For once, being too busy to write a blog post when I originally planned to has paid off as over the weekend, YouTube rolled out their new comments system. I don’t have a ton to say on the subject beyond what others have already said better but it’s a bloody disaster. Aside from forcing people to sign up for Google’s Facebook knockoff that no one wants to use, they’ve taken everything that was already horrible about YouTube comments and made it substantially worse. Now people have unlimited space to spew their garbage and links are now permitted so comments are already getting clogged with spam and viruses. Seriously Google, fire whoever thought this was a good idea, the hire them again just so you can fire them a second time. It’s so bad that a number of prominent YouTubers include TotalBiscuit and PewDiePie (PewDiePie for crying out loud!) have disabled comments and several others are already talking about moving their content elsewhere. This is a disastrous scenario, it’s not like when everyone gets upset for a while over a Facebook UI change. This is a massive, systemic failure on Google’s part and they ignore the complaints of their biggest partners at their own peril. This kind of fits into the theme of my overall post which is why I bring it up but that’s pretty much all I have to say on that particular issue.
YouTube, Twitch and other new media sources are extremely crowded places and becoming more so every day. Generally, this is a good thing. These are supposed to be “democratized” media outlets where anyone with the know how and drive can put content out there for anyone to see. Indeed, that’s happening more than ever now as it’s becoming very easy with a lot of different hardware and software options to put up half decent looking content with minimal effort.
The problem I’m seeing is that discoverability (which is quickly becoming the watchword of many industries these days, including much of gaming) is becoming a massive concern as things get more crowded. A good chunk of this post will probably come across at bitterness and sour grapes as a lot of my opinions have been formed here by my own struggles to get my YouTube content noticed. Honestly, I am a little bitter about it. There’s only so much viewership to go around and between the established players and new entrants , it’s already tough to get noticed. Then you throw in everyone from the games press like Jeff Green and Jim Sterling jumping on the wagon with frankly, pretty lousy, generic content but using their built-in audiences and means of promotion the rest of us don’t have access to and getting to “cut the line”, sucking up even more potential viewership. I like both of those guys and their writing but when I look at the quality of Green’s live content or see Sterling posting blatant trolling top 10 videos for easy hits and getting 20,000 subscribers and a Polaris partnership in less than two weeks, yeah it’s frustrating and I don’t think unfairly so. Seeing content that’s objectively inferior in quality to your own (and mine’s far from stellar) leapfrogging you in popularity is disheartening when you’re putting a lot of time and money into making stuff you think want people to watch. I have no desire to become “YouTube famous” or to make a living off my video content but I would like at least some people to be able to find and consume my stuff so I’m not just shouting into the abyss.
I honestly the biggest problem facing a new YouTuber or Twitcher is that these services aren’t giving new stuff a chance to get noticed or find its niche. Much like the big “old media” industries (Hollywood, television, music, AAA gaming) that the likes of YouTube and Twitch seek to replace, they are succumbing to the same blockbuster mentalities of only focusing on and promoting what’s already popular at the expense of anything new. I know my content (especially Retro Flashback) is a niche and doesn’t appeal to everyone but I also know there’s a not small group of people out there who like retro games and want to hear about them. The problem is if you search for the name of the show along with any game I’ve covered, my videos often won’t even show on the first page of search results and much of what comes before it won’t even have any of those words present in the title. You will notice however that all that promoted stuff already has a lot of hits and that’s because something in YouTube’s secret algorithm thinks that content which has no relation to anything I cover in my videos is more important for people to see. When you look at the sidebar of related videos when watching something on YouTube, you’ll often find stuff that’s related but usually only from popular channels. I’ve watched other videos of games I’ve also covered on Retro Flashback and not a single time has one of my videos appeared as a related one, even though it is by definition exactly that.
Similarly, if you go on Twitch and look at their “Promoted Games” or “Related Channels”, you’ll inevitably find the same handful of blockbuster games that everyone already knows about or the same handful of channels that already have massive subscriber bases. None of these need the promotion, they have their audiences and they are massive. Yet, those are what you will always see promoted. No indie games, no older games, no new channels struggling to find viewers. So if you’re a new Twitch streamer who wants to find an audience, you’d best be prepared to spend weeks or months playing Dota 2, League of Legends, Minecraft, StarCraft II, Hearthstone or something similar to get noticed, even if those games aren’t what you care for or want to show people. If you aren’t playing those, expect to get a tiny handful of viewers at best.
If you ask a prominent new media content creator about how to start out, one of the first things they will always say is “don’t bandwagon.” That is, don’t just start covering the same trendy thing that everyone else is because you’re just adding another voice to a massive chorus and will never get noticed. But what’s the alternative when that chorus is the only thing these services are giving any attention? If you aren’t bandwagoning, you aren’t getting promoted and if you aren’t getting promoted, no one can find you. Yet, if you do bandwagon to something you don’t really like to get viewers and then switch into what you want, you may lose a lot of those viewers because you’re no longer covering what they want to see. This is the vicious cycle.
It’s a blockbuster mentality, focusing on only big bets and safe bets. It’s the same mentality that makes Activision pump out Call of Duty games every year and not give anything else they release any real effort or attention. It’s why companies like EA send innovative titles like Syndicate out to die but spend sometimes two to three times a Battlefield game’s development budget on marketing. It’s why Capcom made Resident Evil 6 an indistinct sludge of “broader appeal” and betrayed its legacy. It’s why Hollywood is focused on nothing but remakes, reboots and comic book movies right now. It’s why Justin Bieber gets a disproportionately large amount of his label’s promotion, even though one of his albums will sell gangbusters just by having his name on it.
An industry focused on just churning what’s already popular over and over again can’t survive in the long-term. It’s short-term, short-sighted, public company thinking and it’s based on fear. Fear that they’ll lose their big, stable audience base to something else because if they lose the big fish, whatever will they do? They just want to get as much as they can out of what they have right now and they’ll worry about replacing it later. That’s both wrong and frankly bad business because whether they like it or not, their big cash cows will dry up. Call of Duty will decline, people will get sick of comic book movies, people will (hopefully soon) realise that Justin Bieber sucks. And most importantly, the TotalBiscuits, PewDiePies and Day9s of YouTube and Twitch will move on some day. They’ll either decide they’ve made enough money and retire, they’ll get bored or with things like YouTube’s new comments system, maybe they’ll just get pushed away. Someone has to pick up the ball when these guys go away and right now, these new media companies aren’t giving anyone a chance to shine. That’s bad for us and it’s ultimately bad for them.
Is my content the best stuff on YouTube? Not even close. Is what I make better than a lot of what’s on there (including some of what’s popular) and creating a niche that a decent number probably want to watch? I honestly think so, even if I do still have a lot of room to improve. But how many people like me (and many others who are probably better than me) are giving up before they even get started because they see a new media environment that isn’t willing to help them foster their creativity and find an audience? Contrary to popular belief, just making good stuff isn’t enough of a selling point on its own. You need help to get noticed and people have to be able to find you to realise they like what you make. If YouTube and Twitch just give us a little help, just a bit to get started, I think the best content creators can take things from there. But as it stands right now, a lot of potential talent and big new sensations for these services are shouting at people who can’t hear them because they’re too busy being told to go watch stuff that found its audience a long time ago.
YouTube, Twitch and other forms of new media were supposed to usher in a new era, one that was going to supplant the old, increasingly broken ways of getting content to hungry consumers. It looked that way for a while but now, short-sighted businessmen are quickly adopting the worst traits of the industries they were supposed to render obsolete. We already have Hollywood, it’s time to try something different, not retread old ground that is proving less and less stable by the day. I really hope these companies wake up soon. This is so easy to fix with just a few simple changes, massively easier to fix than the problems of Hollywood, television or AAA gaming. In the mean time, could you do me a solid and go watch some of my videos? Maybe subscribe and like or if you dare, comment too? Thanks.