Fifteen years ago this month, one of the most important web domains in history was registered: youtube.com. Today’s teenagers have never known an internet that couldn’t host as much video as they want for free, server costs be damned. YouTube has helped elect politicians, create entire industries, and taught millions of people how to use eyeliner. It’s not a stretch to say it shaped the internet as we know it.
But what if YouTube had failed? Would we have missed out on decades of cultural phenomena and innovative ideas? Would we have avoided a wave of dystopian propaganda and misinformation? Or would the internet have simply spiraled into new — yet strangely familiar — shapes, with their own joys and disasters?
Here’s one idea of what it might have looked like, tracing the line from why YouTube might have failed to what the world would have looked like without it. It’s far from the only option — but if you’re struggling to imagine a world without YouTube, it may not be as hard as you think.
This is a creative work of fiction. Any references to real-life companies, persons, or historical events have been fictionalized for the purposes of furthering this narrative story. Other names, characters, places, companies, and events are imagined, and any resemblance to actual companies, events, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
2005–2006: The False Start
A video platform fights copyright law (and copyright law wins)
It’s 2005, and three guys named Steve Chen, Jawed Karim, and Chad Hurley have just launched a dating website called YouTube. While nobody accepts YouTube’s invitation to “Tune In, Hook Up,” people do love sharing pop culture clips and little videos about their lives. By 2006, YouTube’s viewership has exploded, but reporters raise ominous questions about its financial strategy and legal risks. NPR, for example, declares that “YouTube does for video what Napster did for audio” — and that, like Napster, its days might be numbered. YouTube discusses an acquisition offer with Google, Microsoft, and Oracle, but all three deals fall through, and growing server costs threaten to eat through the company’s funding.
YouTube has its first viral hit in early 2006 with a bootleg upload of SNL’s “Lazy Sunday” (also known as the “Narnia rap”). Faced with an obvious copyright violation, NBC must decide whether to sign an ad deal with YouTube or try to destroy it. The network chooses the path of war, filing aggressive legal requests and rushing the launch of Hulu, which is soon available through popular websites like Microsoft’s MSN portal and News Corp’s social network Myspace.
With Hulu established as a legitimate content source, networks view YouTube as a piracy vector for valuable movie and TV clips at a time when the music industry and internet service providers are aggressively pursuing copyright infringers. Companies file lawsuits against YouTube instead of signing deals, and a flood of legal challenges from content-holders threatens to damage the platform’s safe harbor status under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Without YouTube, Google focuses on its existing Google Video service. It shifts focus to expanding a recently acquired stake in AOL, reviving plans for a joint venture with Comcast. Focusing on search and advertising services for other web portals, it’s largely seen as a web software and infrastructure company.
Facing high bandwidth costs and no revenue stream, YouTube declares bankruptcy. Apple quietly hires most of its talent, assigning them to an iPhone video chat system codenamed “Venice.”
2006–2007: The Power Vacuum
Old media giants meet the influencer economy
As YouTube descends into bankruptcy, media companies start buying up lower-profile video sites. Instead of letting anyone immediately post a video, these companies implement a review process and focus on nurturing stables of internet stars often poached from YouTube — including a teenage singer named Justin Bieber.
The resulting services often look more like the Sony-acquired platform Grouper than the chaos of YouTube. Some leverage user-generated content into new business models, particularly NBCUniversal, which acquires a life-streaming platform called Justin.tv in 2007. Results are mixed. Sponsorship deals with “lifecasters” offer 24/7 exposure for brands but create an ongoing trickle of PR gaffes, including a Law & Order ad campaign that derails when viewers provoke a police raid on the broadcaster’s apartment. (The incident is dramatized three months later in a Law & Order episode.)
Similarly, a licensing process for cosplay live streams earns criticism from fans who object to a prudish dress code and sweeping contract agreement. The incident fuels a broader discussion of the relationship between fandom and corporate media, alienating many potential streamers. NBCUniversal nudges the platform toward semi-curated reality and talent show formats.
2008–2011: The Divergence
Peer-to-peer video turns the internet upside-down
Hosting a giant streaming repository is expensive and legally risky. But there’s a free alternative: peer-to-peer sharing. Without YouTube, decentralized streaming services are developed and popularized earlier. What these systems lack in user-friendliness, they recover in anarchic fun (and a fair amount of pirated content, especially when The Pirate Bay builds a YouTube-style landing page for discovering original videos). Their distributed design makes videos easy to create and difficult to fully erase, and dedicated local networks also spring up on college campuses and high schools.
As Apple’s recently released iPhone grows in popularity, the company launches FaceTime: a video calling service that supports both one-on-one chats and small-scale broadcasting. It promotes the feature with a series of heartwarming ads, including an estranged family that reconnects over a shared viewing of a high-school musical. Somewhat unpredictably, the appetite for group broadcasting drives performers and audiences to hold events in massively multiplayer games and virtual worlds, particularly Second Life, which is acquired by Microsoft in 2010.
Major telecoms respond by attacking peer-to-peer systems at the network level. Some internet service providers block peer-to-peer streaming in a violation of fledgling net neutrality rules, setting up a conflict between ISPs and the Federal Communications Commission. These services find an unlikely ally in Apple, whose own FaceTime app runs into similar problems. And rampant copyright infringement alarms Hollywood and record labels, which begin lobbying Congress for stricter intellectual property laws.
2011–2012: The Crackdown
Congress takes down the video underground
By 2011, legitimate online video services have seen moderate success. Their submission review process, powered by a combination of automated tools and human moderators, drastically slows the posting of videos. But it heads off some serious problems, quickly stemming the growth of child abuse material and disturbing videos aimed at kids.
Small-scale group broadcasting has also taken off. Public figures regularly use Apple’s group broadcasting options to host intimate discussions — including a variety of streaming stars and noted iPhone fan President Barack Obama who kicks off a virtual tour of American classrooms using FaceTime. Microsoft integrates Skype support into Second Life, letting webcam users “dial in” to virtual book readings and other live events. These systems create an expectation of intimacy and personalization as well as a certain level of privacy from outside eyes.
By contrast, decentralized streaming is a free-for-all. Its openness creates a wellspring of creativity, but also persistent problems with harassment and quasi-ironic bigotry. One peer-to-peer streaming subculture is devoted almost entirely to “griefing” mainstream video sites and virtual worlds — clogging submission queues with nonsensical meme videos, launching raids on Second Life, and running elaborate hoaxes to trick celebrities into personal FaceTime and Skype broadcasts. Pirated content continues to circulate, including rips of legitimate video sites’ biggest shows.
The combination of lobbyist pressure and increasingly aggressive trolling eventually spurs Congress to crack down. Lawmakers begin debating a sweeping bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which requires ISPs to block any foreign sites that host illegal copies of photos, videos, or music. This includes any peer-to-peer services with users outside the US.
Internet advocacy groups protest SOPA, holding an online “blackout” in protest. But they lack the support of web giants like Google — its partner, Comcast, staunchly supports the bill — and peer-to-peer platforms’ reputation for unsavory content makes them easy targets for lawmakers. The law passes in 2012, and ISPs quickly block P2P streaming systems without the threat of FCC censure.
The resulting crackdown scuttles some innovative projects, including a popular Lego-like game called Minecraft, which had integrated a peer-to-peer streaming system for players. And it galvanizes young voters into political awareness. Some of their enthusiasm is captured by a growing right-wing extremist movement, which has operated under the radar, thanks to decentralized video.
2013–2015: The Backlash
The internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it
Peer-to-peer video is increasingly inaccessible, alongside foreign streaming services like DailyMotion and Tudou, and people flock to services like FaceTime, Hulu, and Justin.tv. This sudden growth adds both technical and social pressure. Users submit swathes of popular videos like the peer-to-peer hit “Charlie Bit My Finger,” offering welcome ad revenue but requiring arduous hunts for the original creators. Griefers launch all-out swatting campaigns against live performers. AT&T attempts to justify blocking Apple’s FaceTime under SOPA, making the service unavailable to many iPhone users on its network.
And as mainstream platforms face more scrutiny, disturbing reports suggest that conglomerates like Sony and NBCUniversal turned a blind eye toward streamers accused of sexual misconduct, or even offered help by suppressing rumors on their platforms. It’s especially troubling because kids’ content is thriving on the services.
Children’s channels are filtered to remove disturbing content, but they’re also filled with product placement, free from the requirements placed on broadcast TV. And while their young stars have the support of a studio system, it also places strict rules on their conduct — which, combined with the always-on ethos of streaming, can prove psychologically damaging.
Peer-to-peer video devotees take increasingly extreme measures to stay online. They respond to the ISP bans by developing local mesh networks that can stream video across limited ranges, creating pocket subcultures split along geographical lines. Some popular videos make the leap between meshnets. Re-edited versions of a 9/11 conspiracy documentary called Loose Change become a rare national hit across the meshnets, circulating throughout California and across the northern Appalachian region.
Aspiring streamers flock to dense urban centers like New York and Los Angeles whose networks are still closely watched by mainstream sites’ talent scouts. (Similar scouts watch international sites, poaching stars like DailyMotion streamer Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg to host Comedy Central’s Pew.0.) Others gather in smaller cities like Kansas City, Missouri, and Akron, Ohio, creating regional media hubs colloquially known as “streamtowns.” Streamers from isolated areas with a strong survivalist tradition are often lured into a burgeoning network of far-right media compounds, intermittently monitored by the FBI.
Non-video social media becomes more atomized, regionalized, and personal. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg puts a premium on encryption, declaring in 2013 that “the future is private.” (Encryption and limited virality make Facebook less attractive for both pirates and anti-piracy enforcers.) In 2014, public micro-blogging platform Twitter becomes a wire news service for verified businesses and journalists, following a widely criticized public shaming frenzy on the site.
Microsoft acquires a buzzy VR startup called Oculus and integrates its technology into Second Life, offering a virtual world anchored by persistent identities and a real-money economy, although its crackdown on sexual content — particularly quirky subcultures like furries — draws some criticism.
To fight griefers, mainline sites downrank and demonetize most political discussion, limiting divisive topics like vaccine denial and climate change to a handful of carefully vetted channels. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, organized through a local New York meshnet, have earned little mainstream attention. Private networks can avoid censorship but breed unverified rumors and conspiracy theories, which incubate with little outside awareness or intervention.
Streaming sites begin adopting sophisticated machine learning systems and mining sensitive user data gathered by ISPs, which is made possible by consolidation deals like the 2011 merger between Comcast and NBCUniversal. Drawing on Google’s AI research, Comcast-NBCUniversal’s juggernaut Justin.tv carefully parses the most minor shifts in video performance to set advertising rates and surface content, leaving streamers at the mercy of an unknowable algorithm.
2016–2020: The Calm
The internet’s immune system is weaker than we think
The internet of 2016 has its critics. Media theorists question the “mind-numbing wasteland of sanitized, algorithm-driven monocultures” in which a few media gatekeepers produce limited quantities of web television for the broadest possible audience, padded with some superficially personalized elements like custom title cards that look different for each user. A housing bubble within Second Life has made the thriving virtual world inaccessible to many lower-income Americans, leading to accusations of “virtual gentrification” and debilitating digital mortgages for some unlucky residents.
Even so, it’s seen as widely superior to the chaos of the meshnet, which becomes a persistent target for law enforcement after a series of violent inter-network clashes and domestic extremist attacks. With no centralized point of attack, hacking and misinformation campaigns by meshnet griefers and Russian cyber-operatives fail to land, and Hillary Clinton defeats opponent Ted Cruz by a narrow margin in the 2016 presidential election.
President Clinton leads a meshnet compound crackdown with bipartisan congressional support — although ardent progressives see it as a cynical gift to the telecom industry and a substitute for meaningful gun control, while populist conservatives decry the advent of a “Waco 2.0.” The newly merged Comcast-Google-AOL-NBCUniversal offers glowing coverage and algorithmically tailored promotion of the campaign. (Disclosure: Comcast-Google-AOL-NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Vox Media.)
While aimed at violent extremists, the crackdown embitters many local streamtowns, and large networks grow paranoid over fears of police infiltration. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones rallies political support from the local Austin meshnet, running for state Congress on a platform of Texan independence. Political concerns leave other networks nearly untouched — including the Miami meshnet, a hotbed for organized crime in the swing state of Florida. Some small networks are repurposed as honeypot operations by small-time blackmailers who trawl their nodes for nude photos and other embarrassing material.
Clinton’s FCC starts a massive push for municipal internet development, hoping to unify a geographically polarized country. But powerful telecom-internet-media conglomerates immediately mire the plan in litigation.
As the 2020 election approaches, a superficial national calm belies a series of brewing secessionist campaigns and potent localized conspiracy theories. A DC-area network plays host to a supposed Department of Energy operative codenamed “Q” who offers dire warnings about President Clinton and a network of baby-eating satanists — warnings that Fox News promotes on the popular web version of its news channel.
A grassroots “Occupy Airwaves” movement is spreading open-source plans for a long-wave transmitter that can bridge the gaps between networks, creating a full-scale decentralized alternative internet. Conversely, the wealthy Mercer family is building networks that offer the illusion of a local meshnet, laced with propaganda for their preferred candidate: Donald Trump.
Amid all of this, Apple adds an extra feature to its popular FaceTime application, capitalizing on the app’s widespread popularity. It’s a geolocation-based dating tool where users can “pin” short videos to participating bars and restaurants, hoping to attract another patron on a date.
It’s called FaceTime Dating.