Discover more from Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk
Dear Vox Media. Move to Vimeo.
YouTube algorithms and reaching Your Audience.
Ranjan here, today I’m talking online video.
A quick disclaimer: I don’t work for, and have no financial interest, in Vimeo.
A few months ago, after that last YouTube pedophilia scare, I logged back into a Vimeo account I created years before. I wanted to easily share some videos of my kids and needed somewhere to host them. The idea of one of these videos becoming food for the YouTube algorithm was petrifying. I just wanted some semblance of control.
Vimeo was a completely different place.
The site is no longer the place where your art school friend hosts their video projects. It's quietly shifted to a video services provider (one that's pulling in a reported $160mm a year). You see it right when you land. It's not about discovery, but about services.
You can upload, host, embed anywhere, brand, and edit your videos. You can easily assign security settings per video, publish directly to platforms, livestream, and track analytics. They even have some really cool stuff like a new Showcases feature that lets you make an instant Amazon Fire or Roku channel with your videos.
The interesting thing is how they shifted their branding. "Your content needs to reach your audience".
Vimeo now serves a much-needed purpose. It helps you make sure your audience can see your videos. Being me, I sent a newsletter for my second kid's birth announcement, and was able to easily embed Vimeos into Mailchimp (Substack also does it seamlessly). I've used it to host and share some funny video projects with family. I wasn't looking for some weirdo new audience and a high view count. I just wanted simple functionality.
Vox vs. YouTube
Which brings us to this week's Vox vs. YouTube drama. You can follow the thread below for background, but Vox's Carlos Maza brought up a number of examples of harassment, specifically from a guy named Steven Crowder:
There were plenty of very clearly bigoted slurs being thrown around, and in typical Big Tech apologist fashion, TeamYouTube indicated the language was "hurtful" but didn't violate any of their policies:
YouTube then felt bad and reversed course. There were a few more twists and turns to the story, and I'd recommend this WaPo piece for a good summary, but more importantly, it's a reminder that this stuff is really difficult. There are no right answers that will please everyone.
The Status Quo ♥️
But YouTube's job is not about pleasing anyone. It's about maintaining the status quo at all costs. That's the one job of dominant monopolist.
Alphabet will fight tooth and nail to do as little as possible. I'm sure there are many individual employees who want to fix things. I've angrily brought up the sickening YouTube stuff with friends who work at Google and are parents. They seem horrified, but they say it's too complex a problem or they don’t work directly at YouTube. Instead, we see things like Googlers circulating internal petitions for YouTube to remove the rainbow pride branding from their social media logo.
The organizational leviathan will always fight back and win. YouTube provides Alphabet that strategic breathing room between an eventual decline in desktop search and a moonshot paying off. They’re a critical piece of the trillion dollar puzzle. So they start every statement about protecting kids with the preposterous idea that, because in the Terms of Service it says kids under 13 shouldn't watch YouTube, you really shouldn't blame them for the pedophilia that their own algorithm actively encourages. They continue to make ad hoc, unpredictable changes, without addressing the fundamental issues.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair
Here's a proposal
Vox Media should leave YouTube for Vimeo. YouTube's problems run so far and deep that they will never change. "Engagement" is their north star, and they will always cynically use the First Amendment and Section 230 to hide the issue that their problem is not the neutral hosting of content, it's the algorithmic recommendation of it.
And there’s no reason they should change. YouTube sells ads against content, yet manages to avoid the responsibilities of a media company. They generate billions in revenue, yet somehow don't report their numbers to shareholders, even as a major part of a public company. It's a great place to be. Any internal strategic discussion would view issues like Carlos Maza's complaint, correctly, as a slippery slope. If they give an inch, we will all rightfully take a mile. Organizationally, the central goal is to just hold the line at all costs. Just look at how the user interface hasn't improved in years. It’s working exactly how it should, so why change it?
So Vox. Why are you still on there? I am generally impressed by the Vox Media operation (union issues aside), but their statement after YouTube's initial refusal to act was as weak as an internal petition to remove a Twitter logo":
YouTube must do better and must enforce their own policies and remove creators who promote hate.
Vox Media must do better.
Vox Media should leave YouTube. They already have a massive distribution network, with properties that reach millions of valuable people. They have websites and social media followings and email lists and massive events and I'm sure other things I'm missing. They even have a mystical CMS that other publishers waited years for the right to have access to.
They are not an indie creator that needs YouTube to find them viewers. They already have an audience. Their content just needs to reach their audience.
But I do get it. The number on the bottom left of this image from their corporate homepage tells the story:
And they have 6 million YouTube subscribers and each video racks up millions of views. I brought this up on Twitter, and a very reasonable response was that leaving YouTube for Vimeo would punish "Vox more than YouTube".
Yes, it would suck. But so does all of this. And Vox leaving YouTube is not them losing to alt-right loudmouths. It's them winning. It's them taking complete control of their video content. It's them moving back to serving their real audience. It's them no longer building an ad business around distorted and inflated view numbers. They already do incredible video work and this is an opportunity for them to build their own video distribution.
It’s not yours
Those 6 million subscribers are not Vox's. The hundreds of millions of views they're amassing on the platform are not their audience. They belong to YouTube.
I'm sure Vox's salespeople would be livid. You really don't want to go into your next pitch going from 500 million minutes viewed to something way smaller. But it’s not their audience.
It's probably not even the audience Vox wants, or the audience they promise to their advertisers. I've watched a number of Carlos Maza's videos. They're quite good and appear to get over a million views each. They're also quite provocative, which makes them perfect for the YouTube algorithm. But looking at a recent Maza video on Fox News, all of the top comments are from right-wingish types (and note, these were all from before this current scandal started):
What percentage of the views are from people hate-watching? What percentage of all YouTube views are from hate-watching? Is that really what advertisers want? These people do not comprise a loyal audience.
Thought experiment: what if Vox left Vimeo and pushed a video across all of their sites and channels. It showed up in a bunch of their newsletters. Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka both mention it in their podcast. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias tweet it.
How many loyal Vox readers would end up watching? Maybe 50k? 100k? That should be considered a big win, but you'll never get YouTube numbers. All of digital media has gotten themselves into this predicament. Everyone is hooked on YouTube algo juice, and speaking in millions and billions for video views. Advertisers come to expect it so you play the game. And the wheel keeps turning.
Break the wheel, Vox!
Move your entire, excellent video catalog to Vimeo. If we're feeling confident, hide the total view counts. Focus on building and engaging your true, loyal audience and push those videos to us directly, rather than praying for external algorithmic approval. Start a Substack newsletter and embed your best stuff from Vimeo every day. Forego the siren song of YouTube reach and get down to the hard work of serving your loyal audience. Don't lend your credibility and brand to the platform that allows for the harassment of your employees, and much, much worse. Vox Media, it's time to move to Vimeo.
Vimeo is owned by Barry Diller’s IAC holding corporation. It’s one of the most fascinating corporate entities around, especially in a media context. They also own Angie's List, Tinder / Match.com, Handy, DotDash, OKCupid, Investopedia, Daily Burn, along with a large number of additional brands. Their market cap is $19 billion, and the stock is up 400% in the past few years. Yet, I rarely read about how it operates. If anyone has good overview pieces, please send them our way.
I guess I have to end this newsletter with a Vimeo.