I won’t recount the history of the rise of youtube. It was, at the time of writing, less than 20 years ago and it has been documented to death elsewhere. The creation of youtube was inevitable. Google’s ownership of youtube was inevitable. This is the world we live in.
The internet got fast enough to support video distribution. Computers got fast enough to produce and consume compressed video. Compression got better. It was inevitable that, at the nexus of these things, would be a radical transformation in the way video was created and consumed, and there was.
I do not want to sell youtube short it is, and it was even more so in it’s early days, a truly remarkable platform. Even as early as 2010, 35 hours of video were uploaded, on average, every minute and more than 2 billion videos were viewed per day. That scale is absolutely, mind-bogglingly massive. It i basically impossible to reason around numbers that large, so I won’t try. Youtube received an unfathomable amount of content every day, and it was watched by an even more unfathomable number of people.
If youtube had been a neutral, begign force, it would be easy to call youtube the culmination of the calls for diversity in the ecology of the videosphere. Here is a platform to which anyone can upload a video, through which nearly any kind of content can be distributed, and upon the back of which many people could make a living (if not a fortune.)
In a 2009 interview, Michael Shamberg expressed exactly that sentiment, saying “[Modern Social Media] is exactly what I was talking about in making media two way and empowering people . . . only better.” It is easy to see why he carried that optimism about social media, and about youtube specifically, but his own text Guerrilla Television provides a framework from which we can critique this view.
Youtube is, after all, a subsidiary of one of the largest corporations to have ever existed, and it exists for the dual purposes of extracting profit and controlling the flow of information. Youtube takes all the trapping of democratized media and burries them under invasive spying, advertising, and an algorithm designed to Increase Engagement at the expense of anything and everything else, which inevitably makes youtube a distribution network for increasingly extreme content in the name of increased engagement.
Chris Gethard is a comedian and a writer. In 2011, he started a television show on the Manhattan Neighborhood Network. He released episodes of this show as a podcast, and eventually he also live streamed the show through his own website. It was absolutely chaotic, unlike anything that would have ever been allowed on mainstream television, and it was beautiful.
Gethard ran the show weekly for several years and built up a huge, dedicated fan base. Eventually, the show was picked up for production by actual cable networks, and it bounced around from network to network and then it died. Gethard continued to produce independent media. His podcast “Beautiful Anonymous” was recently selected for inclusion in the collection of the Library of Congress.
During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, Gethard launched Planet Scum TV. Planet Scum was a live streaming and VOD television network that leveraged major online services like twitch to enable people to make and distribute television programs from their own homes at a time when the production and distribution of traditional television was all but impossible. Gethard’s work directly inspired what I am doing today. He proved that it was possible for truly independent media to make the jump to traditional broadcasting, and he demonstrated that community based independent media is the best potential future of broadcasting.
Gethard, I suspect, would agree with many of the ideas outlined in this book. Through his work, he has consistently chosen to embrace many of the core principles of Community Media production, and he has managed to do that while also existing within the structure of traditional media.
Many of the solutions and ideas we will explore later in this text are derived directly from the techniques Gethard explored, but have been adapted to center truly independent distribution as not only the goal but also the only ethical and sustainable path forward.
Modern technology has enabled the creation of video at an unprecedented scale. Nearly everyone has, in their pocket at all times, a camera capable of producing video at a quality that was unimaginable in 1995, that can edit video, add titles, upload it to a video sharing service, or even “live-stream” that video, broadcasting it in real time in to the homes of anyone who cares to watch.
This has the potential to be revolutionary. It has been used in ways that are revolutionary. Over the last decade, we’ve seen countless examples of police brutality caught on video, holding these state actors accountable for the first time. We’ve seen citizen journalism at a scale that would have been unimaginable in 2000.
Youtube and other commercial, for profit, video sharing services have enabled the distribution of video on an unprecedented scale. Billions of hours viewed every day. We’ve seen sitcoms, fan-made continuations of major television and film series like Star Trek and Star Wars, fully independent film and television at every level of quality, all created by People and distributed through youtube and other commercial platforms to Other People.
This is all very good, and almost wonderful. But youtube is, after all, the subsidiary of one of the largest, and most pervasive corporations on the planet. We cannot depend on google.
Youtube’s economic model demanded that it become a tool of radicalization, and so it has.
This era of online video is plagued with stories of people who do things like shoot their friends or crash an airplane in the name of views. When they inevitably get caught, they feign contrition and face minimal consequences.
Meanwhile, traditional television has also seen falling profits as more people move to youtube (or, in this modern era, to other streaming services), and traditional television has, as well, moved towards increasingly extremist content in order to drive engagement and therefore revenue.
Cory Doctorow refers to this as the enshitification cycle. In order for us to have a media landscape that is truely democratized and participatory in a way that can be genuinely revolutionary, our distribution channels must be immune to enshitification.
As Shamberg said of broadcast media in Guerrilla Television, so to is modern digital video distribution “overly-competitive” and “over-centralized”, but worse than that, it’s also opaque. Youtube has shifted the burden and risks of running a media corporation on to individuals and teams too small to effectively respond to change, and then thrown them in to a landscape where the ground can shift underneath their feet. Their accounts can be terminated for no reason, their videos can be de-monetized or just de-emphasized, and even the “subscription” mechanism built in to youtube is no guarantee that your subscribers will actually know that you’ve published a new video, much less watch it (“Be sure to click the little bell, so you know when we etc. etc. etc.”) Simply put, youtube is an unaccountable, unknowable beast standing between viewers and producers and extracting a high cost from each one in exchange for a service that is far less valuable today than it might appear at first glance.
Every person who distributes their video through youtube serves to enrich a company that is actively harmful to the media landscape, and likely to the world as a whole. Every person who watches videos on youtube does the same. But everyone does it because, at least until very recently, there was no viable alternative.
Read on to the Manual section for some viable alternatives.
- STILL FIGHTING “the BEAST”: GUERRILLA TELEVISION and the LIMITS of YOUTUBE by WILLIAM MERRIN originally published in CULTURAL POLITICS Volume 8, Issue 1 by Duke University Press
- Chokepoint Capitalism How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back By Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow