The Battle for YouTube’s Soul: Commercialization vs. the Creative Web

Christian Sandvig introduces our panelists:

  • Matt Harding (Where The Hell Is Matt), who became famous in that dark time before streaming video sites.
  • Judson Laipply (The Evolution of Dance, a 2006 YouTube performance with 70 million views in the first 8 months),
  • Liam Sullivan (Liam Show / “Shoes”, which received 41 million views)

We have, gathered here, internet video royalty. But the field itself is changing significantly. On Wednesday, YouTube announced increased investment in professional production of content, to the tune of $200 million. They’re going to have channels, hire existing celebrities to appear, produce serialized content, and get sponsors like AT&T to run ads over it. It’s 2012, and YouTube has invented television!

The End of the Internet Video Star

It’s 2012. There’s a new vibe at YouTube. Its employees are less excited about finding new one-off sensations. They’ve been pushed to make money, and there’s a specific kind of content they’ve learned to produce that reliably turns up an audience. It’s television; serialized content. It takes Matt two years to make a 4-minute video, which works great for him, but isn’t really worth the trouble for YouTube. They’re not even interested in huge sensations like Friday, because these kinds of video are flashes in the pan.

Judson points to The Long Tail. Businesses have traditionally relied on a few big hits to pay the bills for all of the flops. The relatively free shelf space the internet provides was supposed to enable businesses like Amazon, Netflix and YouTube to be profitable off of the long tail of creativity. But marketers want to know who buys their product and how to get in front of those people. When you build a channel, you get a good idea of who’s watching, demographically. Friday is a shotgun blast, and less valuable to advertisers.

Liam says the rule of YouTube is Always Be Posting. Success there now requires consistency, not premium quality. He tries to crank out one video a week without sacrificing quality.

There are new barriers to entry to success online. It was a sad day for the internet when The Evolution of Dance was bumped off of the YouTube Top 20 list by a Vevo music video. [the room boos Vevo] There’s a rising tide of commercialization of YouTube videos. Matt Harding thinks the medium has been co-opted and the marketers have descended and it’s time to move on to more creative pastures. He links original amateur work on YouTube to punk rock and other creative genres, where the artists must constantly seek new media to stay ahead of commercialization.

One Justin Bieber video has 300 million views. If you want to blame anyone, blame MTV, because they stopped showing music videos, turning younger generations to YouTube to watch music videos.

Were the guys on this panel real pioneers? Matt Harding points to the origin of the content. Is it a result of individuals being creative, or the professional entertainment industry? The latter is really good at making entertaining content.

Is YouTube picking winners and losers, or is the audience watching what they want?
Google has a LOT of money, and is positioning itself for the long-term with YouTube. Computer use has surpassed television watching amongst young people, a huge shift in terms of content consumption. Consumers are time-shifting and platform agnostic.

The spirit and relative virtue of the internet is interactivity and the fact that we get to pick what content we consume. There’s a fear in the room that professionalization and commercialization of channels like YouTube have eroded this spirit. It’s becoming more like TV, and that’s a loss.

A nice side benefit of the Viacom lawsuit of YouTube was that it exposed previously internal memos establishing that YouTube never cared about internet culture and viral videos. They were happy to make money ripping off old sitcom episodes, if that was the path forward. It poses a challenge to ROFLcon attendees: If you care about internet culture, it might be time to move on. Says Dancing Matt, “YouTube doesn’t care about us.”

And here’s some background on the panelists, mostly unrelated to the panel’s theme:

Tell us your internet fame origin story.

Matt Harding found that a 15-year-old kid had uploaded his video and solicited Paypal donations, which tipped him off to the fact that other people found his video awesome. “I haven’t had a job since” draws applause.

Judson actually started out wanting to be a professional speaker, and was looking for the hook that would make him original. He got the idea watching a black comic rip on white people dancing at a wedding. Everyone would get up from their tables, stand up to do the same dance, and then sit down until the next planned dance song came on. Judson put together a compilation of the forms of dance. This being 2001, he had four years to practice and improve the routine. He says that if YouTube had been around for the first version of the dance, it would have gone nowhere.

Liam was an actor and sketch comedian in Los Angeles who hadn’t heard of YouTube. He put his work online, and, as YouTube was launched, people uploaded his videos to it.

The Viral Video Business

Before YouTube shared revenue, web sensations like Matt Harding had to partner with brands for revenue. He lucked out when Stride gum came along and gave him a bunch of money to go re-do his video for them. They didn’t particularly care where in the world he was, as long as he returned with video on the agreed upon deadline. Matt also cashed out with Visa and other companies in TV ads in foreign countries.

Things have changed now, Matt says. These companies all have social media people who study branded content. There’s an entire industry of web content production so that these companies no longer have to rely on accidental web stars.

Judson’s main source of income, meanwhile, isn’t from his video, but like other internet sensations here, the sheer amount of attention he received as a result of his video was priceless. Copyright restrictions prevented him from profiting on the original video and its 195 million views. The Soulja Boy video, for example, has 18 rights holders, and using the song required getting permission from and cutting a check to each one of these rights holders individually.

Liam sold t-shirts to stay afloat until revenue sharing came along. There are companies now that build collectives of creative artists like Machinima, the Collective, and Maker Studios. It reminds Liam of early Hollywood.

Your Most Awkward or Otherwise Memorable Interaction as a Result of Your Video

Judson got to go on Oprah, where, after watching his video, she disclosed off-camera, “I don’t know why that’s funny. But it is.” He got the distinct feeling that you should not upset Oprah.

Matt really wanted to get into Saudi Arabia and disrupt show people smiling and dancing like they do everywhere else. Someone offered to get him into the country, so he scanned a copy of his passport and sent it to the stranger. The very next day he got a visa in the mail. It turned out that someone in the extended royal family had pulled strings. He flew to Saudi Arabia, where two men “in Lawrence of Arabia robes” met him at the door of the airplane with a sign reading, “Where the Hell is Matt.” He got the royal treatment and didn’t spend a dime.

The next day, they picked him up and told him he’d be dancing. They drove deep into the desert until they reached a large tent, where 40 guys awaited him, watching Oprah on a TV. He was given the traditional dress and a sword, like President Bush:

Matt ended up doing the Buffalo Shuffle (picture the frog dance in Looney Tunes) with a crew of 40 Saudi guys in the desert.

Liam’s awkward moment is the Halloween he met his wife while dressed as a teenage girl. He spotted her, but was resistant to say hi because he was dressed as a 16-year old girl. She was with two gay friends, who told her that Liam was most likely also gay. Fortunately, she proved them wrong and approached Liam, and said “I’ve never wanted to make out with a woman before.” (His poor wife is here in the audience).

Judson attributes their opportunities to the fact that they got in early. When he posted his video, the most-viewed video in the world was the Pokemon theme song. Google bought YouTube because they were competition, and as a huge corporation, it’s better to buy them out than watch them become a real competitor like Facebook.