When the Winter Olympics blanketed the airwaves in February, I didn’t watch in order to engage in an endurance test of my own.
After years of writing about YouTube programming, the time had come to confront a nagging truth: I didn’t watch much of the content I was reporting about.
What’s more, it didn’t seem like anyone else in the news media did either. For all the attention YouTube gets as a video platform, precious little is ever written about the creative merits of its content, even as endless buckets of virtual ink are spilled on TV shows and movies.
That’s an understandable distinction if you have an outdated perception of YouTube as being nothing but a bottomless repository of cats on skateboards and other viral videos. But there’s been an explosion in recent years of brands pumping out serialized content, both scripted and unscripted, live-action and animation, long- and shortform.
Some are young amateurs who have built mini-empires for themselves out of doing little more than cracking wise in front of the camera in their bedroom, like Jenna Marbles; others are full-fledged brands like Vice Media and AwesomnessTV that have attracted Hollywood backers (21st Century Fox and DreamWorks Animation, respectively).
There’s a massive spectrum between those two poles. So huge it occurred to me that only a full month without TV would do it justice. Given the billions of streams many of the top YouTube brands in multichannel networks like Maker Studios and Fullscreen command, it seems like a crying shame no one assesses the cultural significance of something so gargantuan.
The reason for this vacuum was evident enough to me after just a few days of YouTube-ing: most of the programming is for teens and kids. It’s juvenile at every turn. Adults write about content for adults.
So I fancied myself the Jacques Cousteau of the Internet, submerging into a world teeming with diverse life forms spectacular to look at in their exotic strangeness, yet unknown to anyone over 20.
But the very fact that it’s young people who are flocking so fervently to YouTube is precisely why it’s so important to take stock of its creative value. If we knew back in 1980 what Nickelodeon would grow to be, we would have watched it then with fascination. AwesomenessTV and Vice could very well be the next mega-brands; they demand our attention now.
Vloggers like Marbles all seem to employ a hyperkinetic editing style that reconstitutes splices of their commentary into a fragmented whole. The result would seem to be beneath TV standards, and yet the fact that these people reach sizable audiences regardless is a repudiation of TV itself.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that to watch YouTube is look at the future of the media. A generation is going to be raised on this style of content, and my bet is they’re not going to simply graduate out of its prevailing aesthetic; they’ll demand it come with them as they grow older.
By the time the Olympics ended, I had watched content from hundreds of YouTube stars. Yet it still felt like there was so much else out there yet to be seen that writing about the experience seemed premature. To even restrict my video diet to YouTube itself was like mistaking the sun for the entire solar system; there are other planets with their own distinct atmospheres, like Vine and Snapchat Stories. They’ve got to become part of what anyone in the media business views if he or she wants to understand audiences. For me, waiting to watch until the Summer Games in 2016 simply won’t do.