YouTube revamp

by davidnielsen

Apparently Google are planning a rather vast revamping of the YouTube service. Naturally a lot of the rather vocal members of the Free Software minority have managed to push several versions of their HTML5 + Ogg Theora suggestion to the top. However is this a good thing?

Firstly it combines two goals, one Google are invested in and one it argued against. They will be able to dismiss such a goal as having reached 50% by already having invested heavily in HTML5 and using it for other services, YouTube is sure to follow. However they also issued comments against Ogg Theora based on concerns about the quality. Clearly this is where the debate needs to be had and making it as simple for Google as possible increases the chances of success. I would instead support ideas that aim to ensure that YouTube is accessable to everyone as encompassing goal, Open Standards are a natural outcome hereof. Then I would give specific well argued examples, Google are concerned about the quality and performance of Ogg Theora so start with the Xiph rebuttal and fill in the gaps, fix the problems and then what would stop Google from supporting Openness?

Secondly while the use of format and such is important to a large number of users this is a technical decision and likely not what Google are looking for input on. There are a large number of things that do not work on YouTube today, in the user experience and performance of the site that are far more important. There is rampant DMCA abuse and the reaction from YouTube is often wide banning and removal of users without sufficient investigation. You have problems with vote and rating bots. The comment section is in dire need of a serious redesign that will encourage debate and replies both in text and video form. There seriously needs some action taken to eliminate the spam problem. All in all YouTube is becoming less and less a compelling place to participate, occasionally a place that will wrongfully get you into legal trouble, the slip towards more commercial offerings seem to have taken all development interest from the community that made YouTube a success. This all leads to slowly strangling what made YouTube great and instead turning it into a Hulu-like service where nobody but your partners can upload and videos will remain locked by criteria such as region. Google will likely make more money this way but they will cause the creation of fierce competitors and they will very publicly betrayal the orignal voxhall idea that gave birth to YouTube which cannot be good for PR.

Open Standards and formats isn’t all that is required to ensure access for all, e.g. it would be nice if the community was leveraged in creating subtitles for important videos. Lots of people depend on subtitles to access information, this need stretches all the way from being an enhancement (e.g. people learning languages), a requirement (e.g. elderly people, people with reduced hearing capacity, etc.) to a downright legal requirement (e.g. deaf people). It should be noted here that to the best of my knowledge no provision for providing subtitles support currently exists in HTML5 and this definitely needs to be addressed.

It would also be nice if they took the chance to work with the Creative Commons to have them do explanatory video posts as to their licensing and licensing in general (what to watch out for such ensuring that music used can with distributed and where to get such media) followed by defaulting every contribution to a channel setting (default to something reasonable such as the share-alike license). Doing this encourages conversation, it means you open yourself to crticism and it grows the public pool of work which can be used amongst other places in the classroom which combined with subtitles and what other material can prove to be valuable tools in learning. One example of this is Potholer54′s Made Easy series which gives a quick but scientifically valid look at how the universe came to be and offers explanations of evolutionary concepts, the information is freely available and offers an excellent supplement to the traditional classroom experience.

I also think that YouTube needs to make it insanely easy to not just view but contribute to YouTube from outside the YouTube website, there is a growing number of appealing devices such as the (gadget lustworthy) Boxee Box that enable enjoying the multitude of media experiences that your own collection and the Internet offers. It is vital for YouTube to be well positioned for consumption in such an environment. This is another place where Open Standards argue for themselves, new device makers wouldn’t have to pay any kind of licensing to support your product, it would be entirely free and thus lead it being one of the first things to be implemented for such devices.

I believe we should argue for open standards and open formats that are free for all to use, however I think this argument will be the natural outcome of looking at where YouTube, the rest of the Google services and the Internet as a whole must go. From looking at the current problems and the best long term solutions to that. I believe that by flooding the suggestion box we risk drowning serious user issues and misleading YouTube into addressing their problems in the wrong order and in doing so lead them to further endanger YouTube.

We also need to remember that to have YouTube be a good showcase for open standards it first needs to be a good experience, one that users will flock to. It can be ever so free and open, but if it isn’t good people won’t use it and then any effort in opening up the experience is utterly wasted. A poor but open YouTube doesn’t serve you, Google or the Internet as a whole. Keep that in mind.