For a company that vowed one year ago to reinvent the wheel of social networking, Google has generally remained an abstract force to even the most loyal users, who cooled on the idea of using G+ to share with their circles — even if enhancements suggest that the courtship is still in progress.
So, it was a surprise to learn of a YouTube Workshop being held in Toronto on Tuesday at OCAD — just one stop on a cross-Canada tour — with the promise of insights on how to go viral, reach the right audience and profit from the creation of original online videos. Could this be the beginning of more outreach in the city where its presence — at least outside of advertising sales — has been a long-distance shadow cast from Silicon Valley?
"I don't have all the answers," cautioned audience development strategist Andres Palmiter — who is neither a YouTube creator nor engineer but an erstwhile employee of producer Next New Networks, which Google bought last year. "I'm just giving you the ingredients and you make the recipe yourself."
The examples of potential inspiration are not hard to find, including from within Canada. Epic Meal Time was proudly cited as among the stories of recent fame and fortune by figuring out how to feed subscribers what they wanted to watch. "Shit Girls Say" was noted as the kind of phenomenon that spawned any number of niche knock-offs and a book deal and overall fortune-booster for the two guys behind it.
"If you don't have that first great idea," said Palmiter, "being the second person to the party is still pretty good."
The presentation of details that help a video go viral would be illuminating to any broadcast executive — even if the event was specifically geared to a crowd without corporate media ties. For example, having the right kind of thumbnail showing up in the sidebar can be more important than the title or content.
And despite all the anecdotes about people who now make an independent living from a YouTube channel there is a repeated insinuation that success if not validated without the approval of one of the legacy Hollywood players.
Certainly, corporate recognition helped vault Corey Vidal from being homeless in Hamilton four years ago after he did a one-man multi-part lip-synch to an a cappella Star Wars tribute song on a webcam. Vidal had previously dabbled in a series of How to Dance videos, in response to serendipitous attention for showing off his own footwork, although it was Lucasfilm's recognition of a product endorsement that helped him reach 15 million views, a red carpet appearance and a TV commercial in Italy that paid an easy $50,000.
The evangelism espoused by Vidal comes off as refreshingly uncynical, as he has now transcended all the trappings of Canadian media to reach a supportive audience via YouTube, while admitting that he still has no idea of what kind of concept will click: "Yes, you can throw money at something," he said, "but to this day the most popular video I made I made when I was homeless."
Perhaps he is just being humble, though. Palmiter sloughed off a question about demographics by saying that the platform reaches everyone. While this might be technically true, animated personalities in their 20s who can speak to the teenage demographic remains the closest thing to a viewership slam dunk, as reflected in the type of YouTubers that have broken through. Better still if it is the kind of young guy that younger girls want to watch. (No wonder a former MuchMusic VJ, Tim Deegan, is now apparently part of Vidal's 15-person crew — which says something about the current Canadian industry pecking order.)
While not everything about YouTube could be covered in two hours, it provided a reminder of how many more details about YouTube remain elusive, whether it is for producers, consumers or those who regard themselves as a little bit of both. Companies based in Canada seem to be excluded from the original channels being unveiled over the course of the year with financial backing from Google. And, while attendees were encouraged to sign up with the partner program, no detail was provided about what needed to be done to benefit from other proactive efforts designed to encourage mediamakers to quit their day jobs.
The cultural impact of these initiatives was discussed during the first half of the year over the course of our first 10 sessions of YouTube School at the Academy of the Impossible. Many of the ways in which YouTube has evolved, even just for the sake of curating videos uploaded by other people, remain strangely elusive.
Still, it will be interesting to see if Google is interested in expanding these outreach efforts, rather than assuming that the dominance of its platform absolves it from being nurtured. YouTube will no doubt keep supplying material to talk about. Yet this workshop suggested that the discussion benefits from a personal catalyst, too.