At VidCon, YouTube’s evolution becomes clear

The YouTube Breakout Room stage at VidCon 2011.

The defining image of VidCon 2011, for me, came from a video shown during YouTube’s (s GOOG) keynote presentation on Friday morning. The video was a comedic retelling of how YouTube’s new Cosmic Panda layout was developed; the creators depicted one of the challenges of reinventing how things work on YouTube with a shot of product manager Brian Glick, curled in on himself like a battle-scarred soldier in the foxhole. “Change is bad, change is bad, YouTubers don’t like change,” he chanted.

It was a funny moment, but it also perfectly depicted the state of flux YouTube is currently in — trying to build and expand, while remaining keenly aware of the users who have contributed to the video site’s success. Big changes are in progress, from how YouTube interacts with creators, to its investment in professionally produced content, to the site infrastructure itself… and YouTube used VidCon as one way to try and sell some of those changes to the community.

VidCon is not officially a YouTube conference — it was independently organized by YouTuber Hank Green for the second year in a row as a “celebration of online video.” However, YouTube was a significant sponsor, programming multiple sessions and hosting a “YouTube Playroom” with free smoothies and custom-printed t-shirts. In addition, the site helped with “a pile of money,” Green wrote in the program notes. “Without them, VidCon would have been less awesome and more expensive.”

Some of that money spent could easily fall under “Cosmic Panda PR” in Google’s budget. Several minutes of the YouTube keynote were devoted to telling the packed ballroom about the new layout, which since its launch has evolved to offer creators template options for their channels, as well as customizable backgrounds and link icons for Facebook, Twitter and other sites.

And to spice things up, the channel they used to demo the new look was Mystery Guitar Man Joe Penna’s — with Penna himself accompanying the demonstration on acoustic guitar. It was a smart move, because it’s hard to get mad at anything the extremely likeable Joe Penna is connected with, and YouTube personnel — including engineer Rushabh Doshi — topped that by using the Sesame Street channel in a breakout session Friday afternoon.

That session was largely devoted to assuring creators who might be uneasy about changes to the platform that Cosmic Panda is evolving with their comments and concerns — several “oops” moments were admitted to, including the absence of a subscription button and the option to create video responses.

Two of the redesign’s objectives were laid bare, though: To give channels a more consistent look, and to encourage site visitors to watch multiple videos, through the new emphasis on playlists. The former suggests a desire on YouTube’s part for a cleaner overall appearance; the latter works to the theory that viral videos are not a sustainable business model anymore — for anyone, including the site hosting them.

Many of the other initiatives promoted by YouTube were hardly hard sells for this group of creators, including the YouTube Creator Institute, which offered YouTube instruction in a film school setting, and the YouTube NextUp contest, which awarded $35,000 to 25 partners.

In addition — and likely of great interest for those looking for “the secret to YouTube success” — YouTube is also developing more educational materials and infrastructure for creators hoping to improve their skills and reach an audience, including the YouTube Playbook, which combines the experience of YouTube and recent acquisition Next New Networks to offer tips on video creation and distribution, and is free to download for all. A brief scan of the 70-page PDF reveals an incredibly dense and detailed document.

Looking at all these measures combined, it’s not hard to see YouTube’s objective — which is to host consistently better content across the board, even from the most amateur creators. Even those who don’t necessarily need to evolve are doing so. A year ago, YouTuber ShayCarl (whose broad antics, pretty and tolerant wife, and outgoing children make him YouTube’s answer to the family sitcom) was producing extremely popular 10-minute long vlogs about his life and his family. But on Friday, he premiered a new video with tight production values and high-quality special effects (it was also under four minutes!), as part of his new partnership with director Sam Macaroni (with whom he was connected via Maker Studios). The pair, speaking on stage, said that they had plans for at least eight more videos together.


According to director of content operations Tom Pickett during the YouTube keynote, the number of YouTube partners has doubled to 20,000 today, with “hundreds of them” making six figures a year. More notably, the number of partners making $1,000 a month has tripled in that time. “There is a lot of money coming into the online video space and the creativity emerging is amazing,” Pickett said.

Even Vidcon itself is exploding. This year, the conference was straining at the seams of the Hyatt Regency Century City in Los Angeles, but Vidcon 2012 will be at the Anaheim Convention Center, where multiple halls can seat over 12,000 people.

VidCon is an extremely fun conference, especially for the hoards of underage fans getting a chance to connect with their idols. That didn’t change at all from last year. But nothing else is static.