On January 26th, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki shared her 2021 company priorities in a letter to the YouTube community. In it, she called out a number of noteworthy accomplishments and also identified a few key objectives for 2021, including one section called “Building for the YouTube of the future” where she outlined 3 areas of interest: mobile creation, commerce, and the living room.
That’s a provocative thought exercise to think about what changes could be made this year to prepare for a future version of YouTube, a service that’s used by more than 2 billion people a month who watch more than 1 billion hours of video every single day. I happily count myself as one of those users and spend more time in YouTube on my phone than all other apps combined.
Given how successful YouTube is, it’s hard to imagine what changes to their video marketplace could be made that would be an improvement. When the YouTube of the present is so good, it’s a challenge to dream up a better YouTube of the future.
Hard, but perhaps possible.
Sharing the same format of Susan Wojciki’s 3 areas of interest, I offer up my own 3 areas for the YouTube of the future to create a more engaging, compelling, and valuable experience for users and creators alike. 3 things I’d love to see YouTube change, informed by real world learnings, but squarely grounded in pure imagination.
Area #1: Video Creation Platform
When’s the last time you posted a new video to YouTube? Better yet, when’s the last time you posted a video to YouTube that you actually recorded in the app too? I’m guessing it’s been a long time bordering on never.
That’s in no means to suggest people aren’t uploading to YouTube. The upload numbers are staggeringly impressive with 500 hours of content added by users every single minute. And the power law distribution of 10% of channels accounting for 70% of content uploaded is also a healthy creator / consumer ratio.
But there’s a subtle difference about YouTube versus other social media services: the vast majority of YouTube content is not created natively. In other words, most videos uploaded are not originally made within YouTube. Instead, they are filmed and edited with a variety of other tools from DSLR cameras to Final Cut Pro and then posted to YouTube. For most creators, YouTube isn’t the video creation platform; it’s the video hosting platform. That big plus button in the middle of the YouTube mobile app is something that even creators don’t need to press, which is one of the reasons why mobile creation is already a 2021 priority for the company as they plan to invest more in their Shorts feature.
That difference between video creation and video hosting is important because hosting alone is undifferentiated. YouTube is terrific at storing and streaming videos, but so are other services like Twitter or Facebook. There’s only so much you can do with hosting before the creator can’t tell the functionality apart. At that point, creators can simply take the video they’ve created elsewhere and cross post it to multiple platforms in addition to YouTube (or in a worst case scenario instead of YouTube). And for viewers, watching the same video posted on multiple platforms is also undifferentiated. It matters far less where I watch a video when both the content and the viewing experience are the same.
Now compare that with a service that’s not only a video hosting platform, but simultaneously a video creation platform: TikTok. For creators, TikTok is incredibly differentiated because their videos can only be created on TikTok through their creation tools. In other words, creators don’t just upload content made elsewhere to TikTok; they depend on TikTok to produce their videos in the first place.
For viewers, Tiktok’s video creation platform also makes the consumption experience unique as the audience can easily remix and add upon any video they are watching through TikTok’s Duet, Stitch, and Sound sampling features. Watching TikToks becomes highly differentiated too because their creation platform turns viewing into an interactive, participatory experience.
YouTube’s lack of emphasis on content creation isn’t surprising since they started as a desktop service and most content isn’t filmed with a computer webcam. While they’ve gone on to create what I consider to be the best mobile video app in the world, if there’s one area lacking it’s the creation tools. The YouTube of the future should make video creation a first class feature worthy of its center position on the app bar.
As for what type of video creation to focus on, TikTok has provided the blueprint with its remix ethos. The bulk of YouTube content can continue to be non-native (i.e. produced, shot, and edited outside of YouTube) with YouTube as the hosting platform. But YouTube could provide additional value and differentiation for creators and viewers alike by making that content remixable through an integrated creation platform (like TikTok does).
Remixing already happens on YouTube. Viewers already make popular reaction videos, commentary videos, and reviews that are at their core simply remixes of existing content (like this viral hit example). But they have to do this non-natively, or outside of YouTube. Instead, YouTube could build remixing into their overall experience, and make remix creation available and simple for everyone. And by doing so, the YouTube of the future would become both a great video hosting platform and video creation platform, to the benefit of creators and viewers alike.
Area #2: Direct To Consumer
YouTube has undoubtedly invested a ton in supporting creators. They’ve built a separate Studio App to help creators manage their YouTube channels. They’ve launched a Creator Academy to educate and train creators on how to be more effective on their platform. And they’ve provided a tremendous amount of economic value to creators from ad revenue to subscription revenue to new ecommerce opportunities. In the past 3 years alone, YouTube has paid out more than $30 billion to the creators and media companies on their platform.
But there’s one thing YouTube has not been able to provide creators: direct access to their audience. And that’s because YouTube has made it clear that they own the customer relationship, not the creator. It’s analogous to a brand like Nike selling through Walmart. Walmart is the one who communicates with the customer, collects their payments, and determines the overall shopping experience, not Nike. The same is true on YouTube. YouTube communicates with their users, YouTube collects payments from users and advertisers, and YouTube is who determines the overall viewing experience for the user, not the creator. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as YouTube manages the customer relationship exceedingly well. But it is a limitation for creators.
While YouTube does give creators a snapshot view of their subscribers, there’s no way to communicate with these people. What if the YouTube of the future created a Direct Messaging system to allow creators and fans to communicate with each other and one another?
Today, creators have to promote their email, social media handles, and their own website to give fans a way to communicate with them directly and vice versa, all off YouTube. Instead, YouTube can build that communication layer into their service via DMs to give creators a direct relationship with their audience (which is good for creators), but also keep that communication on YouTube (which is good for YouTube).
In addition to creator to fan communication, DMs would also allow for creator to creator communication which already happens today as creators frequently collaborate with each other on videos. Making that communication easier would make that collaboration easier. And finally DMs would also enable fan to fan communication, which would be a powerful step forward for YouTube to evolve from a video hosting platform, to a video creation platform, to a video creation network.
Area #3: Video Network
Have you ever sent a friend a link to a YouTube video? Or has a friend ever shared a YouTube video with you that caused you to respond with a laugh, a question, or some other opinion?
YouTube is a near infinite video library, where seemingly everything that’s ever happened in the world is available to be watched over and over again. But viewing the video is only one part of the consumption experience. There’s also the discussion, the commiseration, the reaction about the video — the proverbial water cooler moment — that is also an important part of the YouTube viewing experience. But today, that part happens off of YouTube.
YouTube is simultaneously entertaining and lonely — you have everything in the world to watch but no one around to watch it with. As I tap through recommended video after recommended video, I’m aware that I’m doing that by myself with no idea if there are others exploring those same videos around me, particularly people I might know. And so often after watching content, I find myself leaving YouTube to seek out someone to have a moment with about that video, whether it be on Twitter or Discord or WhatsApp or SMS. YouTube comments are a partial solution, but when I’m just as likely to watch a video posted a week ago as one posted today, those old comments shared by strangers don’t create any sense of camaraderie or human connection. YouTube supplies the water cooler topic, but not the water cooler itself.
The aforementioned DM feature would be an important start towards making YouTube into a true video social network. But a social feature that could be even more impactful is presence. Imagine as you watch videos, YouTube could tell you that a friend was also in the app right now. Just that little green dot indicator of presence would make YouTube far less lonely. What if you could also easily broadcast what you were watching to your friends, and even invite those friends to watch videos together natively in the app? Then you’re not only enjoying a water cooler topic, you’re enjoying the entire water cooler moment too, all within YouTube.
YouTube of the future
I open up the YouTube app. I read a quick note from one of my favorite creators, Austin Evans, who has messaged his subscribers to let them know he’s doing a live video chat with Marques Brownlee tomorrow where they’ll be showing off some crossover merch (sweet!) — I sign up to be notified of that. I start watching House of Highlights videos from the night’s NBA games when I notice that my friend Eugene is online too. I share my watch history with him to see if he wants to do a basketball dive with me. Instead, he invites me to watch clips of Mentalist Oz Pearlman together because we’ve talked about attending his next online show. Oz is of course amazing so we record a reaction of our jaws dropping and send it to our friend Wade, who’s also a Pearlman fan. This amusement goes on for quite some time. YouTube is amazing.
The future is here.