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This month sees the fifteen-year anniversary of something very small, yet massively significant to nearly everyone in the world: the registration of the domain name youtube.com. The teens of today have no idea about the internet before unlimited, free video hosting, screw the server costs. Thanks to YouTube, we’ve seen unexpected politicians get elected, whole industries and sports get invented like live-streaming video games, and a revolution in everything from DIY to eyeliner. It’s not hyperbole to posit that YouTube has molded the internet into what we see it as today. 

Imagine, if you will, that some big decisions by business and government went a different way, and YouTube never really took off. What elements of our culture, now so deeply ingrained, and ideas that changed our world wouldn’t have existed? Would the dystopian elements and fake news propagated on the platform have never happened, or just found alternative outlets? What other rabbit holes might the internet have fallen down, and where would they have taken our society?

If you buy into the multiverse or many realities theories of the universe, it’s time to jump across into an alternative timeline. If you’re not into astrophysics, we’re going to tell you a story. If YouTube had failed, what might have happened? Life can go in many directions, so let’s look at one possible scenario for a world without YouTube.

The following story is fiction, adapted from an original idea from Adi Robertson @thedextriarchy that first appeared on The Verge. All references to real-life people, companies, or actual events in history have been made fiction for use in the narrative of this story. Everything else: companies, characters, people, and events, have been purely imagined and if there is any resemblance to actual events, companies or people, whether alive or dead, is a complete coincidence.

2005–2006: GETTING UP AND GETTING BURIED

ONE SMALL LEGAL DECISION THAT CHANGED THE WORLD

Back in 2005, there were three men, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim, and Chad Hurley. They decided to create a dating website and named it YouTube. The invitation to “Tune In, Hook Up” was passed up by pretty much everyone, but folk did take to the idea of uploading snippets of pop culture and little ditties about their lives on video. By the time 2006 rolled around, the viewers watching YouTube videos had exploded but there were already questions about the legal risks the site was taking and where the money was going to come from. NPR ominously declared “YouTube does for video what Napster did for audio” and that it would ultimately head in the same direction as the music-sharing site. Discussions about an acquisition deal are held with the tech giants of the day, Google, Microsoft, and Oracle, but nothing ever worked out. Server costs were ever-rising and cash in hand began to quickly dwindle. 

The first big, viral hit for YouTube came at the start of 2016 when a user uploaded a bootleg of SNL’s “Lazy Sunday”, otherwise known as the “Narnia rap”. It was a pretty blatant copyright violation and it was in NBC’s hands whether to work with the platform and do a deal on ad revenue, or go in with guns blazing and take YouTube down. It went down the path of destruction and filed aggressive legal requests, alongside rushing out its Hulu service. The content service quickly became available on some of the biggest websites of the day, like MSN from Microsoft and Myspace from News Corp. 

Hulu became the established source of legitimate content online. The TV networks saw YouTube as a hotspot for potential piracy for their high-value movies and TV shows, at a time when the music industry was going all out on people infringing copyright, in partnership with the internet service providers. Rather than seeing the potential to build a working relationship, companies hit YouTube with a host of legal challenges, with content holders threatening to cause big problems for the safe harbor status offered by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Google, having never connected with YouTube, decided to focus on the Google Video service it had developed. After a deal to acquire a stake in AOL, the search company decided to return to an idea to work with Comcast. The move had them focus on search and advertising on other web portals; markets took the view that the company was now a web software and infrastructure company. 

YouTube, meanwhile, was eating through expensive bandwidth and had no obvious source of income. They eventually declared bankruptcy and most of the talent on the team headed over to Apple. A small team was assembled to work on a video chat system Apple were working on, codenamed “Venice.”

2006–2007: NO OVERALL CONTROL

TITAN OF OLD CLASH WITH THE INFLUENCERS OF TOMORROW

Bankruptcy declared over at YouTube, the big players in the media started to pick up and buy out some low-profile video sites that had sprung up. They amended the business model; immediate uploads were replaced with a review process and they shifted focus on to developing a roster of internet celebrities, many poached from YouTube, such as the teen pop singer Justin Bieber. 

What transpired from these efforts was services that looked a lot like the Sony-acquired platform Grouper, as opposed to the organic chaos that once was YouTube. Content generated by users was leveraged into fresh business models, notably NBCUniversal, with it having acquired a platform where users streamed their daily lives, Justin.tv in 2007. Results weren’t completely successful. Deals were struck with a new breed of star, “lifecasters”, who gave unlimited daily brand exposure but lacked the control offered by a PR machine. A gaffe that will always be remembered was a Law & Order ad campaign that hit the fan when those watching provoked a police raid on the apartment where it was being broadcast from. Three months later, Law & Order dramatized the whole incident in an episode. 

Other controversies arose in this period, with licensing deals for cosplaying coming under heavy criticism due to prudish dress codes and restrictive contracts. The uproar led to a wide-reaching public discourse on the relationship between fan communities and mega-media corporations, which put OFF a lot of potential streamers from getting involved in the industry. The platform ended up getting nudged and pushed towards a reality-lite ideal with lots of talent shows thrown in too.

2008–2011: TWO TRACK MIND

PEER-TO-PEER CHANGES HOW PEOPLE CONNECT

It wasn’t cheap, and certainly not risk-free, to host a huge catalog of streamed content. What developed from these concerns was something fresh; peer-to-peer sharing. YouTube now fully defunct, it was left to decentralized streaming services to fill the gap in the market. They weren’t exactly user-friendly but there was a definite feel of anarchy within the systems which made them fun and edgy. Pirated content thrived at this time too; The Pirate Bay built a landing page rather similar to what YouTube had looked like. With data being distributed across a peer network, videos couldn’t be erased easily and to protect content local networks developED with hubs in college campuses and high schools. 

The iPhone from Apple hit the market and FaceTime was launched. They gave the world a video-calling system that let people chat both one-on-one and broadcast to a limited audience. The adverts were heartwarming, to say the least, with an estranged family coming together through the service, including the streaming of a high school musical. No one had expected the appetite for group broadcasting that developed alongside FaceTime, but performers ran with it and events began to be held with huge multiplayer games in virtual worlds. A big success of this time was Second Life, acquired by Microsoft in 2010.

The peer-to-peer systems weren’t much liked by the telecoms industry, who attacked them at a network level. Blocks were placed on peer-to-peer streaming by some of the ISPs, and they were accused of violating the rules of net neutrality that were just taking shape at the time. The ISPs were set to clash with the Federal Communications Commission, and Apple weighed in on the showdown, since FaceTime was coming up against similar challenges. Mixed in with all of this, Hollywood and the music industry began to lobby hard in Congress to tighten up intellectual property laws.

2011–2012: TAKING CONTROL

UNDERGROUND CRUMBLES AS CONGRESS FLEXES

Moderate success would have been the best way to describe online video services by the time 2011 rolled around. Because they had built up the systems for submission review, with a combination of algorithms and humans, the process to get a video online was arduous. It was effective in curbing some curious excesses, such as child abuse material and disturbing videos aimed at kids.

Around this time, group broadcasting to small audiences had really taken off. Apple’s FaceTime system was harnessed by public figures wanting to host intimate discussions. A noted iPhone fan, President Barack Obama went on a tour of American classrooms from his phone using the app.Microsoft’s Skype wound up in Second Life; it gave webcam users the chance to “dial-in” to live events like virtual book readings. Intimacy and personalization were the watch-words of this time, along with a level of privacy, too.

Contrasting this corporate control, the world of decentralized streaming was near-anarchy. Creativity bounded through the communities, but things were also mired in harassment and apparently ironic bigotry. This is when “griefing” became a thing; a subculture dedicated to clogging up submission queues with opaque meme videos, raiding Second Life, and setting up elaborate fake situations to bring celebrities into strange FaceTime and Skype sessions. Pirating didn’t go away either, some of the biggest shows on the corporate sites got ripped onto the networks. 

With griefing becoming a bigger issue, and companies going all out on lobbying efforts, Congress was forced to crack down. A sweeping bill was introduced into the house, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The terms meant that ISPs would have to block foreign sites that were host to illegal versions of music, videos, or photos, including all non-US peer-to-peer services.

There were plenty of protests against SOPA, including efforts to “blackout” the internet as a means of protest. Support wasn’t forthcoming from giants of the internet like Google, with their business partner Comcast offering full-throated support of the bill. The reputation for unsavory content that had grown around the peer-to-peer networks put a target on their backs and Congress was happy to take aim. 2012 saw the law passed and P2P streaming systems were quickly blocked by the ISPs, now they were protected from censure by the FCC. 

Innovation was swiftly culled. Minecraft, a game that looked something like Lego and had a peer-to-peer streaming system at its core, quickly went under. An upshot of the massive change to the internet was the increased involvement and engagement in politics by youths at the time. Both sides of the political spectrum benefited, notably there was a growth in right-wing extremism in the US, with few people noticing because their videos were shared on decentralized networks.

2013–2015: FIGHTING BACK

CENSORSHIP NOT WELCOME ON NETWORKS

Increasingly inaccessible platforms like DailyMotion and Tudou that were hosted in foreign countries, as well as peer-to-peer video becoming more difficult to access, meant that mainstream services saw massive growth, particularly FaceTime, Hulu, and Justin.tv. The technical and social pressure placed on these media grew, and users swamped the services with peer-to-peer hits like “Charlie Bit My Finger”. The ad revenue was welcomed but the need to find the original creators was a pain. Swatting campaigns carried on unabated, with griefers targeting live performers. Controversially, AT&T blocked Apple’s FaceTime app under the auspices of SOPA, depriving their subscribers of the popular service.  

Scrutiny increased for the mainstream content platforms. Reports emerged that media conglomerates such as Sony and NBCUniversal ignored reports of sexual misconduct from against their streaming stars, and, worse still, some accused them of actively suppressing such chatter on their platforms. Parents were particularly disturbed since they had begun relying on the kids’ content the services provided to entertain their families. 

Channels that had been targeted at children had filters to remove content they’d find disturbing, but at the same time, they were packed with product placement because there wasn’t the same regulatory framework as in broadcast TV. The studio system support network placed a lot of expectations and contractual obligations on young stars. Psychologically stunted kids emerged; damaged by the always-on ethos and work demands.  

Desperate and dedicated to the cause, peer-to-peer video users took extreme measures to keep their medium alive. In response to the ISP bans of their networks, local mesh networks were built to allow videos to be streamed over limited geographical ranges. This led to the creation of pocket subcultures across different areas of the country. The most popular content still made it across the meshnets and videos like the re-edited version of Loose Change, a 9/11 conspiracy documentary, was a viral hit across the nation making it across meshnets and gaining traction in California and the northern Appalachian region.

To get themselves into the thick of culture, those who wanted to make it as streamers relocated to urban hubs like New York and LA. The networks in these creative capitals were monitored closely by the mainstream, who sent talent scouts into the systems. International sites were also seen as a recruiting ground, with Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg getting poached from DailyMotion and made host of Comedy Central’s Pew.0. Smaller cities ended up being gathering sites for streamers too, with places like Missouri, Kansas City, and Akron in Ohio becoming known as “streamertowns”. The strong survivalist traditions in these areas fed an evolving network of far-right meshnets, which the FBI sometimes dropped in on. 

Social media that wasn’t centered on video became regional, small, and personal. The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, decided that encryption was his watchword, with a 2013 declaration that “the future is private.” Facebook wasn’t attractive to either pirates or anti-piracy enforcers since it wasn’t really a viral platform and the encryption was strong. The micro-blogging platform Twitter morphed into a wire news service in 2014; only verified businesses and journalists could post after rules were tightened because of a public shaming frenzy on the site.

Working to develop Second Life further, Microsoft bought out a VR company that was creating a buzz in the tech world – Oculus. It was integrated into Second Life, giving users a virtual world with persistent identities and an economy that was based on actual cash. Sexual content wasn’t welcome on the platform, and the targeting of subcultures like furries meant Microsoft’s policies drew some criticism. 

In an effort to alleviate attacks from griefers, the mainstream sites decided to demonetize most political content, and also to not give it as much prominence. Divisive topics like anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers were pushed to the fringes and contained in a small circle of carefully vetted channels. The New York meshnet organized a movement called Occupy Wall Street, but it got minimal mainstream attention. The private, local networks managed to avoid most censorship but by their nature they bred conspiracy theories and unverified rumors; these issues were fed by a lack of external awareness and no one being able to intervene.

Machine learning systems were developed and deployed by the streaming sites and began to mine the user data that was being gathered by the ISPs. Such action was possible by huge media consolidation deals like the merger of Comcast and NBCUniversal in 2011. With a stable of AI research courtesy of Google, the new juggernaut of the internet, Justin.tv, became able to detect tiny changes in view rates and adjust advertising rates in line with value. The streamers in the network were left at the mercy of a behemoth of an algorithm that no one really understood.

2016–2020: BEDDING IN

THE SICKNESS IN THE BONES OF THE INTERNET MAY NOT BE CURABLE

As the world entered 2016, the internet was still being criticized. Intellectuals and academics railed against the “mind-numbing wasteland of sanitized, algorithm-driven monocultures”. They were against the idea that just a handful of gatekeepers in the media were producing small amounts of content for the internet, designed to satisfy huge audiences. Small tweaks like custom title cards were criticized as superficial at best. Second Life generated its own housing bubble. The bustling virtual world had become inaccessible to Americans on average incomes, with virtual gentrification and digital mortgages becoming part of the cultural landscape.   

No matter how twee and curated the normal internet was, it was still much preferred to meshnets and their chaos. Law enforcement finally started to target the systems when violent clashes between networks became an issue and domestic terrorism bloomed. There was nowhere for external virtual attacks to land, nowhere to target misinformation campaigns, no place for Russians to hit and run online. Without the prevalence of an online political landscape, Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election, defeating Ted Cruz narrowly. 

Both parties in Congress backed President Clinton when she led a crackdown on meshnet compounds. However, those on the progressive wings characterized the move as a cynical snatch and grab on behalf of the telecoms industry, as well as a way to avoid the much-needed discussion on gun control. On the right, populist conservatives called the move “Waco 2.0”. The campaign received glowing, algorithmically perfect, tailored promotion from Comcast-Google-AOL-NBCUniversal.

Local streamtowns were none too impressed with the crackdown, even though it was primarily aimed at violent extremists. The large networks were infected with a paranoia that the police had gotten inside, and this fear was taken advantage of by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He used the meshnet for Austin, Texas and ran for state Congress with a rally cry of independence for Texas. 

Other networks didn’t get tarred with the political brush, and other uses were found for the underground communication systems. The Miami meshnet became the home of the city’s organized crime network in Florida, an important swing state. Other nefarious uses were found for the localized networks, with honeypot operations put into play; small-time blackmailers trawled through nodes hunting out nudes and other embarrassing content.

The Clinton era FCC pushed for the internet to be developed at a municipal level, with aims to bring together a country that was geographically polarized. Strong opposition sprung up from the massive media-telecom-internet conglomerates, all of which piled in with arduous litigation. 

And now, as we see the 2020 election on the political radar, there seems to be a national calm descending. Bubbling under the surface, however, we still have secessionist campaigning and conspiracy theories flying around local networks that have all of the same potency we’ve seen over the years. A network in the DC area is home to an operative claiming to be from the Department of Energy. Taking the moniker “Q”, they’re touting claims of baby-eating Satanists linked to President Clinton, with Fox News running with the idea on their web-based news channel. 

“Occupy Airwaves” is a grassroots movement that’s touting plans to build an open-source, long-wave transmitter to bridge gaps between the meshnets. Their aim is to build a full-scale alternative internet with no central core. On the other side of the spectrum, we’re seeing the Mercer family use their wealth to build networks that look and feel like meshnets and then lacing them with propaganda for Donald Trump to be the next president. 

In the midst of all of this, we’ve just seen a new feature get launched by Apple for its FaceTime app. Finding new ways to capitalise on its popularity, users can now add geo locations to their videos and pin them to bars and restaurants that sign up to the system. Users can use these videos to check out other patons and find hook ups and friendships. It’s name: FaceTime Dating.

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