The Lessons YouTubers Teach Us

YouTube - realannoyingorange_s Channel

Two weeks ago, Business Insider posted a list of 10 YouTubers it estimated were making more than $100,000 a year, based on TubeMogul data. The piece attracted some attention, including (most notably) a scathing piece by Helen A.S. Popkin for MSNBC’s Technology, which reviewed the 10 on the list and found them lacking, and, in turn, got fierce reactions from known YouTubers like the Fine Brothers.

(That’s right; this post is a response to the Fine Brothers’ response to MSNBC’s response to Business Insider. It’s like Inception, except with less Ellen Page.)

Taking this one step at a time: that Business Insider article, written by William Wei? Don’t put too much stock in it. When the article first came out, none of those included on the list were willing to speak on the record as to whether or not Wei and TubeMogul’s assumptions regarding YouTube CPMs were accurate, since it violates the YouTube partner agreement to publicly give specifics on their income.

However, last week, Greg Benson of Mediocre Films (ranked as number seven on the Business Insider list, and estimated to be making $116,000 a year) said that Wei was incorrect about him receiving 159 million views over the last 12 months.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XPe8_YHfN0]

“My official total video views since I joined YouTube in 2006 is 113 million — spread over FOUR YEARS,” Benson writes, adding that “their CPM estimates are actually totally wrong. Although it’s kind of fun to be on a list I don’t belong on, it’s more important to me that people get their facts straight before spewing garbage to the public.”

TubeMogul CEO Brett Wilson, with whom I spoke via phone, confirmed that the error regarding Benson’s views is real, an outright mistake made on their end while transferring data from TubeMogul to Business Insider. To compensate for this error, TubeMogul is prepared to offer Benson space on their ad network to “help make up the difference.”

After double-checking the data, Wilson added that TubeMogul stood by the rest of their results. Business Insider has been informed of the error; if it decides to update the article, then the next-highest-ranked YouTuber following current number 10 Community Channel would be Russian philologist Hot for Words, just beating out vlogger iJustine.

In reaction to all this, you have Helen A.S. Popkin’s response to the list on MSNBC.com, which comes off as deliberately antagonistic and glib. I say this as someone who agrees with Popkin that Annoying Orange isn’t great content, but still has a lot of respect for the way that show and the other YouTubers featured have built up an audience.

Because that’s the thing: To dismiss something because it’s popular, in the sprawling digital marketplace, is to be willfully ignorant of an emerging skill set within the new media world: the ability to get seen. It’s a complicated formula that involves the constant creation of new content, regular communication with one’s audience, endless networking and collaboration with other creators and lightning-fast response to popular topics. It’s all about connection.

That skill set is so fundamental to shaping what gets attention and what doesn’t that, yes, it can mean the quality of what’s being spread becomes almost irrelevant, leading to bad videos and, ultimately, articles like Popkin’s.

The Fine Brothers characterize Popkin’s reaction as “petty jealousy when it comes to the digital studios and ‘professional web series’ community.” This isn’t the most constructive attitude, but they go on to make the reasonable point that the creators being panned are working hard to create a viable market for web video: one that will benefit all web content down the line.

Within that marketplace, the content itself is improving. Take as a recent example Tony E. Valenzuela’s solid Black Box TV, which combines known YouTube talent with strong production values and social media savvy, resulting in nearly 600,000 views so far for the first two episodes combined.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fj43wIBwEmw]

It’s unlikely that Black Box TV would have achieved that level of views without its YouTube-famous cast, but if it featured professional actors instead (which, some have argued, would be an improvement), the show would still have a strong social media campaign of rich behind-the-scenes content, an iPhone app, and an active blog, all contributing to direct engagement with its audience.

The not-good stuff needs to get better. The good stuff needs to get seen. None of this happens in a vacuum; it happens in a collaborative and engaging environment. While ignoring the success of YouTubers is unproductive, mocking it is even worse.

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): Why Viacom’s Fight With YouTube Threatens Web Innovation (subscription required)

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