Ageing YouTube gets shorty as it takes on TikTok’s ‘remix culture’

Gone in 60 seconds: Google goes to war for attention of video creators and viewers

TikTok vs YouTube Shorts: let the battle for the attention of creators and viewers commence. Photograph: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty

TikTok vs YouTube Shorts: let the battle for the attention of creators and viewers commence. Photograph: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty

 

You bump into a YouTuber and a TikToker on the street – which one would you prefer to hang out with for the afternoon?

Alternatively, if you discover there’s an avid YouTuber and keen TikToker living under your roof, which one are you less worried about?

In both cases, it’s probably the TikToker. TikTokers, in the main, don’t want to rant or preach. They want to dance and lip-sync and show off their impressive video-editing transitions. They don’t stand still long enough to bang on about Goop-style wellness or toxic prejudices they might have nurtured over the years, and they’re not old enough to flog home furnishings (that’s Instagram).

Despite the best efforts of various plagues upon humanity, the Chinese-owned short-form video platform hasn’t been around long enough for people to entirely ruin it yet. Its prevailing sense of joy and wit – a direct result of the easy-to-use features TikTok has given its video creators – is harder to find in the ageing, sprawling world of YouTube, where several of the leading YouTubers wear their complex personalities on their over-monetised sleeves.

And so Google-owned YouTube has responded, as social media companies are apt to do, by cloning some of TikTok’s most popular features for YouTube Shorts, which equips creators with new tools to make mobile videos up to one-minute long and also separates all YouTube videos of this duration into a special Shorts feed that sits within the main YouTube app. The beta version rolls out across Ireland this week.

YouTube, aged 16, is having some mid-teen identity issues. It would be wrong to call it a crisis – this is a $20 billion advertising business that’s come a long way since 2005 and is still powering ahead. But there is a new generation of upload-proficient kids out there and a makeover was clearly required to stop it looking embarrassingly parental.

Desktop origins

“Originally YouTube was really anchored on the era of the desktop computer, and now we’re very interested in understanding what it means to meet creator and viewer needs in this short-form world,” says Todd Sherman, group product manager for YouTube Shorts.

“There’s things that TikTok has embraced that we also want to embrace.”

All’s fair in love, war and social media development. The tools most beloved of mobile video creators didn’t all originate with TikTok, Sherman is careful to note.

The multi-segment camera on Shorts was a feature that originated on the now defunct, Twitter-acquired company Vine, while the ability to sync-record with music and other audio first surfaced on Dubsmash before being adopted by TikTok predecessor Musical.ly.

“A lot of these capabilities were built over many apps over many years,” says Sherman. Shorts will be different because it is connected to “long-form YouTube” and YouTube Music. Long-form YouTube creators have to opt out if they don’t want their audio reused, and creators of Shorts cannot opt out of being “remixed” at all. And when somebody samples audio from elsewhere on YouTube in their videos, YouTube is “always going to honour those sources by linking back to them”.

The Google press release for Shorts lists the major music labels – led by Universal, Sony and Warner – that in recent years have acquiesced to a ceasefire with YouTube and made their large libraries of songs freely available on the platform. TikTok, like YouTube, also has music licensing deals with the big labels.

Of course, the crushing long-term impact of the internet on the earnings of musicians (as opposed to those of music labels) suggests YouTube’s claim that it is honouring sources by linking back to them is a moot point. The more relevant one is that an advertising magnet such as Google knows the value of keeping both viewers and creators within its ecosystem for as long as possible, even as it tries to drive down the average length of its videos and be a bit more, well, cool.

So why should creators use YouTube Shorts as their app of choice instead of merely re-uploading videos made using TikTok or Instagram’s Reels? Sherman refers back to YouTube’s “suite of great creation tools”, but acknowledges that “some creators will be multi-platform”. Indeed, at the semi-professional end of the game, TikTokers and YouTubers are often the same people trying to maximise their views.

Genius move?

Intriguingly, as both Facebook’s Instagram and now YouTube have launched products inspired by TikTok’s snappy one-minute video length, Bytedance-owned TikTok has confirmed plans to triple the maximum length of its videos to three minutes, which is either a genius move that allows TikTokers to flourish, or the beginning of the end for the app, killing what made it great in the first place.

But why create videos at all? “I think the main underlying need here is the desire for fame and fortune,” says Sherman. YouTube, he adds, “has a long track record of delivering on fame and fortune”.

Creative people who belong to the higher end of the millennial age bracket, or even older generations still, can be forgiven for feeling envious when they see just how much tech companies have lowered barriers to video creation in this way. If these mobile capabilities had existed when we were 17, we almost certainly would have been brilliant at them, right? Original, hilarious and, above all, worthy of notice? For sure.

The evidence from social media’s “remix culture” today points to the more banal likelihood, where the best of the best and the luckiest of the lucky video creators attract attention, but everybody else is really in the business of cheap homages and facsimiles that don’t quite work, and mostly just add to the noise instead.

That doesn’t mean they can’t have a lot of fun trying.

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