If the reports are true, YouTube is about to go the way of eBay, becoming a legendary Internet name that is no longer of much use to very many people. In stages over the course of the rest of the year, the current YouTube video viewing site will be taken down, replaced by the new YouTube, which will primarily be a music subscription site. Obviously, YouTube will be a shadow of its former self, but its executives don’t care. With subscription fees pouring in the site will be newly profitable. Nothing has changed yet, but already YouTube viewers and musicians are angry, and I will explain why this is the appropriate reaction.
I said nothing has changed yet, but in a way, that isn’t really true. Starting soon, in a matter of days according to a statement from an executive, YouTube will begin deleting the vast majority of music on the site — everything that isn’t part of the new paid subscription service. Just knowing this change is on the way, even if the exact date and other details of the process are unknown, has a chilling effect. As a musician, supposing I had just finished producing a new music video, why would I want to promote it on YouTube, knowing that it could be deleted from that site without warning tomorrow, next week, or next month? It isn’t a favorable promotional experience if I hand out links to fans that work right now, but that tomorrow might lead to a YouTube error page, or worse, an advertisement for the new YouTube service. The safer approach, given that doubt, is not to provide that link at all. And so, already, music that might have been added to YouTube is not there for viewers to discover.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because parent company Google has been through this before. Indeed, I can’t hear the phrase “chilling effect” without thinking of Google+, a social networking site that launched to great expectations, only to crash and burn about two months in as the site aggressively booted out celebrities. For a period of a few weeks, anyone could report that a Google+ user was a phony or using an alias, and Google+ would respond by freezing that user’s account, not just on Google+, but on other Google sites too. After I signed up for Google+, I was terrified to post anything, lest I too be reported and have my Gmail account frozen. That’s a textbook case of a chilling effect. Needless to say, Google+ never recovered.
Something like that is now happening to YouTube. We don’t yet know what YouTube’s new policies will be, but the mere fact that we don’t know adds to the chilling effect. Based on Google’s history, it’s likely that enforcement of the new rules will be sloppy and inconsistent. Quite possibly, as a musician, you can delay having your existing YouTube videos deleted for some period of time if you lay low — if you avoid doing anything to call attention to yourself. That means not adding any new videos, but more than that, it means trying not to have thousands of new views on your existing videos, and most of all, it means not giving the appearance of success on YouTube. But what is online promotion if getting to the point of looking successful can get you deleted from the Internet? Obviously, the whole music industry, from the teenager with a guitar in the garage to the major record labels, has to already be looking for a different way to put their music videos online.
YouTube, then, will become essentially just a paid subscription site for its most loyal viewers, while the mass audience will go off somewhere else. Almost everyone in music who knows about YouTube’s plans seems to see this result as already inevitable, and there is no question that YouTube is doing it to itself.
And this explains viewers’ emphatic reaction — among the few viewers who know of this news — even before the changes are visible on the site. By sweeping away the old YouTube to make room for the new YouTube, YouTube is essentially saying to the viewers of the old YouTube, “We don’t think you’re important enough to keep doing what we’ve been doing.” No one with an ego likes to hear, “We don’t think you’re important enough,” so obviously people are angry. The sadness that people feel is correct also. It is not that people really believe they will never see their favorite Delbert McClinton or Midge Ure videos again, but not knowing when or where is the same sadness one feels in saying goodbye.