The Wall Street Journal does not like YouTube.
The way they talk about the platform, it’s creators and their audiences is, at best, condescending. At it’s worse, it’s irresponsible journalism that reveals strong bias and insecurity over a loss of influence.
Now, I realize that what I just said sounds alarmingly similar to a person who might call the WSJ fake news, so let me say, unequivocally, I do not believe the WSJ is fake news, nor would I ever suggest it’s writers aren’t talented, hard working people.
What I do mean to say, though, is everyone (readers, writers and the WSJ audience) stands to benefit much more if the outlet stopped blatantly hating on new media (especially if they’re also going to continue to use all of its growth and engagement tactics).
Last week, they published an article online in an effort to “expose” YouTube’s biggest creator, PewDiePie, for his love of Nazis and Hitler. The whole thing was a mess that resulted in the WSJ looking unprofessional and a little vengeful — something a reputable journal probably shouldn’t be.
Then just today, they posted an article about YouTube’s gain in viewership and how it is on pace to eclipse TV. The facts of the article (that YouTube viewers now watch more than 1 billion hours of videos a day) are relatively straightforward. It wasn’t until you started to read the article and it’s commentary that you understood just how much the WSJ loves pushing the old media vs. new media narrative.
The article suggests that the sophistication of the algorithms made to show a viewer more of what they want to watch is a major reason why YouTube viewership is close to topping television. But what they seem to imply is that the algorithm is somehow a cheat code into getting views that television has to earn “the old fashioned way” with quality content.*
This is, of course, the most pessimistic and simplistic view of what’s happening.
While the algorithm does play a huge part in how viewers behave on the site, it doesn’t guarantee their attention.
Viewer can be more cutthroat than ever about where and how they spend their time. Attention can be split between any of the major streaming sites, television, YouTube or any social media platform that supports live video broadcasts (which is most of them at this point).
People stay on YouTube because they like what’s on YouTube. Or, people don’t watch traditional cable television as much because they don’t like what’s on traditional cable television as much as they enjoy what’s on YouTube.
The WSJ goes on to quote Christo Wilson, a Northeastern University computer-science professor who studies the impact of algorithms. In the article he says, “The blessing and curse of cable and broadcast TV is it was a shared experience….But that goes away if we each have personalized ecosystems” [of YouTube content].
What Wilson is saying is that when we (Americans) don’t have the shared experience of all watching the newest episode of Friends at the exact same time, we lose a common thread that used to bind us together.
The fear here is that we will all start to exist in silos and we’ll lose touch with those outside of our particular community.
I do understand how one might come to that conclusion (and I certainly don’t mean to say that I am in any way more intelligent than Wilson), but I would argue that it’s too short sighted of a conclusion. Human beings are more complex than that.
We are hardwired as a species to crave community. That isn’t going to go away if television suddenly becomes the second most watched medium.**
We haven’t had TV for that long relative to the history of human beings. Sure, in recent years, TV became the biggest influence and easiest way to find common ground with people around you, but easy doesn’t always mean best.
We managed to find shared experiences before the invention of TV and we will certainly find a way to do it after TV.
But more than that, YouTube is not dividing people the way the WSJ is trying to suggest. The real problem with TV (and the reason, I would argue, people are pulled towards online video) is that it lacks representation and choice. Showrunners and networks have gotten better, but the pace of progress is entirely too slow for our current society. The reality is, if TV looked and sounded like online creators, people would tune in.
On YouTube, you can watch videos that cater to all of your interests, like you can on TV, but online, you get to pick the person delivering that content. You want to watch comedy performed by a black girl with pink hair living in New York? There’s a channel for that. You want to get your news from someone who will call you a beautiful bastard? Yep, one for that too.
Online, we are all free to celebrate all of our nuance.
My YouTube subscriptions, for example, include a video podcast, traditional vloggers who talk about sex or empathy, a daily vlogger who is also in a band and one who lives in South Africa. I watch extreme sports channels, a carpenter, and a married comedy duo who cannot figure out the geography of the United States.
YouTube allows me to be, at once, a person who enjoys comedy, empathy, cinematography, pop culture, hip hop culture, food eating contests and people who are incredible at their job.
Yes, I could get those from cable, but I wouldn’t be able to pick my specific brand of comedy or host or action sports. Where online video allows for discretion, TV is a take it or leave it medium — something that just isn’t sustainable in our society.
And I understand that this is something that would scare TV, and the WSJ alike. They are losing influence and money and they aren’t sure how to fix it despite desperately needing to. That would be scary to anyone. But, I’m certain that the solution to regaining that influence and money is not to continue degrading the inevitable shift in culture. That’s the behavior they should probably stop.
If for no other reason than because the internet is at it’s hate quota for the next century.
*They also point out that being owned by Google, the most popular search engine on the Internet, is an enormous advantage that YouTube has over everyone else. But that’s just good business and the WSJ and TV would both jump at the chance to be favored by Google if they could.
**When put that way, the entire WSJ article (and my reaction) seem completely over-dramatic. Second place with 1.4 billion viewers ain’t bad.