An exploration of YouTube, the new primary source of music in the world, as a musical instrument.
For about two years now, I've been trying to use HTML video players to kind of edit video. After using software for so long to edit things to put onto sites like YouTube or Vimeo, I got the delusional idea that cutting out editing programs and using the media players themselves would show like a mastery of internet video. The internet is like this great river that we all use. Content is just stuff we make to ultimately toss into the river and hopefully get love back in return. When sampling is involved, web based editing feels like reaching into the river and taking other people's offerings and then using the river itself to shape them into your own. Almost immediately I realized that the best site for that is YouTube. That was in turn followed by another realization. As versatile as the player is, it's still not ideal for use as an instrument. I doubt that their use as a performance instrument ever factored into the design of any of these online media players. Lots of common instruments weren't made for that, but people took them apart and added parts to them so they could play them. Unlike a turntable though, you can't take YouTube apart or modify it. Everything on the back end that makes it work as well as it already does is private. HTML video players are built into browsers and you can customize those to do almost anything. But they aren't as fast or responsive. Even if they could be, the specs needed to match or surpass YouTube belong to Youtube. Recently I've been using their keyboard shortcuts to play samples of videos the way someone would if they were playing samples loaded onto a sampler. The number keys divide the video into tenths( if you press 2, it'll jump to 2 tenths of the way into the video), the left/right arrows skip 5 seconds backwards/forwards from wherever the video is playing and the "J" and "L" keys skip backwards/forwards by 10 seconds. Thats about all the control that you get. Even after you find a video that's divided into usable parts, actually playing a song with it often needs odd timing because of the way the video is divided. After going through hundreds of videos to find ones that I could play, the shortcuts began to highlight what seemed like a lack of access to these videos. Like you can do so many things with content on the site, but the control just isn't absolute. Something about that makes me uncomfortable. YouTube isn't just make-up tutorials and videos of people cutting things in half with red hot knives. More people listen to music on YouTube than anywhere else. Most of the videos on there now are things that people personally own but don't feel like looking for on their computers. It's becoming a storage platform. Streaming platforms and clouds are where we have been backing up everything for years now. The only reason we are cool with giving our lives to these things is because it looks like we have complete and unlimited access to them. But looking at your memories on the internet isn't like visiting your kids at boarding school. It's really visiting a copy of your kid. They usually make a few different versions of varying quality so you can pick the one that you feel like waiting for. If for some crazy reason, you want to take your kid home, they'll give you the highest quality copy of them that they have , but only if a part of them never belonged to anyone else. We have always assumed that that high quality copy is close enough to the original that it doesn't matter. Since it's easier to find when you are already online, it's probably better. Plus if you lose the original, the online version will always be there. All of these sites work by putting the things you give them into boxes. You are only ever interacting with the boxes when you use these platforms. That might be what bothers me. What I've been trying to do is obscure, so it's not a barrier that most people would encounter. But it's still a barrier. I only discovered that the boxes existed when I tried to play with the content inside of them. And I still don't know for sure how the boxes are shaped or how big they are or how things are really divided and placed into them. We are never going to have a say in the decision to change anything about the boxes either. You know how anyone can go online and find instructions for making an atom bomb, but getting uranium is so hard that it's keeps anyone from actually doing it? That is not completely true. A lot of the details for getting an atom bomb to work are CRAZY classified. Every country that has nuclear weapons had to get their greatest minds to figure out how to fill in the missing pieces, so it's not like they are negligible details either. These platforms have told us what seemed like critical details about how they work. They've told us that they use complex algorithms that do different things. They've shown us some of the interesting side projects that their employees are working on. "Everyone knows" how they work and what they are doing, yet their platforms need to be manned in secret by the smartest people in the world. From what we've been told, in the 12 years since YouTube was invented all of the original video files that were converted to flash copies have been deleted. Even though the videos had to be compressed a lot to make them into flash videos, the quality of them was still pretty good. Do you know exactly how that was done? No. A few years after that, the HTML5 standard put native video players in all browsers. This allowed people to watch much smaller mp4 videos without having to convert them to flash. No one needed extra software and the videos were smaller and higher quality. So YouTube switched from flash to HTML5 and converted their entire library to mp4. For a music video i made, I did a search for "emo 2006" and went through every single page of search results. I can tell you for a fact that the conversion corrupted a very large portion of those old flash videos. Many of the mp4's that replaced them are horrible quality and full of glitches. From the viewers' perspective, it was as if the videos had rotted. A few years ago, YouTube announced that they are going to switch to the webm video codec. They are going to use another algorithm that will convert all of those mp4 copies to webm and then those mp4's will be gone forever. There's no way of knowing what will or will not be damaged by the next round of compressions. Right now, everything we upload is still a copy of something that we have on our own devices or in a cloud. But not long from now, we will be able to edit and create all of our content from within the boxes of the great internet river. We won't need to bother ourselves with finding somewhere to store the originals of the content we make for the river if it is already made in the river. And everything we cared about up to that point will have already been uploaded (and compressed in a proprietary way) and made available for streaming. Personal data storage is going to become obsolete. From then on, the internet will be our memory for us. It will feel like the great river has given up control of itself to us. But restarting history from inside the boxes of the river will mean that we've already thrown ourselves into the river as well. And we will have done that without knowing where it's flowing or what it might do to us.
released December 9, 2017
Michael Briggs - Youtube, "production", laptop
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