Last March, half a dozen people met for breakfast at Hugo’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles. Two of them were John and Hank Green, the brothers who are among YouTube’s most popular content creators as well as the founders of VidCon, the annual festival that brings together fans, creators, and industry types for a celebration of online video.
The other four diners were employees of YouTube itself, there to pick two of the most influential brains on their service. “They said, ‘We want to show you this new thing we’re working on,’” John Green remembers.
“This new thing” really was strikingly new. YouTube was hatching a set of features designed to let its creators communicate with their followers by creating a feed of text posts, still photos, animated GIFs, and—oh yeah!—videos. Fans could comment on any individual item and give it a thumbs up (or a thumbs down). It was an incarnation of YouTube, in other words, that didn’t revolve entirely around watching one video at a time.
Nobody from YouTube had to explain to the brothers why the concept of giving them more ways to communicate was intriguing. “It solves a long-standing problem we’ve had, which is YouTube can’t be the hub of our channels’ community if videos are the only hub,” says John Green, when I chat with him and his brother via a three-way Google Hangout. Adds Hank, by way of example: “Something as simple as, ‘I’m going to be playing a show in San Francisco.’ I can’t make a video about that. I can tweet about it and put it out on Facebook, but I can’t reach my YouTube audience.”
Giving creators tools that let them do their thing on YouTube rather than somewhere else is good for YouTube. And after plenty of feedback from the Greens and other leading YouTube broadcasters, the company is is ready to start rolling out the new features, which VentureBeat’s Harrison Weber got wind of last month. Officially still a beta, the offering is called Community and is debuting as part of the YouTube presences of just 12 creators, including the Green brothers, the gonzo do-it-yourselfers of ThreadBanger, music parodists the Key of Awesome, acapella singer Peter Hollens, and others.
That’s not as small scale a test as it may sound: Between them, these dozen creators have more than 40 million subscribers. In the months to come, YouTube plans to turn Community on for additional creators. Eventually, it intends to offer it to all users who upload videos to the service, no matter how dinky their presence.
“We know it’s a big change, but we think it’s a very natural change,” says director of product management Shimrit Ben-Yair. “Our creators are—as they’re called—creative people. When they’re thinking about being creative, they’re not limiting themselves to video. And neither should we.”
The internal dialog at YouTube that led to Community began around a year and a half ago, and the new features have been in active development for a little less than a year. It’s tempting to view their introduction as an epoch-shifting move—the first step in a metamorphosis from video portal into a general-purpose social network more directly competitive with Facebook and Twitter. YouTube, after all, has been synonymous with one type of content for the entire dozen years of its existence, in a way that’s atypical for a service of its epic scale. (Even the famously minimalist Instagram started with still images, added video, beefed up its messaging capabilities, and has lately cloned features straight from Snapchat.)
But if you interpret Community as a radical departure, you’re getting way, way ahead of what YouTube has actually built. It lives inside one tabbed section of a YouTube that otherwise looks . . . well, exactly like YouTube. (Channel subscribers can also see Community posts in their subscription feeds and get smartphone notifications about them.) The new types of content that creators can publish are designed to supplement video rather than rival it; if they were a stand-alone service, it would be too basic to attract anyone’s attention.
“I don’t view this as a move away from video at all,” says Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, as I chat with him in his office at the company’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, with stacks of Variety on his desk and YouTube-icon pillows on the couch. “Video is an element of this. I view it as really leaning into the essence of YouTube, which is that connection between our creators and fans.”
Until now, oddly enough, the most inspiring reflection of the bonding of YouTube creators and fans—beyond the videos themselves—wasn’t happening on YouTube. It was the face time that they got at events such as VidCon. “When we actually see them interact in real life with each other, we see that there’s something very magical and very authentic about that connection,” says Ben-Yair. “We thought we could do a better job of reflecting that in our online products.”
In the past, YouTube’s community infrastructure didn’t consist of much more than the ability to comment on videos. And rather than feeling like community, those comments were notorious for reading like they had been scrawled on walls by transient junior high school boys. In 2014, BuzzFeed’s Mark Slutsky declared that “the YouTube comment section has long been considered the worst place on the internet.” Even if that statement is subject to debate, it’s not something anyone wants to hear about their community.
Now, YouTube comments have been known to belie their skeevy reputation, especially in the case of video creators with loyal audiences, and the service’s crud-suppressing algorithms have recently improved. “I think the quality of conversation in comments can be terrible,” says John Green. “We all know that. But it can also be excellent.” Even in a best-case scenario, however, they weren’t well suited to the sort of community-building the company wanted to encourage.
For one thing, comments are attached to specific videos rather than people, and therefore aren’t an ongoing dialog. They also don’t do much to cater to dedicated followers rather than random passersby. “Anyone can comment on a video and say something stupid or not very valuable to the conversation,” says Corinne Leigh, who, along with Rob Czar, hosts ThreadBanger, where the videos have titles such as “DIY Rainbow Grilled Cheese,” “DIY Lava Lamp,” and “Hack Job: Shoe Wine Bottle Opener.”
From conception, the new features were designed to appeal to users who care about the people whose videos they watch, and are therefore most likely to be solid citizens–the sort of folks who want to receive a notification on their smartphone the moment a new post goes up. On the other hand, they can also choose to switch those notifications off and remove non-video posts from their feed, which means that nobody should feel that Community, like the infamous Google+ integration of a few years ago, is being shoved down anyone’s throat. (During the beta period, YouTube plans to experiment with whether subscription feeds will show non-video content by default or not.)
Besides letting creators post a stream of text, photos, GIFs, and uploaded YouTube videos of the conventional sort–polls are also in the works, though they won’t be ready at launch–the Community features will permit the broadcasting of live video on the fly from the YouTube mobile app, a feat which, amazingly, still isn’t a standard capability available to everyone. (YouTube added its first version of live video a half-decade ago, but now finds itself playing catchup with Facebook Live Video and Twitter’s Periscope.) Live broadcasting could make sense as part of Community, since the new features will be by nature more ephemeral than most YouTube channels, which often emphasize the sort of videos that have a shot at continuing to rack up views for years.
Unlike the wild, sometimes alarming scrum of Twitter, YouTube’s Community is designed to be a safe space, not a free speech zone. Only creators can post items on their pages; users can comment on those posts, but can’t comment on each other’s comments, and their feedback is subject to moderation. That gives creators the ability to steer the conversation and prevent anyone with trollish tendencies from hijacking it. “You can’t create this infinite stream of argument,” says Hank Green.
Users will be able to thumbs-up or thumbs-down any item, but those interactions don’t amount to Reddit-style up-voting and down-voting: Community will show everything in reverse chronological order. As Ben-Yair explains, “We heard from creators that that helps keep it conversational, and keeps the context of the conversation.”
Community has something of a no-frills feel, but in a way, that helps it complement the rest of YouTube, which is no longer all that off-the-cuff a domain, at least for many popular creators. Once upon a time, the archetypal YouTube video was pretty rudimentary: crudely edited footage of someone talking directly into a fuzzy webcam, à la Lonelygirl15. There’s still plenty of material of that ilk, but much of the most popular YouTube video is slick, ambitious, and in no way amateurish. “It’s hard to just produce two videos a week,” says ThreadBanger’s Leigh. “You talk to a lot of YouTubers that are on this crazy deadline of making videos every day.”
“So much of what we do on our channels is very format driven and heavily scripted,” adds Matthew “MatPat” Patrick, whose YouTube channel the Game Theorists is dedicated, in its own words, to overanalyzing video games. “There’s a lot of production to everything we upload.”
“In the digital age, relevancy is kind of of fleeting,” muses Jake Roper, whose Vsauce3 mashes up science and popculture in videos such as “What If Captain America’s Shield Hit You?” “If you don’t post every day, people forget about you. ‘Do I still exist?’ I have that fear.” Roper doesn’t even post videos every week: Vsauce3 has added only 15 of them in past 12 months. But by hanging out with fans in Community, he can strengthen his ties with viewers without ramping up his pace of production or taking up too much additional time.
At YouTube as at other tech companies, the creation of new apps, services, and features can be an insular experience. “Traditionally, [product managers] work with designers, and you put together this product and then roll it out and see how it does,” says YouTube product manager Kiley McEvoy.
In the case of the features that became Community, however, the company got about 30 of its video stars involved from early on, with a level of collaboration that went beyond the breakfast get-together with the Green brothers and included confabs in Los Angeles and New York as well as at YouTube headquarters.
“As we started, we did daylong sessions with creators with whiteboards, sticky notes, everything,” McEvoy recounts. “We asked them to design the features that they felt were missing from their experience on YouTube. And many of these features came out of those sessions. A lot of the work since then has just been iterating and iterating.”
For instance, YouTube initially thought that Community’s text posts would offer Tweet-like quick hits. “Actually, the feedback we got was, ‘no, this is actually a great deep-thoughts tool,’” says Ben-Yair. After experimenting with a variety of character limits, the company decided not to impose one at all.
Creators also gave Community, which was code-named “Backstage,” its name. “Initially, this concept was supposed to be the backstage of a concert–the place that only the most hardcore of fans would be,” Ben-Yair says. “But as we were building this and as we got feedback from creators, they said, ‘No, YouTube is our public platform where we want to be talking to all of our fans. And the word that kept coming up in conversations with them was the word ‘community.’”
For YouTube, this input was practical; for the creators, it was exhilirating. “You put something out there, and the next iteration has that change,” says ThreadBanger’s Czar. “It’s awesome. I feel like a superhero. I’m shaping the internet. Something I said resonated with YouTube.”
Of course, even if creators are smitten with the features they helped shape, Community won’t go anywhere unless it resonates with the teeming masses of folks who love their work. During the development process, most of the people who have been playing the role of fans have been YouTube and Google employees. But a smattering of actual fans of the Green brothers also got a chance to see the new features while they were still a work in progress.
“It was definitely humbling,” says Ben-Yair. “We were in the original group of Googlers and YouTubers testing the product. And then the real fans came in. Some of us don’t know Hank and John so well, so occasionally I’d ask a question like, ‘Oh, what happened here?’ And I’d immediately get bombarded: ‘Watch their videos! Watch this, watch that.’ It became very evident that there is such a passion and such a following and such a dedication that maybe someone who’s a more lightweight user would not understand.”
Keeping superfans like those know-it-all followers of the Green brothers happy is vital to YouTube’s success as a business enterprise, and the company thinks Community can help even though it isn’t taking any immediate steps to directly monetize it. “If you’re an advertiser, what you’re looking for first and foremost is a very engaged, enthusiastic audience,” says product chief Mohan. “The beauty of YouTube is that through products like Community, that’s what we offer in spades, to the scale of a billion-plus users a month.”
Executives at tech companies never frame their new features as responses to what someone else is doing, but Community should also fortify YouTube’s appeal to creators during a period when both Facebook and Twitter are writing checks and otherwise wooing the sort of video stars who have usually made their home base on YouTube. “YouTube is where I found the bulk of my audience,” says the Game Theorists’ Patrick. “At end of it, I want to stay on the platform where they’re most likely to engage with me and it’s easiest for them to engage regularly.”
As for tomorrow? Well, Mark Zuckerberg likes to confidently predict that Facebook will be mostly video within a half-decade. Still, “YouTube’s core thing is so safe and so protected,” contends Hank Green. “Nobody’s going to watch a 10-minute video in their Twitter stream. On Facebook, you don’t come back and watch stuff from that same creator.”
And then his brother John chimes in with a cheerful disclaimer: “I just want to interject that I don’t know two people worse at predicting the future than Hank and me.”
But then John continues: “YouTube channels are not something you just watch. They’re something you’re part of. That feeling seems very unique to me. It’s what makes YouTube special, and makes me love it.” The new Community features don’t have to tamper too much with that formula to prove their worth. All they have to do is make people like the Greens–and fans like their fans–love YouTube even a little more than they already do.