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July 28, 2013
"We're Asking You To Pay For Content Because You Want To"
Among the *coughwaytoomanycough* YouTube channels I subscribe to are The Vlog Brothers
. If you've not seen them, they're a bit hard to describe. Hank and John Green do short videos that are part topical, part conversational (they talk to the viewer by talking to each other) and part humorous. Their presentation is deliberately nerdy and overdramatic - a kind of YouTube vaudeville, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Recently, they took on the question of "how can we improve the content on, say, YouTube?" Kind of a small challenge, but anyway, worth talking about. One identifiable problem is that YouTube's major revenue model is advertising and you get advertising dollars through having popular videos. That sounds great until you think about it like this: advertisers don't care about viewers; they care about views. Things that get more views get more ad dollars even if the viewers hate what they're seeing. Good-but-unpopular content is left to suffer and eventually stop being made. If this sound like just about every other pop culture format in the Western world, welcome to the 21st century. Pax David Lowery.
Unlike Mr Lowery, the Vlog Brothers would like to take action to change this system and their chosen method is an Internet tip-jar/subscription service called Subbable (which my brain insists on reading as sub-babble). Subbable allows you to do the traditional one-time donation for content it provides, or you can become a subscriber at an amount you decide to pay. Monthly recurring subscriptions are a lot like magazine subscriptions in the physical world: you pay for content from people you generally like, but without specific advance knowledge of what that content will be. I like WIRED and I subscribe to the magazine; how much of any given issue I read is a little hit-or-miss but overall I figure it's worth my dollars.
The Vlog Brothers have a series of high-school/freshman-college level videos they call "Crash Course." The goal is to make these topics entertaining and present it in snappily digested YouTube style without dumbing down the content. They've come to the end of a two-year funding grant from Google and would like to continue making the videos. Even snappy and fun videos about course-worthy material don't get a lot of ad dollars, which is where you come in. You can go to the (currently in beta) site, look at Crash Course, and decide if you want to pay for the content.
The videos are still hosted on YouTube and still searchable there - nothing moves behind a paywall. Instead, the idea is as stated in the title: here is content you might want and if you want more of it, please pay for it. There are likely to be perks and rewards along the way, but generally the idea is that most of the money gets funneled back into making more content.
It's far from clear that something like this is going to be a sustainable model. The Vlog Brothers may be able to make this work because they have a long history and a solid following for their other YouTube content. But what I find interesting about this is that it's possibly another sign of a shift in the culture. For the first decade or so, a lot of time and energy went into trying to force people to pay for stuff, and that failed massively. A few months ago I predicted we were at the start of the next chapter in the story of the digital revolution. Maybe this chapter will also take a decade to tell, but it feels like the Vlog Brothers are heading the right direction. This is a very 2013 thing to do.
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