The Final Frontier

I believe YouTube is more important than Google search. Search is a great way to satisfy existing intent. YouTube is one step ahead in the funnel — it creates intent. It’s mind control for the masses. It may go down in history as the most important corporate acquisition, ever.

“YouTube 2.0” (2012 and beyond) is a different company from the one you grew up with. YouTube links used to be a thing you saw in your Facebook feed. It’s now a destination. People go there to pass the time. They let their mind be controlled by the feed, which makes surprisingly pleasant recommendations.

YouTube isn’t just about watching videos. It’s a key player in the the resurgence of audiobooks and podcasts. I think many people just leave it playing long-form content, like ASMR videos. The new Frontier in the Internet is the battle over the spoken word.

People always had excess “listening time”, but there wasn’t a frictionless way to fill it. Radio was a good start, but it isn’t personalized. A few years ago, a few things changed:

  1. Mobile data speed. iPhone’s were around for a while, but the data speeds and UX were kludgy for the first few years. After 4G, the experience improved to the point where it provided enough activation energy to unlock new behavior. It turned out there was a serious case of non-consumption that unlocked when you could “just click play” and it worked. In 200ms. (AirPods provided a further accelerant in 2017.)
  2. UX got “good enough”. In 2012, YouTube started optimizing watch time over view count. The claim is that this is the raison d’etre for YouTube 2.0. I’m skeptical it was just this change. Improvements this large often come from a composite set of reasons. For example, I think the fit and finish of the mobile app only really improved in 2013. I’d argue that was a significant factor.
  3. Google Maps / Waze. Car-to-phone integration has always been possible, it’s just been annoying. People didn’t think they wanted podcasts, but they knew they needed navigation directions. Market demand created infrastructure (CarPlay, USB connectors) to make it easier. A hidden spillover effect is that once you’ve set the audio source to your phone for driving directions, you’re much less likely to listen to radio. It just became easier to listen to something from your phone. (Spillover effects are fascinating, e.g. GPU chips — “accidentally” built for video games but develop a huge market in AI).
  4. 4. High quality content creators. Casey Neistat, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and others have all recently emerged as celebrities on a Hollywood-level scale. These icons have been trying to grow their audience for years. Suddenly the pool of “host bodies” got much larger, and they’re spreading like a (good) virus.

Facebook

Whenever there’s a tectonic shift I find it interesting to simulate what I’d do if I was running a large incumbent. In this case Facebook is particularly interesting.

Facebook’s goal is to own a larger and larger share of your time. This requires not losing “share of screen time” to YouTube and winning the new “share of audio time” market. Surprisingly, the core product has zero efforts in this area. I’d imagine they could do a few things:

Add long-form to Instagram. Instagram’s format is built for short videos. A bloatware approach to this dilemma is to expand it to support long form videos and “podcasts”. Feels like Facebook would do this, because the product organization repeatedly discounts the role of brand. Stories in Messenger don’t work because people don’t think of Messenger as the place to consume circle-heads. When I open the app, I have a prediction of how the experience will be. I think of very rapid scrolling of short-form content. I worry bloating it to a YouTube format will devalue the core experience without much gain.

Build a new platform from scratch. Introducing The View from Facebook, a competitor to YouTube. Sign a few exclusive content deals. The Netflix / Amazon Prime playbook. Etc. Etc. On first blush, it feels like it’ll be really hard to outspend Netflix in this area. But HBO has taught us that you don’t need a hundred good shows. You just need Game of Thrones. If this fails, my suspicion is because of another reason: Facebook has a tarnished brand. People assume Facebook is out to trick them somehow. A project like this might be DOA.

Apps for creators. A better strategy would be to enable the best podcasters and YouTubers leave their current platform and build their own apps, rewarded with Facebook distribution. Sam Harris is already working on an app. He isn’t alone. All the online personas would love to have their own thing. But it’s annoying to build a mobile app and near-impossible to get it distributed. Facebook should solve both of those problems, and retain control over advertising (across apps). Facebook is already mostly a media conglomerate — a Berkshire Hathaway portfolio of apps that attract human attention. Over time, WhatsApp and Instagram will become more interesting than the initial platform. This strategy is just another point on that continuum.