Do You Think Bandwidth Grows on Trees?
User-generated content may have changed the Internet, but sites like YouTube are suffocating under the costs of storing it.
Everyone knows that print newspapers are our generation's horse-and-buggy; in the most wired cities, they've been pummeled by competition from the Web. But it might surprise you to learn that one of the largest and most-celebrated new-media ventures is burning through cash at a rate that makes newspapers look like wise investments. It's called YouTube: According a recent report by analysts at the financial-services company Credit Suisse, Google will lose $470 million on the video-sharing site this year alone. To put it another way, the Boston Globe, which is on track to lose $85 million in 2009, is five times more profitable—or, rather, less unprofitable—than YouTube. All so you can watch this helium-voiced oddball whenever you want.
YouTube's troubles are surprisingly similar to those faced by newspapers. Just like your local daily, the company is struggling to sell enough in advertising to cover the enormous costs of storing and distributing its content. Newspapers have to pay to publish and deliver dead trees; YouTube has to pay for a gargantuan Internet connection to send videos to your computer and the millions of others who are demanding the most recent Dramatic Chipmunk mash-up. Google doesn't break out YouTube's profits and losses on its earnings statements, and of course it's possible that Credit Suisse's estimates are off. But if the analysts are at all close, YouTube, which Google bought in 2006, is in big trouble. As Benjamin Wayne, the CEO of the rival video-streaming company Fliqz, pointed out in a recent article for Silicon Alley Insider, not even Google can long sustain a company that's losing close to half a billion dollars a year.
But YouTube's problems point to a larger difficulty for many Web startups: "User-generated content" is proving to be a financial albatross. Two years ago, Time magazine named "you" its Person of the Year for doing your small part in fueling the Web 2.0 revolution. The magazine argued that by collecting and distributing the creations of millions of individuals, the Web is upending the way we learn about what's going on in the world around us. There's no doubt this is true; you experienced the presidential inauguration through millions of pictures captured by ordinary people, and a lot of what you learn these days comes from articles put together by the anonymous hordes who power Wikipedia. Yet even though they've changed the way we live, sites that collect and share content produced by all of us haven't done the one thing many tech evangelists said they'd do—make a ton of money. Or, in many cases, any money.
There's a simple reason for this: Advertisers don't like paying very much to support homemade photos and videos. As a result, the economics of user-generated sites are even more crushing than those of the newspaper business. At least newspapers see a proportional relationship between circulation and revenues—when the paper publishes great stories, it attracts more readers, and, in time, more advertisers. At YouTube, the relationship can be backward: The videos that get the most clicks—and are thus most expensive for YouTube to carry—trend toward the sort of lewd or random flavor that doesn't sit well with advertisers. Look at some of the site's hits over the last few days: a clip of a guest fainting on Glenn Beck's show filched from Fox News; a video of a Brazilian soccer coach punching a referee, also recorded from TV; a cell phone capture showing Britney Spears misidentify the city she's performing in; and a shot of a "boob grab" among spectators at the Masters golf tournament. Would you pay to stick your product's logo under any of them?
Probably not—YouTube sells ads on fewer than 10 percent of its videos. Credit Suisse estimates that 375 million people around the world will play about 75 billion YouTube videos this year. To serve up all these streams, the company has to pay for a broadband connection capable of hurtling data at the equivalent of 30 million megabits-per-second—about 6 million times as fast as your home Internet connection. All this bandwidth costs Google $360 million a year, the analysts estimate. Then there's the cost of the videos themselves: Even though many of the site's most popular content is uploaded for free from users, Credit Suisse says YouTube spends about $250 million a year to acquire licenses to broadcast professionally produced videos. Add in all other expenses, and the cost of running YouTube for one year exceeds $700 million. But the company makes only a fraction of that back in advertising—about $240 million in revenues for 2009, according to the report.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.