We’re at a point where the early Internet is getting older. Many beloved sites are entering their awkward tween years. You’ve got Facebook at 14, going through a serious identity crisis. And now, at 13, YouTube is trying to find itself, and that’s where YouTube and I have differing opinions.
The secret weapon of the service was its community, not the infamous commenters so much as the uploaders. You had not only a significant well of original content being pumped in long before the term ‘going viral’ had been conceived, but also this growing backlog of videos that seemed to just be archiving all of pop culture a little at a time: film reels from the 1950s, early clips from the Simpsons, emotional scenes from some of the most well-known movies of the past century.
Since catching onto YouTube about 10 years ago, it’s become my entertainment hub. I think of it as a Smuggler’s Cove. As streaming services are steadily learning, none of them will ever be the end-all for shows, movies, and viral content. The same is true for YouTube. It’s a great way to find something new when you’ve hit dead ends on Netflix, Hulu, or (God forbid) actual television. It’s a gateway drug to not just real-deal entertainment but also to ultra-specific forms of alternative entertainment (amateur video of pets, fights, and other fun things you don’t get to see in your own life). It can be just as much of an entry point to new interests in general, random subjects you’d like to learn more about.
In late 2015, YouTube Red was announced: bad original programming you have to pay for. But beyond getting a new, unwanted feature, the public finally got a taste of how YouTube sees itself, namely as just another TV channel trying to appeal to the widest possible audience with every new show, and cashing in on that appeal.
Suddenly I felt like I was talking to a teenager who was really trying to get into wearing cowboy hats and suspenders all the time: ‘I don’t know, maybe it’s not really your thing.’
Maybe a different metaphor would be more helpful.
Let’s all take a moment to imagine YouTube as a big, beautiful highway. Sure, there are plenty of billboards, but there are almost never any serious slowdowns. And this here highway, it goes just about everywhere. Then they put up a bunch of souvenir stores, that exclusively sell souvenirs of the highway itself: bland merchandise with a child’s drawing of an empty road, and underneath, “HIGHWAY!”
The guy at the counter asks you, “Don’t you want to buy a highway-themed t shirt?”
To which we respond, “No thanks, I was kinda just here to get to where I’m going.”
For a while there was a chance that YouTube recognized its potential as a totally new kind of streaming outlet, as an alternative to absolutely everything else, classier than Vine, more accessible and lower-commitment than bona fide television, and open to anyone with a Wifi connection. But apparently the company isn’t that interested in becoming the future, instead vying for a cash grab in the last days of the old ways.
Just a phase? I guess we’ll have to wait and see if YouTube grows out of it.