Who is Ray William Johnson, and why might YouTube need to change its name to RayWilliamJohnsonTube.com? How is YouTube, perhaps, moving the wrong way along the longtail, providing typical viewers (grazers not bingers) with an increasingly homogeneous experience?
If you’re not familiar with the term “longtail,” it was popularized by Chris Anderson (Wired) in 2004. Anderson used the term to refer to the success of Amazon and Netflix selling “less of more.” While mainstream retailers would only keep select merchandise in inventory (the 20% of products that would represent 80% of sales), the online stores could appeal to the rest of us.
YouTube’s early success (2005-2009) was serving the masses by offering the “long tail” of video content. However in the past year, the site’s homepage and “related/spotlight” videos have reverted to a more traditional commerce and entertainment model. Now a very, very small sample of creators (fewer than 10%) represent far more than 80% of the website’s views. As the site moves toward a more customized homepage, that means that “grazers” like GigaOm’s Liz Shannon Miller, are less likely to find relevant content… at least by browsing.
For evidence of this observation, look no further than the increasingly YouTube’s “most viewed” page, which once represented a more diverse collection of amateur and professional creators (even though “web stars” have dominated it during their increasingly compressed life cycles). Today it’s almost exclusively dominated by professional musicians, and about 5-10 amateur creators: specifically, ShaneDawsonTV, Sxephil, Shaytards, RayWilliamJohnson.
These are talented creators, and great marketers by my definition. They know their viewing audience, they satisfy them to their benefit, and they activate them to reach a broader crowd. But for the typical YouTube visitor (an intermittent visitor), YouTube has become a “sea of sameness.” The “webstar” lifecycle is becoming increasingly short as competition increases. This paradigm bothered me less, of course, when I was enjoying my 15 minutes. While I still get 5-6 million views a month, I’m rarely among the spotlighted videos… presumably because my videos are less frequent and engaging the audience less. That said, even when I was a predictable face on YouTube’s most-popular videos of the day, I knew that there was far better content that deserved this honor.
Ray William Johnson is perhaps the “poster child” of what “hard core YouTubers” want. The NYC amateur entertainer creates daily video blogs (vlogs) that are funny, irreverent and usually celebrate funny Internet videos he curates (many that were or became “memes”). He works hard, and his formula is precise — from the rapid-fire “show” format to the neon, circle-toon thumbnails and ALL CAP titles! It’s not an accident that William’s short videos are rewarded with more than a million views a day. That could mean as much as $800-$1,000 of income daily (see MyU2B stats), amounting to perhaps $500-$700,000 per year (although this is educated speculation). If history can help us predict the future, we can assume he will eventually lose his “most popular” throne to someone else, even if his videos remain regular and strong, and his monthly reviews holds or grows.
Johnson is not the first or last amateur creator to “crack the code” for getting serious views on YouTube, and growing his fan base via a virtual cycle. It’s easier to explain than to imitate: His strong fan base of YouTube “bingers” (those who view and engage frequently) regularly propels him to a wider audience of “grazers” (those people who visit sporadically and can’t help but notice the mesmerizing thumbnails, ala the photos here). He encourages viewers to watch, comment, favorite and rate (thumbs up), which is what drives YouTube’s algorithm for “spotlighted” videos. This accelerates the virtuous cycle, as long as his videos continue to convert “grazers” to “bingers.” And that’s good for him and YouTube, which depends on regular creators to attract and retain audiences to support its advertising model.
So should YouTube change anything, or is it a natural and healthy phenomenon? That’s debatable, and perhaps a moot point considering the limited interest by Google. YouTube may be the largest video sharing site, but its revenue is maybe 1% of Google’s revenue. That’s a rounding error to Google, who won’t soon let “the tail wag the dog.” As advertising revenue flows to online-video and consumption grows significantly, Google’s approach to YouTube may change.
YouTube’s fundamental challenge is this: absent the influence of human editors, the site “crowd sources” the curating/programming role to the portion of YouTube viewers who are active. That works nicely, but it does create a self-fulfilling prophecy that has strangled the growth of other online properties.
The new viewer has three viewing options:
- Search for preferred content (a vital but “non sticky” model),
- “teach” YouTube its preferences (a useful but rare approach for most people),
- or more commonly, default to the “crowd sourced” favorites.
So we have a virtuous cycle for creators, and perhaps a vicious cycle if YouTube hopes to expand its audience, something that will become more vital to advertisers and the economics of the online-video industry. Let’s say (not so hypothetically) that 1,000 to 10,000 people (ages 13-19 year old), take the active role of “crowd sourcing” by rating, favoriting and commenting. Their “taste” defines the “spotlighted” videos that YouTube promotes to new visitors. This can attract similar viewers, but alienates those who don’t share in the hardcore viewers’ tastes. Thus it may force them to resort to using YouTube as a search engine only, put effort into customizing the site to meet their needs, or send them elsewhere.
Paradoxically, YouTube’s increasingly homogenous content resembles the homogenous staffing model of its parent, Google (where high GPAs tend to be weighted more than other attributes). It’s a smart way to grow initially, but can also thwart diversity and evolution.
But perhaps I’m looking at this longtail shift the wrong way. It’s not a bad thing if you happen to share the taste of Ray William Johnson, or if you’re him. This phenomenon is also typical of most entertainment experiences, where the “star” pyramid is tall and sharp. In Hollywood, fame begets fame. Should it be different in this emerging media?
Regardless on your take, you might agree this phenomenon opens a large window for someone who (or something that) can “program” an experience that is more broadly appealing or that serves a more attractive advertising demographic… using YouTube’s platform or another. There are loads of ways to remedy this virtuous/vicious cycle using technology and human programmers, but it requires a different approach than the one to date. And it’s quite different from Google’s core DNA of creating great search and free technology products that rival many paid ones.
Your thoughts? I’ll be reading. It’s a snow day.