Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at [email protected], or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
If anybody has had a near-perfect view of the transformation of the entertainment business in the age of the Internet, it may be Robert Kyncl (rhymes with “pencil”).
Born in communist Czechoslovakia, his first American job was in that most traditional Hollywood starting place, a talent agency mailroom. He later worked for a film-distribution company, then moved to Netflix “when it was still sending DVDs in the mail.” After he helped manage the Netflix transition to online video streaming, Kyncl jumped to YouTube, to perhaps the most non-traditional of jobs in the entertainment business.
Now he’s YouTube’s Chief Business Officer and, with Maany Peyvan (stet), author of a new book, Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media.
I talked with the co-authors this week about the book, the transformation Kyncl has been part of, and where YouTube and Hollywood are going. Here’s our conversation:
Tubefilter: You call your book Streampunks. Who are the streampunks, and why do they matter? Are there traits that they share? You mention they work a lot, to maintain their audiences, but what else do they do?
Robert Kyncl: The book is describing the Streampunks, which is a new class of content creators, new storytellers with new storytelling formats.
Today, when everyone talks about online video, they really talk about movies and TV shows not being transmitted through the cable and satellite system, but through the Internet. That’s not what this book is about. It’s about new storytellers and new storytelling formats.
The second point is that all of these guys, what they have in common is they’ve built large audiences on YouTube and they’ve leveraged that into large businesses online as well as offline. There are many great examples cited in the book of people who’ve managed to expand their followers into commerce. Michelle Phan is a great example, with a company called Ipsy. (Another example is) Jenny Doan with Missouri Star Quilt Company and building out that empire.
And that leads me to the third point as well, is that they’re all ages. The common misperception about YouTube is that it’s just for young people but if you read the chapter on quilting and the story of Jenny Doan, a grandma who built an empire around quilting in Hamilton, Missouri, through YouTube, it’s just the most inspiring story you can have.
TF: You talk about the cross-media opportunities here and one of the things I noted is that so many stars have been able to build some of their biggest offline success as book authors. It sounds counterintuitive. You think about online and then you go to what is the oldest of mass media, books. How does that happen?
RK: I think people like to engage with their YouTube stars in many different ways. Once you’ve built a relationship, which is what you can do on YouTube, then it transcends all media.
The second point I mentioned is that all these (people), they’re building offline as well as online empires. Once you like somebody, once you like what they stand for, you want more of the content that they create, whether it’s in adjacent areas, whether it’s books, whether it’s commerce, whether it’s theater, whatever it is, they follow them. That’s an amazing thing to see.
Maany Peyvan: One of the things I would say is that we mention in the book that these streampunks have a much more personal relationship with their fans than we see in Hollywood.
I think that’s starting to change in Hollywood but these guys are really the pioneers of engaging directly, responding to comments by their fans, making YouTube videos specifically for them, and I think if you’re a fan of a creator and you listen to them every week and you hear that there’s a whole book of stories that these guys haven’t even told on YouTube, that they’re putting together just for this audience, I think that’s one of the ways the relationship between the online and the offline works beautifully.
TF: This is an interesting point that you make that the relationship between these streampunks and their fans is so intense. You use the word authenticity, which is invoked so often, but I’m curious that, Maany as you said, it’s starting to evolve in Hollywood.
What are the implications here for traditional media? What should, from your standpoint, traditional stars be doing? They have always so zealously guarded their public images, going back to the ‘30s and the infamous public relations executive (Howard Dietz) who protected all his stars back then. How should Hollywood stars and other celebrities be evolving in this new era?
RK: I think a lot of stars are thinking through this now and acting on it. We have a great example with Kevin Durant, who we all love for his craft of basketball. He’s amazing. And his charity, really throughout the world. But this year, what he decided to do was really lean into building out his channel and connecting with audiences. It’s that kind of behavior that we love to see from famous stars, because they’re not only supporting their day job, providing fans with insights, in Kevin’s case, (about) basketball. But they’re also leveraging it for charity, for social issues. It’s a way to expand your message and we love seeing that happen.
MP: I think you do see much more of an embrace of social media and fan engagement on the Hollywood side. I mean Robert brings up basketball.
How many times have we heard the phrase “Stick to sports” over the last 20 years? We want our athletes to stick to sports, and I think that’s sort of crumbling under the ability of social media and YouTube and others to really connect people directly to their fans.
And I think it creates such a more enriching fan experience too. Like, if you love Taylor Swift’s music, if you love Kevin Durant playing basketball, if you love Jennifer Lawrence’s movies, you just have so much more exposure to their craft and their talent and what makes them special by being able to engage with them.
And I think, again, in Streampunks, these guys are really the pioneers of doing that and connecting directly. I think what’s really beautiful is both Hollywood and social media are moving together in ways that are really rewarding.
TF: You lay claim in the book to the rapid acceptance, the real changeover in mindset, of LGBTQ folks and gay marriage that has happened really in a seeming eyeblink in cultural terms. And you quote Tyler Oakley saying part of that was YouTube.
Where else would you say YouTube has been a positive in social change? We hear so much about cyberbullying and trolls and fake news and other issues. You’re laying claim to much more positive outcomes, sort of the opposite of that.
MP: I think it’s important to say the claim is not really ours. It’s really the creators, it’s really the voices on this platform who are being out there and being vocal about views that are really meaningful, either from a political standpoint or a cultural standpoint and giving people a human picture of what it means to be an LGBTQ youth in small-town America and what it means to have different beliefs. I think that’s really what’s been special about YouTube.
You’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of talk about cyberbullying. There’s a lot of talk about other movements online, but I think what we’ve attempted to do in this book is show that there are all these really vibrant and meaningful communities that have come up on YouTube.
And they represent an opportunity even if in your town or your school or your community, you may not have people who value the same things you do, but online you can really find this freedom to belong to a broader community.
We talk about John and Hank Green. They started a community that they called Nerd Fighters and these are people who love intellectualism, who feel like they shouldn’t be ashamed to be enthusiastically nerdy about different topics.
That’s not something that high school kids really had 10, 15 years ago. They didn’t have that warm embrace. It was a very different culture, and I think that these are the communities we see popping up more and more online and they by far represent what’s great about online communities in general.
TF: You call YouTube a “massive-attention engine” but you’ve certainly had issues with cyberbullying. You’ve had some of your biggest stars take on that issue. What can you do, what realistically is possible in this era, to deal with the dark side of all this attention?
RK: It’s actually an important topic and it’s great you raised it. We’ve launched something called Creators for Change and earlier when we spoke about celebrities I was telling you it’s wonderful how people are using online video to not only give people a peek behind the scenes of their craft but also to use it for social good and charity, etc.
That’s what we’re actually seeing happen with the online creator community on YouTube. There are many of them who have reached out to us and said, “We want to be the voice for good. We have tremendous power. We have millions of followers, people who follow us all the time, and we want to be the force for good.”
Some people have different ideas, different topics that they’re passionate about. So we decided to organize Creators for Change. We tapped creators who are organically interested in this to be part of certain events, to produce videos on these topics. They get lots of viewership and they become the role models for different communities.
This is one of the most wonderful things where the people who are successful are leveraging their success for good, and doing it together with the platform. We started the program a year ago and we’re expanding the program significantly.
TF: You had to deal with Ad-pocalypse last year, which was an advertiser revolt over being placed next to questionable content. How are you dealing with those advertiser concerns?
RK: Obviously, that’s something we’ve taken very seriously, because advertisers and creators are both the lifeblood of YouTube. It’s our job to make sure both are really happy with their performance on YouTube. So we’ve done four things as it relates to advertisers.
One is we’ve increased the bar on the standards for videos that are monetized. We’ve introduced safety controls for advertisers to better control where their ads are showing up. We’ve deployed our best machine-learning research to help us enforce those policies. And the fourth thing is we’ve announced transparency around this.
We’ll be reporting out to third-party reporting agencies to give additional peace of mind to advertisers. We’ve taken this issue head on, very seriously, and these four points are evidence of that.
TF: Speaking of brands, you mention in the book that brands have created some of the most entertaining and engaging stuff out there on YouTube. I’m curious about a) where you see brands doing really cool stuff and b) what the future holds for brands. It’s not just that they sit on top of somebody else’s stuff, but they make their own stuff.
MP: One of things we’ve really taken pains to point out in this book is that on YouTube, brands have the opportunity to be the show. They don’t just have to be in the commercials. They’re not bounded by 15- or 30-second spots that they have to just fill in.
They have a creative canvas they can use to explore what their brand needs, and in the book there are several examples from Dove, P&G and Always. Samsung is another creator we’ve talked about that has done amazing creative collaborations with Casey Neistat and other YouTube creators. I think it’s a time of experimentation.
What mobile video has certainly done and online video has done is change the way we interact with commercials. We want them to be less interruptive and we want them to feel more adjacent to what we’re watching and what we’re doing. Brands are exploring that opportunity and using a platform, one, to reach over a billion and a half people and two, to reach them in a way where they’re really engaged.
I think the thing you’re really seeing is people are choosing to watch commercials, which I think is something you wouldn’t really think to be happening 10 or 15 years ago.
TF: We certainly saw an inkling of that in the Super Bowls, the long-evolving sentiment to “Watch the Super Bowl as much for the ads as the game and the halftime,” but you have taken that further with your own showcases for Super Bowl ads before they go on, and really, it’s become a year-round thing as opposed to just a once-a-year phenomenon.
MP: Yeah, every day can be the Super Bowl on YouTube.
RK: We have something called ad leaderboards where advertisers are actually competing in terms of getting views for their ads. It’s amazing to see.
TF: Anything that’s caught your eye lately in terms of brands?
RK: I’m trying to think about what’s been out there “lately.” Nothing comes to top of mind but I would say this example is a couple of years old. The Evian ads where people are looking, they’re kind of window-shopping but it’s basically babies seeing adults and adults seeing babies. It’s a really funny and engaging ad.
TF: You talk in here about Hank and John Green a lot. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes chapter with two guys who’ve been out front in so many ways and have been unique in the YouTube world in so many ways with VidCon and the businesses that have spun off and the books that John has written, etc., etc. But are there lessons here about building and sustaining communities, particularly in an era of trolls and strongly negative people.
You mention these (negative) groups typically can’t sustain, that when you exist only in opposition to something, groups can’t sustain. Are there lessons for building and sustaining communities?
MP: Yeah, so what you’re talking about is a quote Hank Green gave. Hank is an environmental scientist and in addition to the great work he does on YouTube, he, at a very young age, hated this freeway in Orlando, the I-4, which anyone in Orlando probably hates too.
(He) started this website called IHateI4.com, and got a bunch of press for it, but quickly saw the community of people who came to the website or posted in the forums were antagonizing each other and basically pointing the finger.
The big lesson for him is you can build a community in opposition very quickly. It’s very quick to assemble but over time it tends to peter out and over time it tends to lead to finger-pointing. And so, it’s a very optimistic idea.
I think one of the things we try to point out is the lasting communities on YouTube, the ones that have really built up and lasted for years and years are communities of positivity, they’re communities of celebration. Whether it’s celebrating your favorite creator, like Lilly Singh, who over the past five years has really rocketed to being one of the top creators on our platform. Or in the chapter on Tyler Oakley, he really talks about humanizing LGBTQ. We think what we’ve seen is that these communities of positivity last longer and tend to be more successful.
TF: How would you assess YouTube Red so far? You’re about a year and a half in. You’ve had some successes and you’ve had some criticism. People have said it’s not a natural fit for a site where you’re giving away content at the rate of hundreds of hours per minute, to then ask people to pay for it. How would you assess how it’s done so far?
RK: You’re correct. We’ve been at it for about 18 months now. We’ve released 27 series and movies just last year and this year. We’ll release probably around 40 next year, as well as a music service and all of YouTube ad free. So that’s a lot of value for users.
No. 1, we’re really pleased with the progress. We’re right on plan against our projections.
The thing I want to stress is that the people who are subscribing on YouTube Red are people who either love original content from the YouTube stars they’re following. This is programming where we invest a lot of money into the content as well as the promotion. Or they love their YouTube music app and the great listening experience they have on it. Or they simply love enjoying YouTube ad free. So it’s like three groups of people.
It’s absolutely possible for a site like YouTube to build a subscription (service) from within. It’s been fun. I’ve heard from many people about it and it continues to grow rapidly.
TF: How many subs do you have now? I think I heard 3 million. Is that right?
RK: No, I don’t think you’ve heard, because we’ve never released it.
TF: You say that Tyler Oakley “represents a new kind of fame, where your personality, your preferences, your values, even your politics are on full display.” I find this fascinating about where it’s going to evolve. What does it look like in an era of VR and augmented reality. What does fame look like in that world?
RK: It goes to one of the earlier points we talked about. I think all of that transcends media. What you’re talking about is just a different way to enjoy media, but the underlying connection with the creator, between the creator and the fan, has to be there.
That connection can be made in many ways. You can write a book, like Streampunks we’re writing here. Whether you’re posting a video and sharing it globally. Whether you’re do a VR video, which is completely done different.
Whatever it may be, there has to be a connection. There’s the story, or it’s the creator. Those two things have to be there. And then the rest is just execution within the environment you’re in. So I don’t think it will radically transform, because it always comes down to those two things: the creator and the story.
And I think it’s just exciting for users to have all these options available. There are more options than ever before and I think millions of new storytellers in the world are rising, streampunks using YouTube, building online followings with millions of people, building on and offline businesses.
And then the fact that it’s available to people of all ages, from Tyler Oakley to Jenny Doan of the Missouri Star Quilt Company, it’s just a wonderful thing.
If you really want to learn about it, buy the book, read the book. I know you’ve read it, so you know what we’re talking about. It’s an interesting read on different types of people, from different walks of life, and they have managed a platform to build phenomenal fan followings and build an amazing business around it.
Get your copy of Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media anywhere books are usually sold or click right here.