to dentists’ drugs, and their renditions of the history of dance. And that platform was good, as it gave anyone the chance to have their 15 seconds of fame for starring in or sharing a video. Time Magazine christened the everyday men and women as the People of the Year because we could all become somebodies through our shaky, blurry, short videos.
Oh, how the passing of years and the acquisition by a large corporation can change things.
It has been announced by YouTube, owned by search engine megastar and media mogul wannabe Google, that starting this spring some YouTube channels will be able to charge subscriptions for access to the channels’ content. YouTube is currently in discussions with various channels that have loyal and robust followers to determine if they would like to be some of the first to test out this new feature. Current estimates would have subscription rates to individual channels fall between $1 and $5. YouTube argues that the move is to lure content providers to the platform: if content providers can expect some remuneration when providing content, then they would be more likely to do so, and more likely to invest in the production of high quality content that could compete with cable companies, broadcast television, films, and other traditional media outlets.
The move by YouTube follows other ventures to position the platform, and its parent company, in such competition. In the United States, they are beta testing a rental capability to allow content providers to distribute their products for a certain fee, similar to other on-demand rental schemes like Amazon and Vudu. YouTube has also been trying to attract content providers to consider them as a viable distribution source by helping them produce such content. Programs like Creator Hub and the construction of physical studios called “creator spaces” are examples of YouTube/Google’s attempt to legitimate the distribution site by enticing semi-professionals and professionals.
These moves to entice content producers to consider using YouTube to make money are occurring as Google is involved in other ventures that indicate the company’s interest in competing with traditional media across the board. Consider the Google Fiber project. Across the country, Internet service providers have increasingly been folded into the conglomerates that also control the cable distribution systems in those communities. Comcast, AT&T, Time-Warner, they all bundle their cable and Internet services, supposedly to save consumers money while providing high quality cable and Internet connections.
In Kansas City, both Missouri and Kansas versions, over the past year, Google has been experimenting with investing in the infrastructure to compete with such providers. Fiber is intended to provide fast — gigabit per second fast — and reliable Internet in all three plans, with the cheapest starting at free. The speed and capabilities of the connection increase as the plan’s subscription rate increases, until you get to the most expensive of the three, wherein Google provides cable and Internet services in one bundle — for $120, sure, but that would also include some technology, such as a Nexus 7 tablet and a 1TB hard drive for storage of downloaded media. Currently Google has not specified where Fiber will go next. And since installation in the KCs only just began, it is still too early to pass any judgment about the success or failure of this venture.
However, we can look across all of these ventures by Google and reach some conclusions about what the corporation is envisioning as its future role in media landscape. The company has been increasing YouTube presence and reputation as a destination distribution site for independent content producers, as well as smaller studios and production houses. They are encouraging high quality production through providing production tools and space, as well as incentivizing distribution through YouTube by experimenting with rental fees and paid subscription to channels. The company is also experimenting with how to compete in the service provider arena by working with the governments of the KCs to build distribution networks in the KC neighborhoods.
All of these moves can be read as attempts to compete with the media conglomerates that have come to dominate the media landscape by controlling production, distribution and exhibition. Google wants to be a source for production (“creator spaces”) and for distribution and exhibition (cable/Internet provider and paywalls for YouTube content). This model would be similar to Comcast and Time-Warner, who through their holdings have the same type of vertical integration capabilities by controlling the media from production to exhibition.
In one sense, this is free-market capitalism as its finest (if such a thing can ever be said). Google, which has amassed massive revenue from its search engine ventures, can invest that money into other ventures to strengthen its overall portfolio. Their purchase of YouTube can be interpreted as the first step in branching into the media landscape dominated by the media conglomerates. Should Google’s investments bear fruit, then they could provide serious competition to these companies; and given the younger generation’s investment in Google, to the point of turning the company’s main purpose into a verb commonly accepted to describe online searches, the company could expect the familiarity with their brand to help turn YouTube users into paying YouTube consumers.
But it is hard to not think about how having to pay for YouTube content is antithetical to the original intention and philosophy of YouTube. Think about all of the lovely short films and unique productions that you or someone else has just discovered and shared thanks to YouTube. If those are now on subscriber-only paywalls, then all of those discoveries might not get made or have the same circulation and views as they achieved in the free, open system. John Cloud, writing for Time Magazine back in 2006, when YouTube was bought by Google, described the platform as: “The unmediated free-for-all encouraged the valuable notion that the site was grass-roots, community-run and–to use an overworked term–‘viral.'” That was the brand of the platform, and that was how it helped to launch the social media revolution of Web 2.0 that suddenly had people so concerned with freedom and openness that the governments of the world have routinely tried to squelch it, and hacker groups have continued to rush to its defense.
But, of course, it was never truly about just freedom to share and create. YouTube has had to make a profit — the ubiquitous ads are proof positive of how YouTube differs from the non-profit Wikipedia. And as part of Google, YouTube has to prove it can generate revenue. While Google’s informal motto may be “Don’t be evil,” their philosophy on the matter is more “You can make money without doing evil.” Google is about generating revenue so that it can experiment in new ventures, like Fiber and Project Glass. The company would argue that incentivizing distribution on YouTube would not only raise revenue for these experiments, but it would also bring higher quality content to the platform: a win-win for consumers, in other words.
Again, all of these ventures are experimental, either ongoing or not yet begun. We do not know what the result of Fiber will be, or how many people will be willing to pay for content they had before gotten for free. However, at this current time, we are seeing Google and YouTube navigating the tension between the capitalistic ways of traditional media, as embodied in the media conglomerates, and the openness ideal that has characterized the Internet, World Wide Web and Web 2.0. In a video interview, Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google, can be heard walking this line when he describes trying to balance the idea of YouTube as allowing anyone to be on television while also providing the space and resources for professional producers.
What route will YouTube go? Will it become another Amazon, Vudu, Netflix, Hulu? Or will it remain an open site, where the occasional copyright infringement occurs, but often in the service of sharing and creating? Hopefully, the choice will be up to the site’s users and consumers, as their actions dictate to Google what should be done with it. But if Google is serious about competing with the media conglomerates, then that will mean competing by endorsing their practices of closed gardens behind paywalls. And then it will be up to the next young programming geniuses to give us the online space to share videos about cats being dicks, politicians taking pratfalls, and children giggling like stoners.