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How YouTube is shedding its former self to get polished for primetime

youtube star

The YouTube community is a passionate one. It gave a home to millions of users who were formerly stuck within the confines of blogs. It’s the place where the viral video was born, where a handful of very famous stars got their big break, and where amateur vloggers have become Web-celebrities.

YouTube is one of the constants of the Internet: While the digital landscape hasn’t stopped changing, the site has managed to stay relatively true to its origins – but that’s a problem now that Google wants to turn it into a more professional platform. The first hints of YouTube’s evolution can be traced to nearly a year ago, when the homepage received a heavy overhaul that pushed and promoted its premium channels.  It was part of a restructuring effort Google has long been pursuing – turning YouTube into a television competitor, albeit on a smaller scale. No, it’s not cable, and no, a premium YouTube channel isn’t going to challenge HBO – but the promoted push means its edging toward a much more legitimate reputation than it originally had.

Cosmic Panda and the #SaveYouTube fallout

Last year, Google decided to clean up YouTube. Cosmic Panda, as it was dubbed, was sleeker, minimalist, and the biggest departure from what YouTube used to look like yet. The idea behind Cosmic Panda was to make channels clearer, to pump Google+ (no surprises there), and create a more professional environment.

On its surface,  this was simply a cleaner makeover – something YouTube routinely implements. But at its core, there were real consequences for the people that had been using YouTube to grow their reach, and growing the platform’s in the process. Popular YouTubers saw drastic drops – some as high a 60 percent – in their viewership numbers. The front page redesign was a big source of this hurt, because it started promoting users’ customized content here instead of popular or tending videos.

Naturally, there were hints of revolt, with infamous YouTuber Onision leading the charge. The Web star, who’s been using YouTube since 2007, started the #SaveYouTube campaign (which, as you can assume from the hashtag, got its legs over on Twitter) when he noticed his and other popular YouTube channels were losing viewers. “For many other channels, I noticed [viewership] dripping months ago,” he told me back in June. “I wasn’t worried at first as their viewership decline seemed to be based on them uploading fewer videos… but then some of my favorite channels started suffering, even the big ones were getting almost half the views they used to, despite the fact their upload rate and quality didn’t change.”  

saveyoutube campaign

While viewership numbers were declining (in large part thanks to the site’s cleaning out of old accounts – which I’ll get to), YouTube was also going on the offense to recruit new talent. Google’s the only one that knows what its intentions were, but these things combined lead to a logical conclusion: Out with the old, in with the new. At least, that’s how it has seemed.

“YouTube should respect and promote those who made it what it is,” Onision said. “Whoever is calling the shots needs to take a step back, and grow a heart, learn respect for YouTubers like Charles Trippy, What the Buck, Live Lava Live, and other YouTubers who were once the foundation of the site’s image.”

Long live Google+ and the new numbers that matter

It’s not just the attitude over at YouTube that has changed – it’s the numbers. Back in May, major YouTube celebrities have seen their subscribers drop drastically. Plenty of power users noticed, including Onision. He pointed out that a hefty number of YouTube creators, some with over a million views, were losing subscribers. YouTube responded days later, saying:

“In the past few months we have been scrubbing YouTube of inactive and closed accounts. Why? Because these accounts had been inactive for years, were not linked to our more up-to-date and secure systems, and well, nobody uses them. This had the knock-off effect of some creators seeing a drop in subscribers.”

Deleting old accounts before notifying users is a strange, curious thing to do: Why would any site want to kill user numbers? For instance, what about all those Google+ accounts that haven’t been touched since launch? I also can’t imagine Gmail deleting users that aren’t using their email address, at least not without notification. But YouTube was doing just that for months before telling anyone.

There were suggestions this was a Google+ promoted scheme: By scrubbing YouTube of old, inactive, not Google+-tied accounts, those users, should they choose to create a YouTube account in the future, would also have to create a Google+ one. It’s part of Google’s strategy to tie all its products into the G+ platform, so it’s essentially hedging its bets that eventually these inactive accounts will return to YouTube, sign up again, and become G+ users at the same time. At least, that’s one suggestion.

There’s also the evidence that Google’s priorities with YouTube have shifted. Views slightly dipped earlier this year, and subscription numbers continue to slowly sink – but things don’t matter as much now. What does? Engagement levels. Last spring YouTube started tailoring things so that video recommendations were more strongly based on how long you watched a video, and time spent watching individual videos has increased. Unique visitors is way up to, according to recent Nielsen reports.

Why would YouTube want to get you to watch videos for longer? The answer should be obvious: Because that’s how we watch TV.

Death to Reply Girls

The YouTube clean up isn’t all subscription numbers and algorithm tweaks – it’s also very literal. Since last spring, the platform has been trying to get rid of its Reply Girl problem. To be brief, Reply Girls are girls that position themselves just so in reply videos, get lots of clicks with said position, and for many, make their livelihoods doing so. They’ve been a common YouTube trope, but their less than professional demeanor has made them an enemy of the site. YouTube confirmed the Reply Girls will now be treated like spam.

One fairly well known Reply Girl, known on YouTube as – you guessed it – TheReplyGirl, had something to say about it. “This change is going to kill almost every reply channel,” she said in a video. “If it doesn’t kill them, it’s going to slow them down.”

It’s a small change, and honestly, one the nearly all YouTube users will be completely fine with. You should have to create meaningful content in order to make money or gain views on YouTube. But it’s the principle here, and it shows that YouTube isn’t a democratic free-for-all of video creation anymore and that Google will heavy-handedly impact how the platform evolves.

What now?

Now it’s been a few months since most of these changes went through, and the Daily Dot and online video data analyst platform ChannelMeter took a look to see how things were shaping up for some of YouTube former big names. And since the attitude changed and massive redesign, things have generally not been kind to a handful of YouTubers:

youtube infographic

The times, they’ve been unkind – to some users. To others, like the team over at Recipe Rehab, they’ve been pretty damn good. The show, from the Everday Health YouTube Channel, will become part of the ABC family this fall. It’s the first time a YouTube show has been picked up by network TV, and that’s a big deal. It means the shift is working out for Google; the quest for the living room is on and alternatives to cable know that the competition is heating up.

You can’t blame Google for throwing its hat into this ring and throwing it hard, but that comes with consequences. That means the YouTube of yore is gone; off-the-cuff, casual content can head for the hills – it’s time for professional, premium primetime. Because that’s where the money’s at.