YouTube Won't Work

The day we switched from producing our content — kind of what Masterclass does — to become a completely user-generated play we realized that our success was fully dependent on creators, not end-users.

Creators move audiences, drive growth, and can make or break a platform. It follows, that to retain creators your product must treat them well, as a first-class citizen.

Internet 2.0

It hasn't always been like this, though. In the early days, the Internet was an atomized place when it came to publishing content. There were tools like Blogger or WordPress that let you set up your thing, but capturing the audience remained up to you. The Internet looked like a continental landscape with series of villages, loosely connected through links pointing to each other.

However, this changed during the early 2000s with the rise of aggregators such as Facebook, YouTube, or Tumblr. These networks democratized the publishing side and turned the Internet into a user-generated place — remember the idea of Internet 2.0?

Not only everybody was able to contribute with their content, but most importantly, these gated networks provided connection within and brought audiences together. Your content was not living in the dark anymore, it was discoverable by your network of friends and family.

Therefore aggregators became both publishing tools and network generators. You didn't need to care about getting users or building an audience anymore. For that purpose, they had something called "an algorithm" — which would automagically mediate and optimize the process. Your content would be distributed among the platform users, according to their interests.

In theory, it looked like a desirable outcome for society. However, it brought along a perverse twist of fate, with a plethora of unintended side effects, that reshaped the underlying fabric of the Internet.

Unintended consequences

Letting those platforms in charge of the networking side inevitably diluted the value of individual contributors. We became just "another node" in the network. We didn't matter anymore, but the network did. As long as the platform had enough critical mass, it didn't care if you left. We became faceless and irrelevant. Those were the times — and to some extent still are — when people went to YouTube to entertain themselves, not to follow somebody in particular.

On top of that, platforms not only dictated how your content was distributed but the terms in which it would monetize. They aligned incentives: their growth was measured with "clicks and views" therefore your content would be rewarded on that perilous basis.

This simple decision brought along several unintended consequences:

  • Free became the new normal: networks created a gated Internet, one where advertisers paid the party for the products we engaged with. Without even noticing, we traded comfort at the expense of privacy — but that's definitely for another post.
  • Commoditized the value of a click: the Internet was not paid with money anymore, but with our attention. Its wide horizontal reaches standardized and diluted the value of the click. My engagement is worth the same as yours, no matter how much more I'd willing to pay. In other words, random visitors matter as much as die-hard fans.
  • No connection between creator and user: because the very definition of success for algorithms is based on engagement, their proxy to performance are clicks or views. They are blinded to emotion, or how much we care, hence networks and aggregators are not incentivized to promote direct connections.

Creators 2.0

Yet The Times They Are A-Changin' and the power is, slowly but surely, moving away from platforms and towards creators. The idea of 1.000 true fans is now almost fifteen years old, but it has recently grown more relevant than ever. For the first time, technology allows us to directly engage with the creators we care about the most. Think of Patreon, Substack, or Gamestry; they have built the tools that will enable us to put a fair price on human irrationality.

Within these tools, not all the clicks are created equal. Audiences are walking away from aggregators to directly connect with their favorite creators. The result of this is worth it on both ends of the spectrum: creators can build audiences and profit from small niches that care about what they have to say; audiences can show appreciation, feel connected to their idols as a proxy for status.

It is also a big win for creativity. The possibility to leverage human emotion and irrationality will allow for new niches to flourish. Content that didn't make sense on transversal platforms that rewarded the least common denominator, can now find its audience as well.

This is ultimately why I think YouTube (or your aggregator of choice) is poorly positioned to win the creator economy wars. The moment creators start accruing value on their own, they'll fly away from large aggregators to directly connect with their supporters; and audiences will have fewer reasons to go there. Since the faceless nodes of the network will start devaluing themselves, lowering the network overall value in the process.