Removing YouTube from the game

I spent the morning commute pondering Big Media’s on again off again plans to build a “YouTube Killer” website (there’s nothing quite like a found copy of Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals to get you thinking about anything else). What strikes me as strange about the plan is that media is simply trying to replace YouTube with their own sponsored version of the same core offering. What the big media suits should really do is get their geek on, pronto.

Hark, yon geeks come a-calling

Earlier this week, my CEO suggested that we include more RSS links on our interfaces. When I replied that it was something I’d been hoping to implement for quite some time, he responded with “just don’t make it all geeky like you and Pete, just do a simple ‘Add to My Yahoo’ link. Remember that most people don’t even know what RSS is.” It was the most backhanded green light I’ve ever received.

Even though many laypeople aren’t yet familiar with RSS, business decisionmakers should be rushing to embrace it as a technology. This is especially true in the case of traditional media, where the new crop of Web 2.0 sites is eating their lunch. YouTube is supplanting traditional video distribution, Digg is replacing the NYTimes on users’ bookmark lists, and there’s still a bit of a scramble on the music side but most the important contestants are tech companies, not media companies (I prefer Pandora’s “music discovery engine”, which has recently added some social networking components). All of these companies are squirmy little geekhives, and they’re disrupting traditional media creators with access and features, not with brands or content ownership.

“Where’d that genie get off to?”

Product design biases aside, the greatest improvements in media consumption have come from distribution, not content. Are recent YouTube hits really improving upon say, the Iliad or the Bible? Lazy Sunday is today’s content darling, but it’s mostly because audiences had near-universal access and viral distribution tools. If hoary comedic standbys like “Who’s on First” were first released in a YouTube world (and perhaps delivered by a couple of bored emo teens via a fuzzy webcam), they’d probably see similar reactions.

YouTube represents the next evolution in media distribution – once upon a time, audiences got news from print or local movie reels. Television democratized media access, but kept it locked in a limited number of channels, available only at predetermined times. Today, broadband, mobile devices, and startups like Slingbox and TiVo are making programming available anywhere, at any time. As Dave Morgan writes in MediaPost (sorry, registration required):

As media digitizes, fragments and moves closer to the consumer–as the media world becomes more “open source” akin to what we’ve seen happen in the software industry

Media is becoming “open source”, and who knows open source better than those geeks in the server room?

Don’t copycat, leapfrog

CBS’s solution is not to imitate YouTube, it’s to surpass them. Restricting CBS content to a single site is like trying to stop DVD usage and pull audiences back into the theater. Better start sprinkling some crack on that popcorn. What does CBS have to offer? They have a brand that is decreasingly relevant on a daily basis, and they have difficult-to-enforce content ownership. YouTube, on the other hand, has a directly relevant brand, position as a content aggregator (meaning users will likely find something good, even if they don’t go for the blockbuster du jour), and they have geeks. How long might it take to design, build, launch, and promote a YouTube-killing site? What will happen during that time? I’ll tell you: YouTube will release several new updates and change the game again before the “killer” site ever launches.

Even though I’ve heard grapevine grumbling that Google’s massive growth is diluting the talent pool, they still have many of the best and brightest minds in the industry. (If you’re hiring an engineer, an easy measure of their talent is whether or not they’re also fielding inquiries from Google.) Assuming YouTube inherits the parent company’s style, we can expect many unexpected releases and improvements in the coming months.

The best way to beat a moving target is to identify it’s the vector, rather than focusing on it’s current location. The vector for media distribution is just that: distribute! Aside from embedding one-off clips, YouTube users still have to return to the website hub to access additional content. By syndicating their media, content producers can remove YouTube from the equation altogether and refocus audiences on the message, instead of the medium. With RSS feeds, I can receive new content directly in my Inbox, just like a newsletter subscription. Do some research on Beliefnet’s popular daily inspiration emails. Feeling pessimistic? Check out Overheard in New York for similarly addictive tidbits. Where’s my daily Late Show Top 10 clip?

How will users find these RSS feeds and this content? Syndication. Eric does a good job of outlining a vision for Internet content syndication. Create Widgets (AKA “Badges” in some circles) and feeds and tell the world about them. Get them listed on aggregator sites like Widgetbox and Konfabulator. Go after personal portal services like Google homepage and Pageflakes. The Mac OS allows users to put Widgets directly on their desktop. Mac users could voluntarily give your programming and ads a permanent home on their desktop, ready and waiting every time they pop the top.

It’s critical to realize that YouTube represents a revolution in media distribution, but it is not the endpoint. Gather some geeks and ask them how they access media and content. A good geek is both ingenious and lazy. Consequently, they devise the slickest, easiest tools for getting things done. Grab their thinking and you can repurpose it for an everyman audience that isn’t ingenious, just lazy (or busy, or underserved; however your marketing team likes to phrase it). Geeks love RSS and they’re increasingly interested in hacking on Widgets. Geeks don’t want to waste time browsing through the mostly-crappy content on YouTube.

YouTube is only your messenger. Don’t worry about killing him, just streamline him.