How Much Would It Cost to Build a Better YouTube?

/ Nov 7, 2013


Most of us share a complicated relationship with YouTube. Multi-channel networks are tired of the hefty revenue splits while independent creators feel like they don’t have real access to their audience. In the past, we’ve seen executives and artists bang their heads against a wall trying to figure out a way to, if not leave YouTube altogether (bad idea), then loosen Google’s grasp a bit.

Some have made it work, specifically Maker Studios. The MCN recently acquired video platform Blip and has begun rolling out owned-and-operated sites for its major channels and networks. But for the large strides MCNs are making, independent creators like Kevin Gisi are left pretty much without any options.

So what do you do as a mid-tier creator when YouTube stops listening? Well, it’s simple, you try and build a better YouTube.

Back in August, Gisi, an engineer and YouTube creator, released a video titled “Let’s Build a Better YouTube” in which he suggested that those feeling disenfranchised by YouTube (the smaller YouTube community particularly) should band together and create a better video-sharing site.

“We don’t have to stay on YouTube, but also we don’t have to leave,” he explains in the video. “We can use YouTube’s free video hosting and distribution and replace the community aspects ourselves.”

What Gisi is essentially suggesting is that creators look to build a site that places embedded YouTube videos into a community-built social platform. Not a YouTube “competitor,” but a new site that can support YouTube’s player, while replacing all of its social and community functions. 

“I made the first video mentioned shortly after YouTube’s announcement that they were retiring video responses.” Gisi tells me. “I didn’t intend it as a direct message to YouTube (largely because I think they’re quite aware of the consequences of what they’re doing), but I directed it toward the company as a rhetorical device for talking about some of our frustrations as video creators.”

Those frustrations stemmed from, as Gisi explains, a lack of direct access to viewers. While mid-tier creators aren’t as frustrated with YouTube’s revenue split as MCNs, a declining viewership hurts creators on every tier. “This past year, creators of all sizes have seen a decrease in their average views per video/subscribers.” Gisi explains. “While the impact of the revenue split scales down the smaller in size you go, the impact of a subscriber drop-off scales drastically up.”

Gisi is the first to admit that a decrease in audience may have to do with a decline in quality content, though other factors are also at play. He explains: “Now, this could be because of my content. Maybe I’m producing less appealing stuff; maybe I’ve grown stagnant; maybe I need to work on my thumbnails, or sharing strategy. Or maybe, YouTube’s changes to the subscription feeds mean that people who otherwise would watch my content aren’t afforded the opportunity. Undoubtedly, it’s some mixture of both.”

For many smaller creators, YouTube’s nonstop tailoring of the “What to Watch” and subscription feeds is killing business. Back in June, YouTube creator Bryarly Bishop uploaded a video that echoed the feelings many independent creators have. “YouTube, I’ve always thought of you as a website with content created by the people for the people,” Bishop explains in the video. “But, when you invest $200 million in less than 200 channels, most of which are made by corporations and when you redesign your website to hide smaller content creators while allowing channels already bloated with money to balloon further… I have to think I was wrong.”

With the increasing tension between creators of every size and YouTube, trying to build an alternative site, at a point, starts to seem a lot less crazy — until you actually do the math.

Gisi, as it turns out, actually did the math. In the follow-up video to “Let’s Build a Better YouTube,” he explains that building this theoretical YouTube utopia would cost around $16 million, and that’s just to host 100,000 uploads a year with 10,000 views a day. In other words: an incredibly small fraction of the bandwidth YouTube uses every day. Not to mention, this “better YouTube” wouldn’t even replace YouTube’s video player, it would simply be a place to host YouTube videos with better community tools.

According to a Tumblr post in which Gisi breaks down the $16 million piece by piece, the legal team alone would cost a cool $2 million while building out a team of engineers would cost around $2.5 million annually. He writes: “Our annual costs so far for a video-hosting platform capable of managing 100,000 uploads with 10,000 views daily, with a team of 32 people, which won’t pay out anything to content creators is approximately $15,000,000.” Add a 5% pay out for Kickstarter and you’re looking at 16 million big ones.

Gisi, for his part, admits that all of this was more of a testing ground and less of an actual effort to replace YouTube’s community functions. He explains: “Trying to architect an alternative platform from scratch is a bad idea. It’s prohibitively expensive; creators won’t want to jump to a new service that can’t promise the potential for virality; and viewers aren’t going to want to maintain accounts across a bunch of different networks.”

However, the creator does see a brighter future in the hands of an established tech company. “If a company with an existing social reach, existing data servers, a mechanism for revenue sharing, and a method for selling premium advertising wanted to get into the space, there is very much a market there,” he says. “For the record, my money’s on Amazon.”

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