Video Platform Crisis

Five years ago, I experimented with screen capturing under OpenSUSE with a Java Applet recording software that randomly crashed in this setup but still left me with what was recorded up to that point, so I uploaded those resulting videos to YouTube. Back then, each video was required to have no more than 15 minutes playtime and there wasn’t a way to request the unlocking of longer or even “unlimited” playtime. YouTube decided about who was eligible for uploading longer videos in an intransparent fashion, so people came up with wild theories about what could be required. I wasn’t affected much as most of my videos were shorter (partly due to the crash behavior described above) and after some time this limitation miraculously was removed from my channel. Later, YouTube dropped that policy completely.

Next, the first major YouTube design update, at least of my remembrance, “happened”. It removed the ability to customize the channel’s background in order to make the site more mobile friendly and only left the header banner to fiddle with. People were pretty upset as there was quite some effort put into those backgrounds, and from todays perspective, it’s difficult to comprehend why a responsive design should not be able to support some kind of dynamic background. The old layout allowed channel owners to convey context, charm and personality, but users eventually compromised with the new, cold look. My channel wasn’t affected much as I didn’t use a custom channel background, but in principle I didn’t like the downgrade as a user of the platform.

Then there was a long period of mediocrity. Good and innovative features were added like the online video editor, livestreaming and the option to submit and therefore work together on closed captions/translations (albeit channel owners are allowed to disable it and it’s not enabled per default), as well as features which are a required minimum like the removal of the character limit on comments or links in comments. Other good features were removed for bogus reasons, like video answers, chronological and tree-hierarchical display of comments, while other features are still missing like the ability to search for comments, export comments or ad-hoc playlists. The forced Google+ integration as a vain attempt to immitate Facebook was annoying, but also easy to ignore.

In 2015, video platform disaster struck. A big YouTuber complained about all the negativity in his comment section as people were spamming it with insults etc., so Google took action against potential haters. The “solution” was to automatically flag suspicious comments and don’t display them to any other visitor except the potential spammer himself while logged in, so he wouldn’t notice that he is writing his comments into the void, presumably continuing such activitiy. After some time with nobody seeing his messages and therefore not responding, he eventually would get demotivated and stop. The problem with this approach is that the algorithm never worked. My comments were repeatedly “ghost banned” as I usually write long, thoughtful commentary, adjusting the text in short succession in order to correct typographic or spelling errors or to enhance it a little more, or because I added a link after the initial save. If I invest valuable lifetime to state my opinion and cannot be sure that my texts get actually published, there’s no reason to continue doing so, especially as there’s the risk of never getting replies from people I would be interested in talking to. As a publishing platform, such conduct, tricking people into believing that their contributions matter, is a no-go and not acceptable. This is why I abandoned YouTube and only (ab)use it for SEO since then.

So Vimeo became the new home for my videos. It’s much cleaner and had two nice features I liked very much: they allowed videos to be marked as being licensed under CC BY-SA (instead of only CC BY as on YouTube), even despite this information is well hidden from the viewer. The other feature is that they provided a download button (albeit channel owners can disable it). Being a software developer, I don’t believe marketing claims like streaming a video is different from downloading it. Technically it’s the exact same process and while a stream replay might be cancelled earlier and therefore may consume less bandwith, a full download allows offline replay and could save much more bandwith after all. Just think about all the music videos that get streamed over and over again for no other reason than people not having a local copy of them for an offline playlist. For me, the download button is relevant because I want my freely/libre licensed videos to be shared everywhere and archived by multiple parties. The computer has to retrieve the data anyway in order to play it, so it doesn’t matter if this happens via an explicit full download or automatically in the background the browser, internally saving the received data to disk. Vimeo recently decided to remove this convenience feature for all viewers if the channel owner doesn’t pay a subscription fee. As I regard a download as a view, Vimeo as a publishing platform downgraded its publishing, and that’s another unacceptable no-go.

Furthermore, I guess by complaining about the downgrade to Vimeo support, they looked into my channel and suspected it to be a commercial one. Technically I registered a company at the beginning of the year and yes, there was one video linking to a shop seemingly advertising a product, but the shop is not an active one and I never sold a single item there or anywhere else. While I’m not necessarily a non-profit, it’s an attempt to build a social enterprise in it’s early, non-operational stages. I’m fine with paying for the hosting, but I expect the price to be tied to the actual service and not to the arbitrary removal of software features, especially if extortionary practices are used against me and my viewers. Additionally, Vimeo was taking my original video source files hostage and deleted all of them without providing a way to object to their conclusion. They deleted my entire account including all comments and follows, a big time fail in publishing. That’s why I abandoned Vimeo.

I briefly tried Twitch, but uploaded videos don’t get a lot of attention there as the main focus of the site remains on live-streaming. Joining made sense because I’m planning to stream more, but then I discovered that they run ads for the German military (Bundeswehr) before videos and streams, something I’m totally opposed to as a Christian believer and conscientious objector by both, conviction and approval. This is especially the case after I developed anabaptist views. I don’t mind if Twitch promotes violence and destruction which is none of my business and therefore easy to refute, but I never want to contribute to the endorsement of military or their recruiting, so it’s basically the YouTube adpocalypse the other way around.

After that, I moved to Vidme. I liked that they attempted to educate and familiarize viewers with the concept of paying for the production if there’s a demand, but I wondered if Vidme would be able to pull it off. The site had a “verification” process with the goal to determine if an uploader is a “content creator”, which is strange because they demanded rather arbitrary metrics: one needed 50 subscribers but was hardly able to attract any as there were limits on what can be uploaded if one wasn’t “verified” as a creator yet. In my opinion, they put this requirements into place to restrict the amount and size of uploads to YouTubers with a huge audience who switched to Vidme in response to the the adpocalypse and to deter uploaders with a small audience and huge content collection. The latter only cost money for hosting, the former are supposed to earn the site operator some income. I was already suspicious if such policy might have been their pretty serious business need if their endgame wasn’t to be bought up by you know whom. Now, I have videos that are small in size as they’re just screencasts and yet more than 30 minutes playtime, and without the status of being verified, I was prevented from uploading those, while the very existence of those videos proves that I am actually a content creator. I applied for “verification” but they declined the request, so obviously my presence was not appreciated on their site, so I set all my videos to private. Soon thereafter, they announced that they’re shutting down.

A few notes on other, minor video platforms: there’s Dailymotion, but they didn’t generate a single view within months as they don’t have a matching audience and poor search engine visibility. My impression is that they’re not in the game of building communities around user-generated content but around traditional TV productions (remember Clipfish, Sevenload, MyVideo?). Also, the translation of their site into German needs some work. Discoverability is poor, as results are polluted by spam video posts advertising PDF downloads and nobody flags them as abuse. There’s Veoh, but their website is terrible and they’re still relying on Adobe Flash instead of HTML5. There’s Myspace accepting video uploads, but they’re not positioned and percieved as video site. There are new efforts like lbry.io, BitChute, We-TeVe and Loudplay that are worth a look, but not very popular yet. At the moment, I upload most of my videos to We-TeVe and Loudplay manually as both of them don’t provide an API for automatic upload yet. Unfortunately, developing the Twitch Video Uploader (a fairly technical component automating the uploads via their v5 API) was a waste of time, but still, I could imagine to extend the effort into a fully-fledged video management suite, supporting video upload not only to Loudplay and We-TeVe, but many other places as well.

Which leads to new conceptual thinking about online video hosting. Learning from my earlier mistakes and experiences, I don’t see why the acutal video files need to be tied to a specific player and surrounding website any more, leading to demands and dependence on whoever is operating the service. In a better world, the video data could be stored anywhere, be it on your own rented webspace, a gratis/paid file hosting provider like RapidShare, Dropbox or Megaupload, peer-to-peer/blockchain hosting, traditional video websites or on storage offers by institutions or groups curating certain types of materials. The software to retrieve, play, extend and accompany the video stream would be little more than an overlay, pulling the video data from many different sources of which some might even be external ones and not under the control of the website operator. Such a solution could feel like what’s relatively common in the enterprise world where companies deliver product presentations, training courses and corporate communication via SaaS partners or self-hosting. A standardized, open protocol could report new publications to all kinds of independent directories, search engines and data projects, some offering general and good discoverability, others serving niches and special purposes, all of them highly customizable as you could start your own on top of common video hosting infrastructure. You could imagine it as the MediaWiki (without stupid Wikitext as unparsable data model) or WordPress software packages embedding video and optionally making it the center of an article or blog post, but in an even more interoperable way and with more software applications on top of them. The goal would be to integrate video hosting and playback into modern hypertext for everyone as promoted by the Heralds of Resource Sharing, Douglas Engelbart (from 37:20), Ted Nelson and David Gelernter. With the advent of information theory, XML, the semantic web and ReST, it’s about time to improve and liberate publishing in networked environments.

Update: Sebastian Brosch works on PicVid, which focuses on picture hosting at the moment, but considers video hosting as a potential second target. One downside is that the project is licensed under the GPLv3 where it should be AGPLv3 + any later. Online software doesn’t lead to the distribution of the software, only to the transmission of the generated output, so the user wouldn’t be in control of his own computing. The AGPL, in contrast to the GPL, requires software that’s accessible over a network to provide a way to obtain the source code. Now the user gets the option to either use the online service as provided by the trusted or untrusted operator, or to set up the system on his own computer and use it there, or to task a trusted entity with the execution.

Update: Jeff Becker works on gitgud.tv.