Edit Jan 1, 2021: Like the proverbial elephant, YouTube is so big that I was standing in one corner (the arts) and mistaking it for the whole thing. The right metaphor is library.
A long view on YouTube is that it’s a platform for artists – outsider mostly, many of whom make art about their own lives – and educators.
The “how” YouTube did it (dynamic ad insertion, the introduction of smartphones with video cameras, on-demand* serving, Google’s search dominance) is less interesting than “what” they did.
Because of YouTube, there is more much more art today than there was in 2005, and art is also much more diverse.
Also, it’s business model has been so relentlessly simple as to distort the communication between artist and audience. (“Don’t forget to like, comment and subscribe!”)
But, on the whole, it ushered in an age of mass creativity without historical parallel.† It’s engendered a cultural shift that we are just beginning to understand, as the first generations to grow up with its aesthetic possibilities turn their attention to stickier questions: mortality, morality, tragedy, comedy, etc.
Whether or not these fruits bloom on YouTube, or elsewhere, won’t matter much. The shift in visual language, and in narrative storytelling, will continue to ripple out for some time to come.
That’s a remarkable occurrence that is easily forgotten given how much attention is devoted to the business of the platform, as well as its baleful effects on liberal democracies.
*Whether the “upload” is a five-hour loop or a 5-second shot, what matters is that there is no preset form, no prescribed length. While some discursive games benefit from tight rules (TikTok, Vine) the game of performing on YouTube has worked because of its open-endedness. Yes, there are many copies of copies. But there are enough sui generis concepts to make it a vital cultural force.
† Maybe not since the printing press and mass literacy?