Well, the seemingly inevitable has likely happened. YouTube (i.e. Google) is reportedly about to buy Twitch for $1 billion. Yes, this is being reported as rumour and isn’t confirmed yet but come on, you know it’s happening, I know it’s happening. If it wasn’t, one of the companies involved would have denied it but they’re keeping tight-lipped. It’s happening.
I’m not surprised to see this at all. Twitch getting bought was inevitable. Short-sighted venture capitalists want their investments back with a profit and they want it now, plus I’m sure that much like YouTube when Google bought them, Twitch is burning through cash on bandwidth alone, despite their existing advertisers and partnership program. While YouTube’s bandwidth needs are no less than cosmic, Twitch’s are arguably worse because it requires a constant stream of high bandwidth to feed content into their system and then it needs that same amount of bandwidth multiplied by each user watching your stream and it needs it all at the same time whereas YouTube can spread it out as not everyone watches simultaneously. And that’s just the live stuff, we’re not even counting the additional bandwidth and storage needs for archived streams. Plus as we all know, the advertising market isn’t healthy and is made worse still by scumbags who use AdBlock.
My biggest concern is not that Twitch was bought but much like with Facebook buying Oculus, it’s who bought them.
The initial reaction I’ve seen by many people I follow is that this is a good thing because it will hopefully solve the constant lag and other reliability problems Twitch has had almost since the beginning. I agree that getting access to YouTube’s monolithic infrastructure can only improve things and I welcome that, though YouTube isn’t perfect when it comes to bandwidth either. Almost everything else I’m not so sure about.
YouTube has a lock when it comes to on demand, user created video online. There are other choices but YouTube’s where 95% of people go and if you want your video noticed, you have to have it there. Twitch is essentially the same in the streaming space. There is competition but these are de facto monopolies here. Now they’re joining forces and one company will control both of these spaces. Lack of competition is never good for consumers. Truth be told, I don’t think consumers will see as much direct impact from this as content creators but as someone who does create content on both services, I’m obviously concerned about that. Plus, let’s be realistic here folks. What affects us also affects you because it impacts what content we produce, how much of it and the quality of it.
Twitch’s service from a bandwidth perspective may improve and that’s definitely good but I’m not going to mince words here: The service in general from both of these companies for content creators (at least the majority of us who aren’t huge) is terrible. They have awful management platforms, they’re unreliable, they’re buggy, their support is awful (though you can at least occasionally get help from Twitch on Twitter, with YouTube you’re left on your own or to their useless forums) and they only promote what’s already popular, leaving newcomers largely screaming into the void. I don’t see how combining two companies who are bad at service into one will make the service any better.
In less general terms, I have a couple of specific worries with Google imposing itself onto Twitch. The first is the massive bugbear that haunts any gaming YouTuber and that’s copyright. If you follow gaming YouTubers at all, you know about the Content ID apocalypse that happened last year, when hundreds of channels had thousands of videos taken down or their monetization removed by an automated system enforcing claims for copyrights on either the footage, the audio or both. In almost all these cases, the videos were covered under Fair Use and in fewer but a still staggeringly large number of cases, the claims were either incorrect or outright fraudulent (i.e. made on behalf of people who didn’t actually own the rights to the content they claimed.) When this happened, many YouTubers lost their livelihoods because the burden of proof and appeal is always on the channel, not the claimant and even if it turns out a claim was a mistake or fraudulent, the YouTuber doesn’t get back the money they lost while under the weeks long appeal process. Hell, false claimants aren’t even punished or barred from making future claims. To a point, this problem has stabilised but it’s far from resolved
Google is spineless when it comes to copyright and the DMCA and doesn’t have a robust or efficient process for channel owners to deal with claims because they’re a de facto monopoly, they don’t have to. Yet, they just bought a company whose entire business model is built around copyright infringement. Twitch is a gaming only streaming service, you’re not allowed to broadcast anything else on it. Yet gaming video is the more hotly contentious sector on YouTube when it comes to copyright. How are they going to handle this? I don’t know, Google obviously has a small nation’s worth of lawyers who had to have discussed this before they put any cash on the table for Twitch but their track record on this issue is nothing less than horrendous, whereas Twitch is very liberal with it. Maybe it’s legally different when you’re live streaming and maybe that’s why Twitch hasn’t been sued out of business yet. Or maybe there’s a reckoning in the pipeline for them we haven’t heard about yet. No one knows but Twitch getting YouTube’s copyright policies put on it won’t be good for streamers.
The second is the very different way these two companies handle partnership with content creators (i.e. how content creators make money on the services.) Twitch has requirements that you have to meet to get a partnership but when you qualify, you can do so but only with Twitch itself. When you’re partnered, you get a piece of the revenue from ads that display on your channel. With YouTube, while you can partner with the service directly (as I am for the time being), a while ago, they allowed the creation of Multi-Channel Networks or MCNs. You may have heard of Polaris, Fullscreen, RPM, Machinima etc., these are MCNs. The original idea was to give collectives of YouTubers a means to organise as a group, sell their own ads and generate more revenue and opportunities for themselves and by extension, YouTube itself.
The problem is they left MCNs completely unregulated, allowing just about any idiot to create one or become a sub-network of another MCN or even a sub-network of a sub-network, essentially becoming a pyramid scheme at that point. This ended up flooding the market, with now hundreds of MCNs being created, many of which are either run by people with no idea what they’re doing or worse, are scammers who are taking advantage of naive (often young) YouTubers, taking a chunk of their money while providing little or nothing in return. There are a lot of good MCNs but there are a lot of shady ones too and their reckless and irresponsible behaviour is a big part of why last year’s Content ID crackdown happened and why only the big channels get carte blanche on that issue now.
I’m sure many of these MCNs are salivating at the opportunity to get involved in Twitch now as well. Is that really what we want? I’m not sure it is. I’m not convinced Twitch’s one-stop method of partnership is ideal either and I think giving content creators the ability to shop around is critical. But just folding the still largely unregulated and out of control MCN scene into what is basically the sole source of gaming live streams I don’t think is the best solution either. There has to be a happy medium and neither service has hit it yet but the MCN genie is not one easily put back in its bottle, especially when you see ones like Maker being sold to Disney for half a billion dollars.
As a content creator who is desperately trying to find some kind of audience, this deal just muddies the water further for me and others like my in my opinion. Taking two monopolies in their field and combining them into one even bigger monopoly only benefits the companies and their shareholders, no one else. There’s nothing in this that will make life better for YouTubers and live streamers, though there’s a lot of places things could get worse. I don’t see Twitch losing its brand and becoming just another tab on the YouTube home page but it’s definitely going to get a lot more integrated into Google’s hive mind.
If you’re someone who just consumes online video, you may think this is no big deal to you but make no mistake, what affects content creators absolutely affects you because it alters what we produce, how much we produce and how much effort we put into it. The bigger channels that get the red carpet and champagne rolled out for them already simply by virtue of being popular will continue on business as usual. The rest of us may do the same or we may be faced with getting squeezed even more, at a time when it’s already a Sisyphean struggle to get noticed, even when you make good content. Any way you slice it, we have less competition in online video now and less competition is only good for one group of people and it ain’t us. I really hope YouTube doesn’t screw this up but history doesn’t inspire hope. But hey, we’ll see, it’ll take a while before any changes take place.