My online social graph is, I imagine, normal for someone in my industry. I count my Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts in the hundreds, and my Twitter followers in the thousands. I’m a gregarious and extroverted networker. And yet there is a limit to how many active relationships I can maintain. I haven’t counted them, but, at a guess, I’m probably sitting somewhere close to the Dunbar number. And this, to me, is a paradox. How is it that, with all the social tools and technology available to me, I am still only able to maintain approximately 150 active relationships?
A similar phenomenon occurs with content and discovery. The beauty of Web 2.0 is that all the gatekeepers are gone. No longer do we have to get approval from an agent, an editor, a publisher or a broadcaster. No longer does someone have to deem us worthy before our video can become accessible to the public. The playing field has been leveled.
And the level playing field takes us right back to where we were: with would-be stars toiling in obscurity, with the likelihood of discovery or popularity near zero, and with the same megahit / long-tail structure that has always existed. All that has changed is the mechanism by which content makes it through the system.
There is only so much content we can process, and the more that gets made available to us, the more we rely on filter mechanisms that by their very nature are self-reinforcing. In a 2009 article from Slate, Chris Wilson tracked 10,000 YouTube videos randomly; only one received more than 100,000 views. And it’s a statistical certainty that the likelihood of achieving that level of popularity has plummeted as the volume of content has spiked. At the time Chris wrote the piece, 20 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube’s servers every minute; nowadays, it’s more than 48 hours. Every minute.
To further complicate matters, we have the tension between fresh content and popular content. I want to see the video that everyone is talking about, but I also want to be one of the first to see the video that everyone will talk about. I want a discovery engine to help me discover, not just to point me to what has already been discovered by millions. But this, of course, is an impossibility. Any successful, automated system of discovery will quickly shift from the observer to the arbiter.
Google was designed to help figure out which sites were popular. Now it’s Google that makes sites popular. According to a 2010 paper, popularity on YouTube is hugely dependent on your video a) showing up prominently in search results and b) becoming a “related video” recommendation alongside another, popular video. The success of our YouTube clips follows a legacy system reminiscent of admissions to the Ivy League.
We are continually trying to escape from ourselves; we want democracy and freedom and equal access. But all equal access means is that you are competing with more people for attention.
I’ve often observed that, in order for a startup to be successful, you have to do everything right -- and you have to be lucky. It’s equally true for people trying to achieve YouTube popularity. You have to do everything right -- and you have to be really, really lucky, luckier all the time as the competitive noise around you builds exponentially.
There are no shortcuts. Unless, um, you know any? How would you go about getting your video seen?