Algorithms spell the end of mass broadcasting – goodbye to the BBC’s, CNN and Bloomberg’s of this world
“YouTube’s office is filled with its history. Inside the San Bruno, California, headquarters, about 45 minutes from the Googleplex in Mountain View, there’s a YouTube video on every screen. Over here, the SmarterEveryDay guys talk about the brain-bending backwards bicycle. Over there, Rick Astley promises he’s never gonna let you down. (YouTube’s employees work in a semi-permanent state of RickRoll.) On a table in one of the office’s many kitchens, there’s a pile of remotes for Google TV devices underneath a handwritten “FREE” sign.
And of course, the red play button is everywhere you look: big doorways, small desk ornaments. The conference rooms are named after YouTube phenomena: Double Rainbow, It’s a Trap, Dos Equis Guy, and on and on and on.
Inside the Lolcats conference room, VP of product management Matthew Glotzbach is describing the future of YouTube. He envisions an app so good, an algorithm so perfect, that it knows exactly what you want to watch at any given time. You wake up in the morning and catch up on the news while you get ready. Then, throughout the day, YouTube shows you shorter videos when you’re waiting in line or in the bathroom: maybe some gadget reviews, or the best Jimmy Fallon bit you missed last night. At night, you come home, and use Chromecast to watch a movie or an episode of Video Game High School on your TV. YouTube wants to be more than a search engine for video. It wants to be the future, a perfect blend of TV and the internet, where everything is on demand but there’s always something on.
A decade after its debut, YouTube is a behemoth. It’s become the place for video online. Three hundred hours of video are uploaded every minute, and it has well over a billion users worldwide. It’s spawned a crop of celebrities, real honest-to-goodness famous people. It’s by some measures the world’s second-largest search engine. And it has pioneered entirely new ways of creating and consuming video. Video was ascendant in the last decade, and it’s going to be inescapable in the next one.
YouTube can’t relax, though. Not yet, not ever. New challengers—everyone from Facebook and Snapchat to Vimeo and Vessel—are eyeing its talent and ready to poach its viewers. Absolutely everyone is coming for its advertisers, who have untold billions to spend and serious demands about where it goes. YouTube needs to prove it can turn impossibly huge view counts into actual, real profit.
The plan? Make sure everyone on the planet can get online, and on YouTube. They’re working with carriers and ISPs to figure out how to stream to anyone no matter what their connection looks like. Then, get so good at showing them videos they like that they’ll never want to turn off. That requires teaching their computers what’s inside your videos, what videos you want to see, and what formats and video types are coming next. The video industry moves fast, and YouTube has to stay faster.
With more options and better targeting, YouTube could begin to follow you all day. “We know viewing patterns are different,” Glotzbach says. “We’re dealing with how we enhance our algorithms for recommendations to say, hey, this is David, we know what kind of content he likes, and we’ll recommend him this kind of stuff on his phone during the day, but when he opens up his phone—same device—in the evening, our data suggests that he’s oftentimes at home casting it or streaming it on a set-top-box-type player, so we’ll actually tweak the recommendations a little.” YouTube can use your location, your browsing and viewing history, the time of day, and more to figure out what you might want to watch. Internally, they’re so happy with the recommendations engine that it’s now turned on automatically—you may have noticed that when you get to the end of a YouTube video, another one plays. “We’re pretty sure we’ve always got something for you to watch next,” Harding says.
The team at YouTube is also helping its creators figure out what this means for them, how it might change what they make and how they promote it. No one seems to know for sure, at least not yet. That’s why they’re also working on providing more insight into their analytics (Glotzbach says he’d love to just give every YouTuber a quant analyst to tell them what the numbers mean, but figures that’s not terribly efficient financially) and to help them start to experiment with things like high frame rate playback and 360-degree video.
YouTube’s ambitions span from the big to the small, the infrastructure to the commenting tools, but one thing is crystal clear inside the company: YouTube doesn’t make stuff. It’s a platform, and the only way to win is to be the best platform. That means helping people get more views, and showing viewers new things. It means making more creators a whole lot more money. Mostly it means that whether you’re using an ethernet connection on your brand-new iMac, streaming in 5K, or downloading a video via 2G in India, you better be able to watch what you’re trying to watch. When that video’s done, there’d better be another one waiting. And it better not buffer.