YouTube Shorts Is Taking on TikTok and Minting a New Constellation of Concise Video Stars

Now thanks to Shorts, nobodies are once again rapidly becoming somebodies on YouTube.

YouTube Shorts Is Taking on TikTok and Minting a New Constellation of Concise Video Stars
A man is silhouetted against an illuminated wall bearing YouTube Inc.'s logo. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

As a kid in Manchester, England, Dan Rhodes taught himself magic by watching tutorials on YouTube. But when it came time to post card tricks of his own, Rhodes largely bypassed the video-sharing giant and instead took to Instagram and TikTok — apps, he believed, that would more quickly get him the notoriety and audience he desired. 

For years, the British teen continued to post only sparingly on YouTube. Then in early 2021, the service introduced YouTube Shorts, a new feature showcasing videos that are less than a minute long. Rhodes embraced it, and within two weeks his YouTube subscribers jumped from 17,000 to over a million. The 17-year-old magician now has 3.8 million subscribers, and his videos have been viewed 3.2 billion times.

Along the way, Rhodes has become an embodiment of the overnight success that YouTube executives had in mind when they created Shorts. It’s the kind of sudden fame the site hasn’t routinely bestowed on up-and-coming creators for the past half decade or so. Now thanks to Shorts, nobodies are once again rapidly becoming somebodies on YouTube.

“It’s the biggest opportunity for YouTube creators or YouTube wannabes in the past five years,” said Eyal Baumel, who represents several top online creators. “I’ve worked with YouTube for eight years, and I’ve never seen them so eager to promote a new product.”

Shorts is YouTube’s answer to ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok. That service has been wooing YouTube’s young audience, challenging its role as the primary platform for aspiring amateurs and inspiring copycat features from major social media networks, including Snapchat and Facebook’s Instagram. While YouTube is still the king of web video, its gargantuan size can be intimidating to newbies, many of whom see TikTok as a faster path to fame.

YouTube, part of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, launched Shorts in the fall of 2020 in India, where TikTok is banned, and took it global in March. Users can access the feature via a prominent tab on the YouTube mobile app and cycle through an endless stream of videos by swiping up. To date, YouTube has kept Shorts inside its main service but is aiming to release custom features that will make editing and posting videos simpler. 

Later this summer, backed with a new $100 million fund, YouTube plans to begin paying Shorts creators based on new metrics of video engagement — a departure from YouTube’s traditional advertising model. Officials say that, at some point, the company may begin running ads within Shorts, but it won’t compensate the creators based on the commercials that appear with their clips like YouTube does for regular videos.

“It’s almost like we’re building YouTube again,” said Todd Sherman, a product manager for Shorts.

In some ways, YouTube is going back to its roots. Founded in 2005, the site first took off with brief, viral clips. But over time, as it struggled to become profitable and became inundated with crummy clickbait, YouTube shifted its algorithmic gears. In 2012, YouTube began prioritizing the amount of time that any particular video engaged its viewers — the longer, the better.

In the years that followed, the company pushed its creators to make longer material with higher production values to better compete with television, where most advertising dollars were still being spent. Eventually, most YouTube hits settled somewhere in the 10-to-20-minute range, and YouTube grew into a formidable business with $20 billion in annual advertising revenue. 

While YouTube focused on making its site more professional, rivals breathed new life into the genre of short-form videos. TikTok, in particular, minted a new class of celebrity video producers who regularly make songs go viral and who have helped turn the service into the the fastest-growing social media app. Recently, TikTok has been revving up its advertising business, adding another front in the competition with YouTube. 

The early returns on Shorts have been impressive. The company reported 6.5 billion daily views on the service as of March, up from 3.5 billion at the end of 2020.  At a shareholder meeting this month,  Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s chief executive officer, cited Shorts in a list of recent bright spots for the company. 

Canadian creator Thivi Baskar is one of Shorts’ growing number of successful converts. Before it came along, she primarily used TikTok to post her makeup tutorials — a category that wasn’t creating many new stars on YouTube despite its ubiquity. “It was just so saturated,” said Baskar, who has generated over 500 million views on Shorts and now ranks at the top of the beauty category by traffic on YouTube, according to her management firm Collab.

YouTube Shorts Is Taking on TikTok and Minting a New Constellation of Concise Video Stars

The rapid rise of previously unknown creators on Shorts has led some talent representatives to suggest that YouTube is tilting the scales to favor them. According to YouTube’s Sherman, the service’s algorithm isn’t biased toward newcomers. Instead, he said, the nature of short-form video allows YouTube to put a wider set of creators in front of viewers. Like TikTok, Shorts is designed on mobile devices for endless thumbing.

“Once you’re in that feed, you can keep swiping forever,” Sherman said. 

The ranks of newly popular programming on Shorts include things that YouTube long ago tried to bury as it grew more professional, such as pranksters, content mills and producers of sketchy, sexually titillating clickbait. Shorts is also rife with videos that originally appeared on TikTok, in part, due to creators re-using their own material from the rival app. 

For now, YouTube is allowing the clips from its competitor to proliferate on its shelves. But when YouTube begins paying Shorts creators later this year, the company may prioritize original content. “We haven’t reached any conclusions about that yet,” Sherman said.

Creators say it’s not always clear why some videos work better on TikTok or on YouTube. “It’s just dumb, unpredictable stuff that does well on these platforms,” said Rhodes, the teenage magician. 

When Rhodes was a young child, he stayed up every night soaking in YouTube and practicing with his cards. At the age of nine, he became a professional magician, performing at soccer games. These days, he still watches longer offerings on YouTube. But he tries to avoid spending too much time watching videos on Shorts, despite its role in his success.

“I watch a few here and there, like, when I’m bored,” Rhodes said. “If you watch it for too long, you get kind of sucked into the loop, spending hours just, you know, scrolling through the app.”

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