What if digital isn’t forever?

The future of YouTubeYouTube, like the universe, is constantly expanding.

Every single day, 432,000 hours of video gets posted to the Google-owned platform. I’m no math wiz, but I think that’s about 50 years of footage uploaded every 24 hours.

As NPR’s Alexis Madrigal said in a recent segment on Fresh Air:

[YouTube has] become a stunning record of our current civilization, global in scope but intimate and personal at the same time. Future historians could have unprecedented access to the daily lives of all kinds of people. Of course, that’s if Google commits to preserving this incredible record; and that’s a big if. There are reasons to believe that such a massive digital archive will not be profitable for Google to save for future generations. As my friend Dan Cohen, head of the Digital Public Library of America, likes to say, Google is not in the forever business.

I’d always assumed that continued growth in users, content, advertising, and watch-time meant continued growth in revenue too. And if so, wouldn’t YouTube be able to afford the storage space… forever?

But this Fresh Air segment got me thinking (and I’m really not trying to be alarmist here — just musing for the speculative fun of it), what happens should YouTube decide they don’t want to be the entire world’s cloud storage service for cat videos, old episodes of Double Dare, and lip-synced dance routines in the living room?

Would they charge a monthly fee to viewers or video creators? Would they delete videos that haven’t met a certain view-count after a set period of time? Would they load up all their servers onto Rocketship Google and blast off to colonize some more hospitable corner of the galaxy?

And most importantly for this discussion — what happens to YOUR videos?

We’ve gotten used to the idea that digital is forever — no more expiration dates.

But that’s only true if someone’s paying for unlimited “shelf” (server) space, and video takes up a hell of a lot more space than audio.

So, what are your predictions? Will YouTube’s continued expansion mean they’ll also expand their revenue opportunities, and thus have the $$ to be all of humanity’s video archive forever? Or will your children’s children have to go to some university library to watch your music videos and concert films on a hundred-year-old DVD player?

Let me know your thoughts and speculations in the comments below.

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[Photo credit: NASA/WMAP Science TeamOriginal version: NASA; modified by Ryan Kaldari.]



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