In a desperate attempt to compete with the likes of TikTok and appeal to our increasingly short attention spans, YouTube are heavily pushing Shorts. Ultra-shortform videos, under a minute long and in vertical screen orientation. Almost mirroring TikTok’s Black Mirror-esque promotion of infinite doom scrolling. Ignoring the psychological impact of consuming content in this way there’s a more concerning impact from a business perspective. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Are YouTube actively killing their own platform?

As many of you will be aware my original background was in IT infrastructure. I worked in datacentres all over the UK and as far flung as Bermuda. I played with all aspects of hosted infrastructure from co-location through to managing a full cloud IaaS offering. You don’t need to know what that means but for the geeks out there think Citrix, VMware, Asigra, Tivoli and a bunch of other stuff. Don’t ask me anything technical now – I’m completely de-skilled.

One of the many datacentres I worked in – sorry about the quality – this was over 20 years ago!

Anyway, I know how much bandwidth costs and I know how difficult it is to deal with high volumes of video data. A single 4K video will easily be 10GB in size but YouTube then does some very clever stuff to make sure that 4K video plays without buffering pretty much anywhere on the planet. This is a phenomenally difficult thing to do.

Now don’t hold me to any of this since my knowledge is based on research I did many years ago and things have probably changed since then. Google engineers? Please satisfy my curiosity! Computerphile actually made a very good video on the topic, but that was 9 years ago.

What happens when you upload a video to YouTube?

Anyhoo, when I upload a 4K video to YouTube the first thing YouTube does is create a whole bunch of copies of that video in different resolutions, file formats etc. So a 10GB video could easily become a 20GB video bundle of perhaps 20-30 different files. It will then dynamically decide where to replicate that bundle depending on my audience. Hold that thought. Let’s talk about data centres.

YouTube video resolutions
YouTube creates multiple video files in different resolutions

You see Google… or Alphabet… or whoever… have datacentres all around the globe. As far as I’m aware they own 24 but they’re always building more so it’s hard to keep track. That’s not the end of it though. They’ll also make use of caching and peering services from other providers. Think CloudFlare CDN type stuff… but I suspect it’s much more bespoke. The aim of the game is to get my video bundle as PHYSICALLY CLOSE to my viewer as possible.

Very long, very deep cables

“Physically close?” I hear you ask. Well yes, believe it or not this is still probably the number one challenge to ensure smooth video playback. It also massively cuts costs. You see the datacentres aren’t the expensive bit. BANDWIDTH is the expensive bit. I mean yes, obviously datacentres are insanely expensive. But they’re nothing without bandwidth – bandwidth management always has and always will be, a total pain in the arse. Think deep-sea fibre optic cables covering tens of thousands of miles carrying everything from e-mails to videos, phone calls and live TV.

These cables are insanely expensive and which content provider owns the most deep-sea data cables? You guessed it, Google (probably). In fact here’s a list of Google’s deep sea infrastructure investments.

Deep sea data cables in 2023
Deep sea data cables in 2023 – thanks to Infrapedia

So back to my little video bundle about fixing a leaky shower screen. YouTube needs to get that video as physically close to you, my viewer, as possible. So the first thing it needs to do is send it to every Google datacentre across the globe. BUT why send it to a datacentre in Japan if hardly anyone in Japan watches my videos? Well that’s where things get really clever… and even more speculative.

How I think it all works

I suspect it works like this. When I upload my little video YouTube will dynamically decide where to send the video bundle depending on a number of factors. For simplicity lets say it’s based on where my subscribers are based… but I can guarantee it will be much cleverer than that (since most people these days aren’t subscribers). Let’s say 40% of my viewers are in the US, 50% in the UK and 10% are in elsewhere-land (sorry elsewhere-land people, you’re all lovely… I’m trying to keep this brief). Let’s also assume 0% of folk in nowhere-land watch my videos. They’re a strange bunch over there.

For simplicity let’s imagine the US has just one datacentre (it has at least 14). So YouTube will dynamically replicate my entire video bundle to the US and the UK (OK, probably Ireland). It may only replicate lower resolution versions of my video bundle to elsewhere-land. And it won’t bother to send any of my content to nowhere-land. Folk in nowhere-land can still watch my videos but they’re being stored on Google’s servers in elsewhere-land. So they’ll probably buffer a bit.

Inside a Google datacentre
Google’s Iowa datacentre – thanks to Google Data Centers

However, I suspect after a few people in nowhere-land have watched one of my videos YouTube will think “You know what? Perhaps we should pre-replicate a selection of Andy’s videos over there. They seem to like them!”. The more people who watch from that area, the more of my content will replicate over there… in higher and higher resolutions. And what if I make a video specifically about nowhere-land? Well that’s going straight over – the entire 20GB bundle.

On top of this, in my core demographic videos will be sent all over the place. There’ll be all sorts of peering relationships and edge caching to make playback as efficient as possible. The ultimate goal?

  • Playback in the highest resolution possible
  • Use as little bandwidth as possible *
  • Never show the ‘buffering’ wheel

* so don’t keep sending the same video over hugely expensive transatlantic cables

Edge Nodes on Google Global Cache
Edge nodes on the Google Global Cache

Remember that spinning wheel on YouTube? When’s the last time you saw that? I watch predominantly in 4K and haven’t seen it in years. That’s how good Google’s infrastructure has become. Making this work, globally, in 4k is PHENOMENALLY difficult. No other content provider can do this at the scale of YouTube. If I had to guess I’d say Facebook / Meta would come in as a distant second. Then Twitter / X, TikTok, Twitch, Rumble etc. would be… well, not even in the race.

Obviously Amazon and Microsoft need thrown in to the mix here but they’re not in the user-generated content game (but do probably provide a lot of the infrastructure to make it all work). X probably stand a reasonable chance of catching up at some point, but they were never in the datacentre game. Twitter really didn’t need that much storage or bandwidth – 140 character messages don’t really compare to live-streamed 4K video content. Elon wants to bring video creators on to his platform but I suspect is rapidly learning what a challenge this will be. He does have Starlink but I suspect bandwidth will be the bottleneck and datacentres take ages to build. It will be years before X competes with YouTube in any serious way.

Why don’t YouTube have any competition?

So when someone says “Why doesn’t someone just build a competitor to YouTube?” now you know the answer. It takes ages, costs a f**king fortune and Google have a 20 year head start. So good luck with that one.

Anyway, with all this in mind let’s talk about Shorts with specific reference to my little video bundle. Remember that 20GB bundle of files? Well for a Short you’re looking at 0.2GB.

  • 4K video bundle: 20GB
  • Short video: 0.2GB

That’s 100 times less storage space and 100 times less bandwidth. Not only that but you don’t need to bother replicating Shorts all over the planet, at least not to the same degree. Shorts are so small there’s really no point. Whether you watch it from a datacentre in the US or a datacentre in Ireland it’s really not going to make a huge difference to the playback quality. Shorts are TINY and MUCH easier to manage. On the other hand high resolution longform content is a nightmare. It’s YouTube’s USP (unique selling point) and they basically have no serious competition.

Along comes TikTok

Then along comes f**king TikTok and it all goes down the pan. For some unknown reason YouTube have decided that copying TikTok is more important than focusing on their core strength of longform high quality video content. Shorts are born and they’re now everywhere on YouTube. If I click the Home screen I get Shorts. If I click Subscriptions I get Shorts and if I click Shorts I get Shorts.

And here’s the sad fact. YouTube have shoved Shorts down my throat so much I’ve reluctantly started watching them… and quite enjoying them! And guess what? I’ve now installed TikTok. And I quite enjoy that too. And Instagram Reels… and videos on X. I’m not bombarded with a 20 second unskippable ad every 2 minutes and you’ve completely changed how I consume video content. Shorts have broken my addiction to long videos.

So well done YouTube, slow-clap… 👏 you have introduced me to a product that DIRECTLY COMPETES with your core USP. You’re actively killing your own platform. Your audience now knows how to consume short-form content and they’ll do it on any of a multitude of alternative platforms. Would this have happened had YouTube NOT introduced me to Shorts? For me, no. I suspect this is the case for the vast majority of people who aren’t teenagers.

A couple more problems with Shorts

And to make matters worse do you realise how hard it is to monetise Shorts? Long-form is easy (if annoying for the viewer) – shove an advert at the start, one or two in the middle and one at the end. Boom – 4 adverts on a single video. You just can’t do this with Shorts. Nobody would watch them. Can you imagine what would happen if YouTube put an advert at the start of every Short? People would leave the platform never to be seen again. They’d head off to the multitude of alternatives providing short-form content with hardly any ads.

AND to add insult to injury I’m now penalised as a creator if I don’t create shorts! So here I am, now actively creating content that I know will ultimately kill the platform. I’m really left with no alternative. It’s that or my channel dies. What strange times we live in.

I might be wrong?

So folks, I might be completely wrong about all of this. I’m massively out of loop when it comes to IT infrastructure and basically don’t have a clue. Google have some of the finest minds on the planet working on all this stuff. I’m sure these are all concerns they’ve catered for. But it is an interesting business predicament they’re in. Ditching your core USP in favour of following the crowds is a dangerous move, in my view.

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Image credit: Anna Tarazevich

Last Updated on 25 September 2023 by Andy Mac