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Can YouTube be a massive business and a hotbed of rebellion?

Can YouTube be a massive business and a hotbed of rebellion?


A sit down with the authors of StreamPunks

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Robert Kyncl and Maany Peyvan
Robert Kyncl and Maany Peyvan
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

YouTube is arguably having its best and worst year. The company recently announced that more than 1.5 billion people log in and view videos each month, putting the service second only to Facebook in terms of global scale. Its revenues are estimated to be growing at upwards of 30 percent each year, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai has repeatedly highlighted the company as a key contributor to the search giant’s overall financial success. It’s even got a new look.

At the same time, YouTube has been forced to reckon with its laissez-faire approach to content creators. After a Wall Street Journal article found ads from major brands playing next to racist and disturbing content, a number of big marketers pulled their spots. Shortly after, YouTube’s biggest home grown star, PewDiePie, was called out for his use of anti-semitic humor and Nazi imagery. Both Disney and YouTube severed ties with the streaming video star.

So it’s fitting that Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of business, is releasing a new book entitled StreamPunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media. It was authored with Maany Peyvan, a Google speechwriter who has crafted much of the language Kyncl and his team use during public engagements. The pair sat down with The Verge at our offices in New York to discuss the challenges and opportunities they see for YouTube and its creators.

So why write a book?

Robert Kyncl: The online video space, and the overall entertainment space, because its changing so fast, can be confusing, both to consumers, advertisers, agencies, studios, anybody. Because we’re in the middle of it, we get into conversations with everybody around it.

And where does the title come from? Did you coin that term?

RK: We were batting around different titles, and I always admired Cable Cowboy. Loved the book. Told him we needed something as catchy as that, but it has to be current.

Maany Peyvan: This is a new class of creator, one that is embracing streaming and online video. The other element is that they are creating their own path, going around gatekeepers, not following the rules of traditional media. There is something rebellious about that. Who is Casey Neistat if not a punk?

At 1.5 billion monthly users, can YouTube really still be considered outside the mainstream? Is it still rebellious to pursue fame here over the traditional Hollywood route?

RK: I think because it’s open, they don’t think of us the same way they think about other destinations. It’s so attainable. You don’t need an agent or a contract with a studio. Our creators tell you about how they accomplish their fame. It’s right there for you to try. There will always be people who try, some who fail and some who succeed in a big way. No matter how big YouTube may get, I don’t think that part will go away.

And contrary to the popular notion, it’s not just for young people. People in their 50 and 60s can do it. Alan DeBoton with the school of life. Jenny Doane is the most heart warming example of someone who leveraged this platform. It’s not some kid with a computer science degree who built an app. It’s a lady who quilts, and she tapped into an audience because of YouTube, and rebuilt a town around it.

Your definition of punk isn’t really about counter-culture then. It’s about creative freedom, and DIY attitude. Do you think there is less of that as YouTube grows and more mainstream advertisers come onboard?

RK: There is a lot more money flowing through the system with a billion and a half monthly logged in users. The opportunity to build a large business is much bigger. We focus on what can drive revenue and distribution. All of that brings good things for the people who know what to do with it.

MP: Are we victims of our success? I don’t think so. The fact that anyone can start a channel means there is a healthy source of supply. A lot of the people who have become popular on YouTube in the last few years came from other platforms.

But you have to admit that the kind of content that can make money on YouTube has changed. If this was a comedy club, as it’s grown its audience, it’s also forced creators to clean up their acts. PewDiePie being the prime example.

RK: It is our job to make sure that the advertisers have confidence in the platform and the creators, and that the creators get paid. We have to make sure those connections happen in the right way. These things evolve, every year. We care about them both. One without the other, is weaker.

MP: The power of global scale is that you can cultivate niche communities in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with traditional broadcast media. Quilting is the example we like to use. The revolution we’re talking about is so different than what’s happening on Netflix or Amazon, which wouldn’t be unfamiliar if you saw it on TV five or 10 years ago.

Do you think it’s possible that in the future we might see shows on YouTube Red in the future which aren’t palatable to advertisers but can be supported behind a paywall?

MP: There are creators who are going direct to consumer. John and Hank Green, they have educational channels. One of them is called Sexplinatons. Its a sex ed channel. That is one advertisers don’t want to support. But they can, through their fans, do things like Patreon.

RK: We’re still early on with YouTube Red. We’ve seen a lot of evolution with the programming. You will always see something on the paid platforms [that] you won’t on the free platforms. One of the reasons could be that the content is racier. When you look at HBO or Showtime, it’s racier than the broadcast networks. It works for everybody. Naturally, you find the boundaries with ads, and what is better without them.

So Robert you have daughters, what do they watch on YouTube?

RK: Both of my daughters are vegan, so they follow other folks who teach them how to convince your parents it’s ok and mitigate all the arguments.

Veganism is pretty punk.

RK: They can win you over to adjust the shopping list. My younger daughter created a whole presentation with videos embedded in it. Should I be angry or proud? I’m going to lose this argument, but she’s using good techniques.