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How YouTube became one of the planet's most influential media businesses

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. When congressional leaders grilled social media executives last year about spreading misinformation on the 2020 election and COVID-19, most of the heat was on Facebook, Twitter and the search engine Google. Our guest, business writer Mark Bergen, says far less attention is focused on YouTube, the video-sharing platform, which last year earned $28 billion in ad revenue and which has over 2 billion viewers around the world.

Bergen's new book tells the story of YouTube's founding in 2005 on the simple idea of letting everyone share videos on the internet for free, and he describes the company's chaotic growth into a business giant. It's a platform that's allowed a 9-year-old boy whose videos began appearing when he was 3 to become a multimillionaire with his own toy and clothing brands. It's also given enormous exposure to Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists. Bergen writes that YouTube has ushered in a world of abundant content and creativity of influencers and online hustlers, of information overload and endless culture wars.

Mark Bergen writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek and previously reported on technology and media for Recode and Ad Age. He covered business and economics from India writing for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications. His new book is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination."

Mark Bergen, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with YouTube's origin. In 2005, this was when there were hundreds of internet startups spawning everywhere, and most didn't take off. Tell us about the founding of YouTube, what its originators wanted to do.

MARK BERGEN: Yeah, this was a wave, a revolutionary wave of what we call user-generated content on the internet - so not just websites where people would go and scroll and read, but they could actually participate. And so you had Blogger around that same time, Flickr, the photo-sharing app. Facebook was formed in 2004. And then, months later, there were three friends who had worked at PayPal that had got together. They had this idea. They wanted to do something on video. Video flip cameras were just becoming popular. You know, video was beginning to appear on the internet. But it was still very difficult to share and expensive and cumbersome. And so they - in early 2005, they began working on this site.

There wasn't a lot of clarity in the sense that people would be posting amateur content or homemade videos, let alone that users and viewers would want to watch that. So they really stumbled upon this success by building a service that was pretty simple to use. Early on, it had that, you know, iconic triangular play button. It was able to embed in different websites. And once it took off with a lot of early creators - what we call now creators experimenting with it, it really hasn't slowed down since.

DAVIES: Yeah, it's kind of remarkable. I mean, the idea is - I mean, the slogan was, broadcast yourself. Anybody could upload anything for free, right?

BERGEN: Yeah. I think this was still a pretty novel idea and part of this Silicon Valley firm belief that information should be free and be accessible, and broadcast and video should be free and accessible and eventually will be. And YouTube was one of many, but it certainly became the - early on, leapfrogged around its competitors in part because it was so accessible and easy to use. You know, the founders talked about it in emails. This is something that they talked about how their mom should be able to use. And I think, to their credit, that's one of the reasons for its success.

DAVIES: Right. So anybody could post anything. And who knew that, like, amateur videos would get an audience? But one of the things that they did early on was they knew that they wanted to find high-quality stuff and promote it. And so they created a group of people they called coolhunters. What was their mission?

BERGEN: So at one point, there was a team of - they called themselves community managers. They sometimes called themselves editors. And they would pick the videos that would appear on the homepage. And they had different categories like sports and music and comedy. And some of that was sort of tapping into these early viral video hits. And they were also, like, sifting through. You know, one of them compared it to, like, looking through a record bin - right? - trying to go back and find these hidden gems because this is when YouTube was starting to get this influx of material from all around the world, and they hadn't built this algorithmic system of software to be able to get viewers in front of the videos that they might want to watch.

And so this was a team that was effectively doing what we think of as an editorial role now of, like, managing a website homepage like The New York Times - and an integral part. They were one of the first people at YouTube to actually reach out to the people that were broadcasting and uploading videos and develop a relationship with. You know, at the time, it was sort of - if you were early on experimenting with YouTube, you didn't really have a connection. There wasn't a support line you could call or an email address - right? - to get in touch with the company. And so they were the first to build these relationships, which became very vital and then, you know, years later, as the platform grew, much more difficult to manage.

DAVIES: Right. And, you know, they brought us Justin Bieber, right? He was discovered by them and promoted by YouTube and, boy, took off, right?

BERGEN: Yeah. Well, actually, Bieber was incidentally - they found his video, and he was singing a cover. His mom was trying to get it on the YouTube homepage. Justin Bieber was discovered in 2008 by a record executive because of his popularity on YouTube, and his career launched from there.

DAVIES: It's interesting to see, as this developed, what kinds of videos, you know, amateur videos really took off. One of them was box opening, people opening a box of a new product and people seeing it. And, you know, I thought we'd listen to a clip from one of the - this is kind of a youngster who was a star named Ryan Kaji. Am I saying that right?

BERGEN: That's right.

DAVIES: Yeah. He did box opening videos of toys that his parents submitted when - it started when he was just 3 years old. One of his - you can look it up. One of them has a billion views now. But this is an early one, an unboxing video where his mom takes him to Target, lets him pick out a toy, and he picks a LEGO train. And what we'll hear here is just a bit of this video of him opening the box with his mom's encouragement.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "KID PLAYING WITH TOYS LEGO DUPLO NUMBER TRAIN")

LOANN KAJI: Open it.

RYAN KAJI: I see a yellow thing.

KAJI: What yellow thing? Let's check it out.

RYAN: A small yellow thing. It's - I see a white thing.

KAJI: OK. Take it out. What white...

RYAN: I think it's a dog.

KAJI: Really?

RYAN: Uh-huh.

KAJI: Open it. Let's see.

DAVIES: And that's it. I mean, adorable little kid, but - boy. What was the appeal of unboxing videos?

BERGEN: Ryan is a really fascinating example. So he's gone on to have a tremendously successful career and effectively build an entire entertainment juggernaut around his YouTube channels. He - the one thing - he's very charismatic on screen. And it - I believe since he was 3 years old, he's been appearing in sort of a natural and, like, very comfortable in front of - and guileless in front of the camera.

The unboxing videos actually began on YouTube with tech products, with iPhones. So the iPhone came out in 2007. A lot of the early reviewers would get these iPhones and these models before anyone else could have them. And it was this, you know, beyond just - if you want to leave a review of your phone, typically in a newspaper or blog, a video is a much more illustrative way to demonstrate, oh, here's this cool, new gadget. And so that was where they began.

And I talked to some of the early YouTubers who had worked in that tech space, and they were like, well, we discovered when we were unboxing the videos, people actually wanted to watch them. They wanted to experience what it's like to take that new shiny product outside of a box. These were products that maybe they wanted, they aspired to purchase one day. And you saw that just transfer to toys around 2011, 2012. And toy unboxing as, like, a - as a psychological phenomenon, as a childhood development phenomenon is really under-examined.

There are theories about sort of mirror neurons and what kind of fires off in our brain when we see someone perform an act that we want to do. And, you know, Ryan Kaji, in early - his early videos, he's not just playing with one toy, often it's dozens of toys. And this is something where kids clearly - there was an appeal to watching this. You know, he was also a really iconic example. He's Asian American. He's someone who didn't even attempt to go through, you know, conventional Hollywood or TV. This is something that YouTube prided itself on was it didn't have gatekeepers. There's no producer or agent that determines whether or not Ryan is popular. It is his mom uploading the videos and then viewers are watching. And that's part of YouTube's magic.

DAVIES: Let's take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Mark Bergen. He writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY RIGBY SONG, "PLAYING PITTSBURGH")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Mark Bergen. He writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book about the video-sharing platform YouTube is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination." YouTube was founded in 2005 by three guys, mostly refugees from PayPal. Then Google acquired the company in 2006 for $1.65 billion. They had not turned a profit yet, right? Why did Google do this?

BERGEN: I think one major reason is that YouTube was also a very powerful, even then, search service. It was YouTube - Google is a search company. And it is definitely the world's biggest search engine. That is how the company thinks of itself, as sort of - it wants to be the primary place where people are searching on the internet. And they saw YouTube as this viable threat not just of, oh, here's this new phenomenon of online video. And Google was well aware that video was coming to the internet. But here is this powerful search engine that people are going on and looking not just for funny, amusing cat videos, but instructions, how-to videos, looking for commercial - like, looking up things about - you know, things they might want to buy and purchase. So that was a major reason why YouTube was attractive to Google. Google actually at the time had a competing service called Google Video that, for a variety of reasons, struggled to compete with YouTube. There's sort of a saying in Silicon Valley, you either build it or you buy it.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

BERGEN: And Google had just gone public in 2004, was flush with cash from its search advertising business, and so went out and bought it. And 1.6 billion at that time was an eye-popping number, you know? Years later, Facebook would go out and buy a company like WhatsApp for almost 20 billion. So you know, I think history can look back and see, certainly financially, it was an incredibly savvy purchase for Google.

DAVIES: So they figured out a way to put ads on videos and eventually started paying the creators, right?

BERGEN: Yes. YouTube was actually remarkably early in that. 2007 is when they started sharing out revenue with broadcasters and in a small group - at that point, around 30 or so popular channels. Fast-forward to about 2011, 2012, YouTube decides this is something where we want to - you know, the company sort of really believes and they have this expression I talk about in the book, like, a level playing field. They saw themselves as a democratizing force in the world, right? You're going to put someone, an amateur, on the same level as a cable news host, right? Or someone who's making how-to beauty, make-up videos, you're going to be just as important as a fashion star. And the Arab Spring was around this time, right? Like, this was - YouTube was sort of documenting revolutions in a way that cable and television was not. And so they opened up the platform to not just have anyone broadcast themselves, but to make money from the commercials that run on and before the videos.

DAVIES: In deciding what videos to promote, they used to have this group of people that they called the cool hunters that would look for video content to see what was going to display on the homepage. But eventually, they began to rely more and more on math, on algorithms - right? - to decide what would come up next. And they develop a system for recommending videos. If you watched a video, the algorithm would decide what to offer to you next. What was the idea here?

BERGEN: The idea was to drive people to the videos that they wanted to see. I think this was a - at the time, YouTube was kind of struggling with what we would call clickbait, right? Sometimes they were - the videos would draw in viewers with an alluring title or the thumbnail - like, the still image on the homepage. People would click in and then immediately leave, be disappointed by what they were getting. Sometimes they were deceptive titles. And so the struggle for the - YouTube with its algorithms early on was, how are we going to tailor a video that's just made for you and continue - like, keeps you engaged, watching through the entire video and clicking more? And so they made this very significant change in 2012 to switch their ranking system for recommendations and for search to prioritize videos that can keep people on - watching for as long as possible. It's called watch time. And that became the kind of gold standard for the company going forward.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, one of the things that this led to - and this has drawn a lot of criticism - is that if you - you know, if you watch a video about some interest of yours, you're going to get - and you finish it, then you're going to get another video about that interest. And that's - you know, if it's chess or gardening, that's all benign and fine. If you've taken an interest in some conspiratorial theory about how the election was stolen - and you watch that, and maybe you're a little curious, maybe a little skeptical. But then you get another one which reinforces it and maybe is a little more extreme. And then you get another one and another one. Over time, you think, gosh, this must be true. So many people believe this. Look at all this evidence. You write about somebody within Google, a guy named Matthew Mengerink, who raised concerns that people were simply having their own beliefs reinforced and particularly if they were, you know, racist or, you know, homophobic or, you know, based on some conspiracy theory that this was troubling. He raised this within the company. What did the company - how did they respond?

BERGEN: Yeah. This was a concern - and he joined in 2015 - that people were starting to see. And I think two things were happening. One was that YouTube's algorithm had become exceptionally good and also a bit opaque, just the way that the machine learning system worked. It was sort of hard - the idea was that the software could sort of identify patterns that even the people coding it couldn't see. And it became very powerful in optimizing towards their goal and getting people to watch more and watch longer.

So he was one of several people in the company that I spoke to that raised concerns. And the chief one was, you know, we are - there are videos that don't necessarily break our rules. YouTube did have rules in place about hate speech and harassment. They were relatively lax. And the company has changed them dramatically since 2015. But at the time, you know, it was if you were - a lot of YouTube creators kind of learned to go right up to the line. And the argument was - from several people was, why don't we not recommend that to viewers? - because I think people inside the company recognized that, in a way, YouTube was programming - although they don't see themselves as a traditional media programmer. But their algorithms are programming by the way that they recommend viewers footage.

This was met with a couple of different concerns that I've heard from multiple people that raised this over the time. One was a legal concern. So, you know, YouTube has certain protections that - I mean, it's not liable for the content because it - under U.S. law and elsewhere. And the company was incredibly cautious about anything that could change that liability. The second one is just sort of YouTube and its parent company, Google, has this very strong belief that - the audience is king was the expression inside YouTube. They sort of believe that, oh, the audience was the one dictating what to watch and what's popular. And we don't - here sitting in Northern California with our biases, we don't want to put our thumb on the scale in any way. And so it was sort of - it was the response was actually, this proposal is un-Googley (ph).

DAVIES: Wow. You know, it's interesting because, I mean, it would be one thing if you were, like, censoring or deleting videos that you disagreed with. But what we're really talking about here is what gets recommended to somebody after they've finished a video. And so that's - it's a matter of discretion. And at one point, I think somebody was talking about, well, maybe if someone, you know, says things that are racist or questioning the Holocaust, that maybe the next video is one which offers some historical context from an authoritative source. Was it felt that that's violating the verdict of audience approval or something?

BERGEN: My understanding is that, you know, YouTube tries to - there's an expression that they have, which is they - like, everything they do has to be at scale, which effectively means, like, every decision they make has to work consistently for every viewer and for every creator across the globe. And so, you know, YouTube is not just in English, right? It is in sort of every language. It is in every market. And so there are certainly high-profile cases like Holocaust denial, which for a long time was permitted on the platform and no longer is. But there are also - like, another example would be in India about conversations about caste. And I think the company was very reluctant to sort of weigh in, how are we - you know, not how do we determine basically where to draw a line there as far as what's permitted, but then - that's difficult. But then how do we even - we don't want to necessarily suggest particular videos and impose our philosophy.

That - I think that the idea was that there was - this is a big platform. We have drawn lines in the sand in certain places as far as what's acceptable legally and what's acceptable according to our community standards. And anything else felt sort of interventionist in a way that the company for a long time avoided doing until they were forced to do so.

DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Mark Bergen. He writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination." He'll be back to talk more after a short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANDA DE LOS MUERTOS' "CUMBIA DE JACOBO")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with Mark Bergen, who's covered business, media and technology for years and now writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is a colorful history of YouTube, the video-sharing platform that's now so large it uploads about 500 hours of new video per minute. He profiled some of YouTube's homegrown stars and explores the tension between the company's financial interest in promoting viral content and the harm that can come from posting videos that promote hatred or propagate misinformation. Bergen's book is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination."

You know, one of the things that happens when you run a video-sharing service the size of YouTube's is that you can't possibly kind of, you know, curate it all individually. And so they rely on mathematical algorithms to do so much of the work, to filter out, you know, pornography and things like that. And often what will happen is that they will, you know, make a tweak or something, and then it'll change things and affect users and creators.

And I thought we would listen to a clip here. This is from another huge YouTube star, a guy who goes by the name of PewDiePie. He's actually a Swedish guy named Felix Kjellberg, right? Got his start by videos of him just playing video games and commenting on them. This is one a little later. I thought we would give a listen. This is PewDiePie airing some complaints about YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

PEWDIEPIE: Hey, YouTube. It's time for me to complain about YouTube again. I know. Can someone just stop YouTube from their self? I feel like YouTube is like a toddler playing with knives. And let's just take the knife away from that baby. Stop. Stop doing - stop. Now, if you don't know what I'm talking about - you probably don't know what I'm talking about because it doesn't affect you in any way possible. So literally, you can click away the video right now. I mean, no. It matters, damn it. I don't know if you noticed this. This has been a problem for a very long time. No. 1, YouTube unsubbing you from a channel, even though...

DAVIES: That is PewDiePie, one of the best-known creators for YouTube. Our guest is Mark Bergen. His new book about YouTube is "Like, Comment, Subscribe."

You know, what he's referring to here, what he's talking about YouTube unsubbing you is that he is saying it unsubscribes someone, you know, arbitrarily from a channel that they're subscribed to. And I guess what he's getting at is the fact that YouTube would make changes unannounced in its algorithm, which would really affect content creators, right?

BERGEN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. This happened throughout the history of YouTube, right? The ground is constantly shifting beneath the feet of even - so at this point, PewDiePie was the biggest star on the platform and had been for several years. He had more subscribers than any other channel. And that's, like, sort of the currency on YouTube and certain was earning millions. And there was this crunch around 2015 and 2016 that a lot of YouTube creators felt. And so this was actually a glitch the company had where - around a subscriber feature. And in my reporting, I find out that the company just didn't tell - didn't communicate with creators about this.

They've made fairly significant strides in communicating with their creator class. But it still remains - you know, there are over 2 million people right now with channels that YouTube shares ad revenue with, which is this - it's a sprawling kind of gig economy of people that make money from YouTube but don't work for the company, don't have any health care from the company - right? - and don't have any guarantees. And often the only communication they'll get is an automated email.

DAVIES: Wow. Let's just reemphasize that - 2 million people are creating content and have channels on YouTube. And some have made millions; others struggle. I mean - and I guess we should explain the kind of the undergirding principle here, which is that if advertisers put advertising on the videos that you submit, you keep 55% of the ad revenue and YouTube keeps 45%. Is that right?

BERGEN: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Which is, you know - no company has been able to replicate that. They're - so Hank and John Green have been - are very popular YouTubers who have been on since 2007. John Green is also a prolific young adult book author. And they've talked about this a lot recently because, you know, TikTok is now starting to pay creators in a slightly different way. And, you know, Hank and John are among many creators that say that, you know, YouTube is still the place, still the gold standard where you can actually make dependable income and have - build a career and a business off of. And I think that's pretty remarkable that that clearly has had a lot of bumps in the past 17 years, but, you know, there are certainly a lot of companies trying to chase that right now.

DAVIES: Right. And there are times when like, you know, YouTube adjusts its algorithm to filter out pornography, and suddenly people who have bodybuilding videos are cut off, right? And these things happen a lot. And it has sometimes catastrophic effects on people who are counting on this for a living.

BERGEN: It had a very catastrophic effect on the company. One chapter in the book talks about this tragedy where a disgruntled YouTuber - shortly after YouTube made a change to make it harder to make money online, a very troubled woman brought a gun to its campus in San Bruno, Calif. Thankfully, no one was killed but the shooter. So this - for people at YouTube, that was clearly a moment when they, you know, they realized, and I think what separates YouTube from a lot of its peers is, you know, every decision they make not only impacts you and me as a viewer, but it impacts literally millions of people whose livelihoods are often reliant on this company and platform and the decisions it makes.

DAVIES: So you can - you know, you can have your channel limited in a way for something you don't understand. You write that that many creators complained - that is to say, many people who create content for YouTube complained of burnout from the platform's unending demands. And that's kind of sounds confusing if, in fact, you know, the deal is you can upload whatever you want to. What are the demands? What are we talking about?

BERGEN: Yeah, it's really interesting that, you know, people at YouTube talk about this as sort of - in television, there's a set schedule. I know that I'm on a TV shoot for a certain number of months and then I'm off, right? Or a movie - you're working on a movie for a set number of months. YouTube doesn't have that, right? The cadence and the expectation is constant, right? And this is like - it is very profound in part because it's kind of unspoken. Like, there was no one at YouTube telling creators, you must publish every single video every single day. And in fact, YouTube's more recently told them, you can, you know, look at our data. If you take a break, it doesn't actually harm your audience. But there are certainly - you know, a lot of the most successful YouTubers are incredibly astute and study the - they study the numbers. They study their - the metrics. And they can see that, you know, people that tend to produce on a more regular output tend to get a better chance of being distributed, have better audience - right? - have better financial success.

And that has had led - and I talk about - there's one creator that I talk about in the book, Ingrid Nilsen, who was a star, early star, in the beauty category and really a trailblazer in this industry. And this sort of creative - it's both kind of creative and informative, and it transformed the fashion industry. She left YouTube after about a decade. And it's - there's been several largely women that have left in part just because it doesn't - you know, it's a profession without a clear end path. And it's one that, you know, there's this constant need to be continuing to grow and continuing to produce.

DAVIES: You know, Ingrid Nilsen is one who - she made a lot of money on this. And the weird thing about this is that the notion that you have to produce content very frequently seems at odds to me with the idea that you need to make content that's really arresting to watch. I mean, I would think if you take a little more time, you get something that people are willing to stick with. I mean, I looked at an Ingrid Nilsen video where she takes a shower. She has a bathing suit on, so it's not - you know, nothing inappropriate. But she's explaining what she does when she washes her hair. And she has this product and then she starts, you know, massaging at the top and lets it go down and then she has this conditioner. And kind of amazing to me that that would get a huge following, but it does, doesn't it?

BERGEN: There's something that - a term in academia - and forgive me for this - but parasocial network is sort of I think what you can call YouTube. And the idea is that there are people who watch these creators and influencers and feels that they know them personally, despite never having met them and not knowing them personally. And that's a profound, just, relationship that I think is not really understood. And it - YouTube was the - set the course. That was sort of the first major social media platform to do so. And now a lot of our social - the direction of social media is moving in that way. I mean, if people use Instagram, you realize that it's less and less of your friends and acquaintances and family and more of, say, an influencer you've never met who makes a compelling video. And that is the way that a lot of these tech platforms are moving. It is - it's an emotional burden - I talked to creators - to constantly perform a life on screen.

DAVIES: Mark Bergen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BERGEN: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.

DAVIES: Mark Bergen writes for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book is "Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise To World Domination." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead tells us about some musicians from the '70s that combined free jazz and electric funk and are at it again with a new album. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE RAW SONG, "PREGUNTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies
Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.