The Youtube Edition
On cycles, platforms, and staying power
Noah here. Back at the beginning of the year, Cory Doctorow had a piece for Wired about the “enshittification” of the internet. “Here is how platforms die,” the piece begins, “First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.”
The article goes through the regular suspects social media suspects like Facebook, Twitter, and now TikTok, while also turning its aim at sites like Google and Amazon:
Search Amazon for "cat beds" and the entire first screen is ads, including ads for products Amazon cloned from its own sellers, putting them out of business (third parties have to pay 45 percent in junk fees to Amazon, but Amazon doesn't charge itself these fees). All told, the first five screens of results for "cat bed" are 50 percent ads.
Why is this interesting?
One site that is very obviously missing from Doctorow’s piece is YouTube. While it does get a mention, it’s only in the context of its competitive dynamics with TikTok. While I certainly agree with some of the dynamics described in the article, I think it’s equally interesting to look at the sites that haven’t been “enshittified,” a list I would probably put Wikipedia and YouTube near the top.
While YouTube has caught plenty of flack over the last decade for pushing people towards extremist content and exposing kids to some terrible content, by and large the platform has managed to get better over the years, not worse. I, for one, watch more YouTube than almost any other media at this point. Between the amazing historical content, the interesting original stuff, the music, and the lectures/presentations, there’s a version of YouTube for just about any mood I’m in. The Premium service, which costs $11.99, lets you watch ad-free, but also do background audio on the mobile app, which allows you to listen to videos like podcasts (great for runs).
And I’m not alone in feeling that way, FT columnist Janan Ganesh wrote his own ode to the video host about a month ago:
Verdi supposedly said that you can have the universe if he could keep Italy. You can have the internet if I can keep YouTube. It has a greater trove of content than Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime combined and squared. It enfolds high and low culture with the promiscuity of a Clive James essay. When the dilettante in me starts a project — language-learning, getting into opera — it is indispensable. For banal life — how to fix an LG sound bar — it is even harder to do without. Before I visit a city, a YouTube channel will give me a sense of the texture of street life there in high-def. And all praise to the moderation algorithm. On such an open site, vile things should be easier to stumble across.
If all this sounds like a love letter to Youtube, it kind of is. I think if we’re going to talk about the “enshittification” of many of these other platforms, we should at least acknowledge and explore the ones that have managed to avoid the trend. (NRB)
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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