The YouTube Conundrum

As a public critic of social media, I’m often asked if my concerns extend to YouTube. This is a tricky question.

As I’ve written, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram didn’t offer something fundamentally different than the world wide web that preceded them. Their main contribution was to make this style of online life more accessible and convenient.

My first independently owned and operated web site from the 1990s, for example, required me to learn HTML and upload files to a server at a local ISP using FTP. Ten years later, expressing yourself online became as easy as using your student email address to open an account at thefacebook.com, and then answering some questions about your relationship status and favorite movies.

YouTube seems different.

Before it came along, there were not many options for individuals to publish original video content online. Now this can be done for free with the click of a button, which is an important shift. Many content creators I know see the democratization of video as a force that’s shaping up to be as disruptive to traditional media as the preceding arrival of web sites.

And yet, at the same time, many of the people I spoke with while researching Digital Minimalism admitted that idle YouTube browsing is devouring more and more of their discretionary time, and they’re not happy about it.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

The best answer I can come up with for now is both.

On the positive side, video is powerful. Enabling more people to create and publish video will therefore unleash powerful creative innovation. (It will also, of course, enable the creation of more insipid and brain-dulling content as well, but this is an unavoidable feature of any publishing revolution, from Gutenberg onward).

On the negative side, YouTube’s attention economy revenue model, supercharged with statistical recommendation algorithms, creates a browsing experience that can suck you into a powerful vortex of distraction and creeping extremism that cannot possibly be healthy.

A Better Way Forward

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the positives of online video while diminishing its negatives is to deploy a hybrid indie web approach.

Imagine an online world in which people hosted their innovative video on large, big-infrastructure platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, but then embedded the players on their own independent web sites. This would allow users to find interesting new video content by leveraging the same style of decentralized trust hierarchies that structure the blogosphere, instead of relying on artificial statistical algorithms tuned to optimize attention extraction.

Because YouTube came along at exactly the moment when broadband penetration made online video practical, we never had a period of indie experimentation before the market consolidated into platform monopolies. I think it’s worth exploring what we missed.