YouTube: It’s as frustrating as it is popular. Never has there been a bigger but less stable platform on which to host your videos. As long as you upload in obscurity, your bland recordings will sit on the site forever. But if your channel becomes popular, you can expect an endless series of bogus copyright claims and user terms of service complaints to forever endanger the material in which you have so much time and effort invested. Even as it produces minor Internet celebrities, YouTube exercises total, autocratic and mercurial control over what it hosts. Don’t anger it if you want to have a channel hosted there.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a comparable alternative? There is, of course, no guarantee that any website big enough and popular enough to compete with Google would be any friendlier or more responsive to users’ complaints. Some semblance of market competition would still be nice. Enter Yahoo, Google’s sometimes-beleaguered competitor. The firm is making noises about launching a competitor to Google over the summer, drawing prospective users by paying out better ad-revenue rates.

“Citing unnamed people briefed on the plans,” writes CNET’s Joan Solsman, “the report said Yahoo is in talks with video producers to premiere the video service this summer. It will let creators set up their own channels and host videos on Yahoo, setting up a publishing dashboard that can distribute across Yahoo properties like its home page and blogging service Tumblr, while offering a more favorable ad-revenue split than YouTube’s standard 45 percent cut. Word of Yahoo’s aims for a YouTube-like service bubbled up earlier this year.”

Solsman goes on to explain that Yahoo (now headed by CEO Marissa Mayer) hopes a competitive video service will energize its flagging (but once dominant) brand. Yahoo has hired mainstream-media maven and failed news anchor Katie Couric, launched a Screen app by employing media-giant partners and poured more effort into a long-form original series of its own (all the rage among online content providers these days). “However,” Solsman writes, “YouTube’s gigantic scale – 6 billion hours of video are watched each month, which roughly equates to every single person on the planet watching about 50 minutes of video on the Google site – make it a Goliath to go up against. … The counterbalance to YouTube’s reach is its stinginess on sharing advertising revenue with creators. While the most popular YouTube stars can leverage their fanbase to score valuable partnerships with brands, the revenue that’s actually generated for creators off YouTube itself is often meager except for a high-powered few.”

Before you set your hopes on Yahoo and its video service becoming the next big thing, consider the many previous sites that have tried and failed to dominate the social networking business. Remember “Friendster?” Before MySpace and Facebook, Friendster surged in popularity as the notion of connecting online first caught on. But the site did not or could not address slow response time caused by its own popularity, nor did it focus on social sharing and connecting (arguably what people “do” on a social network like YouTube or Facebook). When MySpace and Facebook offered a superior user experience, Friendster’s population migrated – and when that happens, it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. People leave the site because the site is perceived as no longer popular, and the site is perceived as no longer popular because people are leaving it.

MySpace, once a social-media giant popular with young people, suffered a similar fate. Facebook continued to innovate, making MySpace’s interface seem clunky and limited. But MySpace isn’t alone in having once been popular, only to be abandoned. Link aggregator “Digg” is now a “sinking ship,” a victim of Facebook users’ preference for the latter’s ease of use. And let’s not even bother to kick Google Plus while it’s down. Google’s answer to Facebook failed to improve on what Facebook does, so it was seen as superfluous. Google also miscalculated badly by forcing YouTube users to sign up for Google Plus as part of the user ID. This annoyed the very customer base Google was courting.

Psychologist John Grohol points out that Friendster and MySpace dominated the social network landscape only 10 years ago. A lot has changed in that intervening decade. Facebook, too, will fail, Grohol predicts, but only because the failure of all social networks is inevitable. “Identity management is what we all do, every day, consciously or unconsciously. We do it in-person, in face-to-face meetings at work, with our friends, and yes, even with our partners and lovers. But we do the vast majority of it consciously online. Identity management is simply the curation of the details of your life – what you choose to share, when and with whom.”

Grohol goes on to explain that the size of a network has direct bearing on the user-experience. “When social networks are small and have small amounts of people in it – maybe just a few trusted friends are connected to you on the network – you spend a lot less time on identity management. … As an online social network grows and we gain more and more friends on it, it starts to include co-workers and friends we don’t know as well. Maybe we add a few old acquaintances. And even a family member or two. Suddenly, we’re no longer sure how they might take a dirty joke, or when we share a political link. Will some in the group be offended?”

These concerns lead to self-censorship, according to Grohol. This, over time, leads to less engagement with the network, which in turn becomes lack of interest. As users become less interested, participation in the site dies off – and the life cycle of the social media site continues as before. Users migrate to the next big thing, and the formerly popular site is left to die.

Whether Yahoo’s video site is the next “next big thing” remains to be seen. Even if it is, though, a few years is an eternity online. Today’s social network giant is tomorrow’s barren wasteland. All we have to do to see it happen is to wait.

Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].


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