Blog Post

Is YouTube Killing Video Originality?

The Atlantic Monthly recently asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I can’t answer that (I couldn’t finish reading the article), but I’d like to ask a parallel question: Is YouTube killing video originality?

The promise of web video was that cheap cameras, easy editing software and free online distribution would open up new vistas of creativity. The Hollywood gatekeepers would be tossed out and the masses would finally get to express themselves.

So what happened? Because it seems like we’re just seeing the same things, over and over.

Gabe and Max’s Internet Thing is a fantastic spoof of cheesy infomercials. But it was followed by Master the Internet, which is not. Now we have Kanye West doing another version of a hammy infauxmercial for hawking vodka.

Noah takes a picture of himself everyday, so Olde English spoofed the idea with a guy taking a picture of himself every day as his life deteriorates. Matthew Harding dances around the world, and now there’s a video of a guy dancing around Los Angeles… as his life deteriorates.

The Shining becomes a comedy, Back to the Future becomes Brokeback to the Future, and Batman fights not only himself, but also Hellboy.

Dora the Explorer gets yelled at over the phone by Alec Baldwin; a fast-food worker gets hit on by Demetri.

Need I go on?

Some of these are parodies; some are just recycling the same ideas. Some are actually quite funny; others are just…bad.

So why drag YouTube into all this? Well, because of its size, mostly.

There have always been spoofs and “borrowing” from existing sources. That isn’t changing with the web, it’s just becoming faster and easier, which is spawning more of it.

Parodying or revisiting a popular gag works because the audience already has a certain level of familiarity with it. People have seen infomercials, they know Back to the Future, or they were forwarded the picture-a-day. It’s much easier to attract eyeballs when people recognize the source material. It’s a lot harder when they have to learn something new, and who has patience online?

To be fair, thanks to YouTube, more people are creating and watching video than ever before — and that’s good. The issue becomes when people start creating for the playcounts. What’s the fastest way to rack up a million plays on YouTube, land an agent and get on Oprah? It’s not by making something new.

26 Responses to “Is YouTube Killing Video Originality?”

  1. mike arrington has missed the point. This is not about corporations, distribution, archives or (hilariously) file formats. This is about culture. Rather the lack of it.

    In a celebrity drenched culture where 50% of youth in the largest cities drop out of school and fewer than half of adults read for pleasure, the debased visual banality and cultural sewage that is posted on You Tube (be it corporate produced or by individuals) has become the norm.

    The intelligentsia properly ignore this flotsam of meaningless drivel. The masses love it. For it is who they are.

  2. No because it encourages more creativity… Sure there’s a shit load of copy cats out there but from copycats, a new way viral video will be born… However I do believe that YouTube can make your stupid as you rely on it… Imagine all the stuff you learn on YouTube turned out to be false information… Now that’ll make you stupid

  3. The Third Troll

    Well, yes, Gorgeous Tiny Chicken Machine Show can get old after we all know Rick Pope is Lick Poop in pidgeon Japanese.

    There’s a guy named Kirby?? there with Trajan Is The Movie Font and others who seems to have another gig in reporting on porn–I’d recommend him because he is never one-dimensional AND he’s an excellent journalist.

    As with any newer medium there are innovators, copiers, perfecters and the just flat out excellent at what they do. For every standout act there is the one that archives better than anybody else.

    Should achivists be torn down and smashed?

    Should media owners pay atention to what they are being asked for?

    The ANSWER is usually the uncomfortable median.

    HEY! Let’s make a website to allow browsing! At leasr that’s starting to replace BAN THE HELL OUT OF THE PLAYBACK MEDIUM…OR–

    Let’s license this and everybosy will think we are sweet and caring and helpful.

    Sheesh! Viacom has known all along that the standalone player site approach is a nice idea with just as much failure potential as any other site has. ANYBODY can copy any video because it has to be translated to a signal the monitor can scan from. If you wanted to eliminate this you’d have to invent a new video system that used an algorithm that was randomized…

    Well, it’s all been done and nobody bit. Frankly, I think Mr. Redstone is a bit daft an curious. You either provide content or archive older titles to promote sales and there are already TOO MANY of these sites.

    Universal Music Group, Sony-BMG Music Group, Warner Music…all of these labels are licensing their titles and the credit appears in every user’s playlists and queues. My own playlists and favorites have remained steady and certain for a long while since the Copyright checks were began by You Tube and I rarely lose a title. I suspect that a few artist regard the inclusion of their clips as PUBLICITY and potential sales or maybe they feel the videos aren’t as important as they MUSIC they bring so therefore viewing = LOYALTY which is why they recorded it the the first place!

    Is the MTV logo important? NO! The brand is DEAD and gone as a music video channel of note and MTV 2 isn’t much less deceased to the punlic. The irony of a 38 year old man like I was then would be in seeing a special about breast augmentation there one day and realizing that while we all wanted to see rockstars with naked women in the videos, they wouldn’t have DARED and yet there these young women were with marker lines tell the surgeon where to operate, topless. I knew my life was meaningless at this time sigh

    MTV virtually invented the reality show and it worked so well Viacom GUTTED three major networks at a huge loss to fans (four if you count CMT with MTV, The Nashville Network and VH-1).

    ONE THING I need to say before I end this letter.

    FLASH video isn’t exactly that good and if you do copy the file you still don’t really have VCD quality. Many files are STILL originally from videotapes and mostly VHS. We cannot make lemonade from this lemon. We copy other copies to learn how to copy, COPY?

    I also have not subscribed to cable or satellite TV in over ten years so it’s the alien I sorta recognize when I do see it.

  4. To quote Bobby Jennings above
    “YouTube isn’t killing the creativity of its potential contributors, but it’s not necessarily offering to help most of them. YouTube rewards familiarity, stamina (volume of content), and novelty.”

    Start championing the little guys wanting to break in, or push the boundaries. Not just Absolut ads with West in them. I know it helps your hits but there are lots of people creating creative web content that just ins’t getting noticed.

    We are making crazy irreverent web content and building a “cult” following. Will we get 1million hits? If we pay for them. Did we let the cat out of the bag? You know what I’m talking about.

  5. Chris Albrecht

    Hey Everyone,

    Thanks for all the great comments (esp. John, who I disagree with as far as Gabe and Max, but wins the prize for longest comment).

    I like Chuck’s comment about moviemaking being one of the only fields where you get people to work for free. It just illustrates how many people want to be in the entertainment biz.

    This post was less a judgment call on what is crap, and more about the fact that for the first time we have the ability to create just about anything and mass distribute our work — and yet so much of it is recycled.

  6. If there were a reason to create high quality content on YouTube, then people would do it. I’m a filmmaker, I put all my videos online, and almost none of them on YouTube.

    9 out of 10 times I or someone I know has tried to create something for YouTube, it doesn’t go anywhere. The two exceptions were both spoofs (1 million hits each), and nothing came of it because we didn’t have the capital to leverage the success into something greater.

    So your video is successful on YouTube, so what? That’s not enough to keep doing it. Larger opportunities require an organization of capital, talent, and time. Now a large amount of effort goes into securing those for our use.

    YouTube isn’t killing the creativity of its potential contributors, but it’s not necessarily offering to help most of them. YouTube rewards familiarity, stamina (volume of content), and novelty.

  7. The last statement you made sums it all up:

    “What’s the fastest way to rack up a million plays on YouTube, land an agent and get on Oprah? It’s not by making something new.”

    This is the ongoing dilemma throughout all art, mostly film, tv, and music. For years Hollywood Studios spawned hack, trite crap because it sold. “Views” used to mean tooshies in seats at a theater or ratings to sell tv ads to. Today, aspiring pros get their “payment” in the form of views. The views, or metrics, prove their legitimacy as content creators and therefore can ascend them to, perhpas, a paid gig. I like to think that Wicked Awesome Films has a unique comedic sensibility that drives our content. We’ll never re-edit Batman footage, no matter how much I actually liked that video.

  8. I don’t think that YouTube is killing originality. I do think that greed and Dinosaur Media are.

    I am trying to transition from a field here people get paid for their skills (IT) to a “field” (if you want to call it that) where people expect you to work for nothing. Literally. Visit the New York City Craigslist section for video “jobs” and see how many state that the positions as “unpaid”. Don’t see too many “unpaid” Network Administrator jobs on

    Dinosaur Media should be partnering with New Media innovators, but it’s just not happening. Believe me, I have tried in NYC and it’s like pulling teeth.

    Oh well.

    Happy Independence Day.



  9. Glenn

    You are encountering Sturgeons Law; 90% of everything is crap.

    Let me expand; in its early days YouTube was part of the 10% because it was part of the internet.

    “Hey, look at this video place I found on the internet!”

    Now that it’s considered an entity on its own you will find that most of it is crap.

    “Hey, look what I found on YouTube!”

  10. Good question, Chris. But it’s kinda like asking “Is National Lampoon killing film?” Nah, it’s just making cheap stuff that’s palatable to the most coveted demos and accessible to the lowest common denominator. Same goes for this derivative YouTube stuff.

    And you should finish Carr’s article. It’s fantastic.

  11. I’ve got to disargee with you on one point, Chris. Gabe & Max looks and feels like something two guys did in their basement. Master of the Internet is an amazingly good recreation of something that looks authentic.

    I didn’t laugh once during Gabe & Max because it just wasn’t done well. It dragged on and was boring. The writing is alright, but could have been much better. The “sets” they used did not fit the mold. The audio was poor. The graphics were poor. The talent looked like kids trying to look like adults. It just didn’t work.

    I don’t know the timeline about who came first, but it wouldnt surprise me if:
    a) Master came first and Gabe+Max wanted to rip it off
    b) Gabe+Max came first and Master creator realized all the problems and decided to do it right

    This all comes back around to the point of your article. Is youtube killing originality? No. It may be heavy handed in spoofs, but it fosters originality because of its distribution appeal. The problem is it doesn’t foster good, intelligent creativity- Yet. As some of readers above pointed out, it’s all about choice. If good content is there, that’s what will be watched. But if it’s not, the next thing in line is what gets all the hits. One issue you have is that not many creatives are interested in putting stuff on youtube when they can go out and work on actual spots. Most top creative is paid top dollar – and they have their own mainstream distribution routes in place for getting out their ideas. let’s see, make something on youtube or put something on during the superbowl? why put any effort into youtube at all (unless it fits in the with the campaign)?

    But to get back to the ‘youtube doesnt directly help originality’ claim– I was fortunate enough to be part of a excellent high school video program in the 90s. We had digital cameras and nonlinear editing suites before many colleges even adopted the technology. If we use that program as a youtube equivilent, but obviously scaled down, it isn’t hard to see why some kids did well and others did not. The access to the technology alone did not make videos good. In terms of individual projects, bad spoofs were still bad spoofs. Good spoofs were funny. And original content was good only if it was good- not just bc it was original. However, when it came time to do group projects, or when you watched content from the more advanced classes, all of a sudden it wasn’t about videos being bad. it was about which video was best. (Though, occasionally some videos in the advanced class were still bad)

    In group projects, each person could focus on what they knew best. One person would be all about writing; others costume and set design; another, cinematography (though we called it lighting and camera). People even went out to scout locations. The end result of putting in effort and paying attention to detail is that the videos got better. When we got our first avid, only the advanced kids could use it- because they were the only ones whom it would benefit. The same went for the higher end camera. If you don’t know the basics, all the technology in the world won’t make things better. When the rules got more lax and younger kids starting to use the new equipment, it wasn’t a surprise that there wasn’t a sudden boost in quality. Fortunately, the advanced classes got first choice when it came to scheduling time.

    Bottom line: Kids that are talented will make use of youtube to its fullest extent, and shortly thereafter go into high paying jobs and never post another video again on the site. But so long as top quality is rare on youtube, it’s going to be harder to find, and therefore, the ‘next-in-line’ effect leads to lower quality getting higher hits and, unfortunately, a decreased level of expectations for all those who are GROWING UP on youtube. There is no “advanced class” preference on youtube, so there isnt any natural advantage in place for the top talent to get seen- short of getting picked up by blogs. (Idea: If you make a good video on youtube, have all your friends comment and star it, then spam every popular blogger you know with links to the video.)

  12. I think that’s the way humans learn, first we copy, then with a lot more work we can be creative. Video sharing is still too fresh for that, most users have no experience, but i believe it will come.

    I think Youtube is not killing video creativity anymore than the keyboard killed literacy or blogs killed news. There are lots of texts not worth reading out there… and that nobody reads, actually! We stick to the good stuff.

    So we can expect a kind of darwinism to take place, bad videos will be replaced by better, more creative ones, and so on…

  13. In a typical market, quality would be rewarded, while crap gets discarded. This means that regardless of the copycat stuff dominating the YouTube webspace, it’s quite natural for quality to come out on top. IMO, if people are going around and spending time watching these me-too hacks, then maybe that’s what they want. Or maybe there’s nothing else that’s good enough to watch (which is impossible to believe – that’s just a discovery issue).

  14. maybe public access in your neck of the woods, but where are you located. Somewhere that there are a lot of people that are trying to break into the industry, or is it a place that people are trying to inform their neighbors. Kind of general when PACT was the first to have UGC.

  15. Any time something gets opened up to the masses, there’s going to be vast amounts of derivative crap. It’s a fact of life. Look at public access TV.

  16. I co-created a sketch comedy show, Good Commitment, that ran for a year and a half and produced about 50 sketches. The ones that stuck best were ones based around something familiar. Usually a spoof of something. It was satisfying to get some eyeballs and make people laugh spoofing the Westboro Baptist Phelps family but not quite as satisfying as it would have been for one of our original sketch ideas to take hold.

  17. paullmf

    yeah, its like saying music remixing or mashing destroys musical creativity – i don’t buy it. Continuing the musical analogy, sure there was a lotta crap made in early era of sampling and digital playback, but look how its moved on and spawned an explosion of creativity and musical genres that are genuinely loved. The cream always rises

  18. I think this question of originality is valid across everything humans do. We see, we like, we copy. Painters have copied paintings. Musicians, music. etc.

    The people who are first and the originals may or may not succeed at what they do. Sometimes it is those that copy that become the famous ones.