It may seem odd that more than two years into the mobile live-streaming hype, we’ve heard so little from the biggest video site of them all: YouTube. In 2015, Meerkat was the talk of South By Southwest and Twitter quickly responded by launching its own live-streaming app, Periscope. Now it’s practically normal: We can watch news events unfold live on Periscope and groan every time one of our friends goes live on Facebook. Even Instagram is in on it: Photos of lattes and sunsets are now supplemented with endless live feeds from brunch, protests, and our friends’ apartments. So, again: Where the hell is YouTube?
Oh, here they are. Today, YouTube announced that it’s rolling out live video to people with 10,000 or more subscribers. That’s a tiny sliver of YouTube’s user base, but the company promises to extend live video—along with its new “Super Chat” pay-to-highlight messaging and monetization feature—to all of its users this year.
Limiting live video to YouTube stars may seem overly cautious, if not downright sluggish (especially considering how late the company is to this game). But this type of slow-paced iterative rollout of new features is pretty standard for platforms of YouTube’s size, and for good reason.
First, there’s the issue of quality. If you’ve ever scrolled through the current live streams on Periscope, you know how varied the results can be when you let anyone with a smartphone broadcast to the whole world. Some of it is intriguing or entertaining. Some of it is pretty weird. And then there’s the subset of it that makes you question whether mobile live-streaming should exist at all.
If you think things can get odd or questionable on Periscope, just imagine what would happen if millions of YouTube users suddenly had the option to “go live.” How would they wield that power? A post-traumatic flashback to Chat Roulette comes to mind, and that wouldn’t even be the worst-case scenario. Everything from live-streamed terrorist atrocities to the most banal moments of people’s lives could clutter up YouTube before the new feature could have a chance to prove its value to the masses. By contrast, handing the live video keys over to more experienced YouTube creators likely ensures a certain level of semi-professionalism in the quality of the streams that start popping up on the platform.
Of course, YouTube already lets people tune into live video feeds. They just typically come from broadcast partners rather than bedroom gossip hounds and amateur singer-songwriters. But even the professionally produced live streams offer us a glimpse at how easily things can go sour. If you’ve ever watched a presidential debate or really anything having to do with politics on YouTube, you’ve likely watched the real-time chat box on live videos can turn into a firehose of hate speech and conspiracy theories that fly by in all caps too rapidly to even allow for the possibility of a levelheaded discussion. We are, after all, talking about YouTube here. Have you ever read even the regular comments under a video? If YouTube doesn’t do something to tame the vitriol, expect a fair amount of hate speech and abuse to accompany the further democratization of live broadcasting.
This isn’t just a YouTube problem. In today’s political climate especially, hot-headed online discourse and outright harassment are common features across social networks and media sites of all stripes. For its part, Twitter is in the process of tweaking its abuse report tools and policies in a long-overdue bid to fix one of its nastiest problems now that neo-Nazis feel unusually empowered there. The fact is that the internet is pre-loaded with people ready to shout, stalk, doxx, and even threaten others, with the misbehavior seeming to be at its worst when content is flowing in rapid, real time and audiences are staring into their screens. It’s a modern reality that platforms like YouTube need to plan for.
The quality issue is especially important for YouTube, which makes the bulk of its money from advertising. Every new live video has the potential to lure somebody’s attention—or, as YouTube execs see it, their lucrative eyeballs—from another, non-live video that they explicitly chose to watch. If you pull someone away from an eight-minute Saturday Night Live clip, the odds of it being a 60-second feed from some extremely bored guy’s basement had better be pretty low. And the odds of the viewer being repulsed or annoyed enough to close the app had better be close to zero.
Piracy is also a risk when it comes to a quick, universal rollout of mobile live-streaming on YouTube. Periscope learned this the hard way when its app coincidentally debuted a few weeks before the season premier of Game of Thrones in 2015. Still playing with the proverbial bubblewrap on the trendy new app, some users couldn’t resist the urge to livestream the show with Periscope, and the takedown notices from HBO quickly followed.
Of course, piracy is a problem with which YouTube is already very well acquainted. Indeed, more than almost any other platform, including Facebook and Twitter, the company’s very success depends on its ability to remain on the good side of copyright holders. That’s why it invested millions of dollars in its Content ID copyright infringement detection system and is busy training its algorithms with 50 million reference files from content owners like record labels and TV networks. YouTube engineers have worked hard to keep that system smart, even teaching it common workarounds employed by pirates, like warping audio and distorting video. A careful, phased rollout of live video is probably the best way to train Content ID to accurately detect multiple copyright violations in real time, especially when much of the content being live-streamed isn’t likely to be in the Content ID database.
YouTube hasn’t said how long it will take for the rest of us to get the ability to stream live, other than that it’s expected to happen later this year. Suffice it to say that until then, YouTube will be learning from its early adopters and their audiences, tweaking the features as they go. In the meantime, there’s always Periscope.