Few would argue that YouTube remains the top platform for long-form video, with users uploading around 720,000 hours of content every single day. Until now, however, nobody outside its parent company, Google, knew just how many videos are currently on the website.

A team of researchers spent a year finding out how to calculate the number of videos available for public viewing on YouTube – leaving out private ones – and the number is certainly large.

In December 2023, Ryan McGrady, a senior researcher with the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts, revealed the results of his team’s research, which counted around 14 billion videos on the popular platform.

In his own words, that is “more than one and a half videos for every person on the planet.”

To get to that number, Dr McGrady’s team used “a complicated process that boils down to making billions upon billions of random guesses at YouTube IDs (the identifiers you see in the URL when watching videos).”

He added: “It took a sophisticated cluster of powerful computers at the University of Massachusetts months to collect a representative sample; we then spent another few months analysing those videos to paint what we think is the best portrait to date of YouTube as a whole.”

The research also found that although videos with 10,000 or more views account for nearly 94 per cent of the site’s traffic, they make up but less than four per cent of total uploads.

In fact, there is a huge number of videos that hardly attract any attention. Nearly 75 per cent of all videos have no comments at all, and even more have no likes. A small amount, five per cent, don’t even have any views.

“In other words, people tend to watch just a sliver of what YouTube has to offer, and, on the whole, they follow what the algorithm serves to them,” writes Dr McGrady.

But for the researcher, the staggering amount of videos with little to no views are indicative of YouTube’s public role, which he argues is better described as infrastructure than as a platform.

That is because the vast majority of content is all manner of miscellaneous videos like “hours-long church services” and “condo-board meetings”. In fact, Dr McGrady makes the case that “when we talk about YouTube, instead of referencing MrBeast and Cocomelon, we should think about the December 18 meeting of the Amherst Board of Education.”

This is because “it provides a good example of YouTube used for recordkeeping, not for virality, with roughly 50 views at the time of writing. Those may be exactly the views it was intended to get. Indeed, if such a video goes viral, there’s a good chance something is terribly wrong.”

In a word: “This is YouTube put to a different purpose and a different audience—an archive for friends and family, a public record, a tertiary channel for some other type of media.”

The sheer volume of content on YouTube indicates that it has gone beyond the role of a platform, and that using it is now “more less an opportunity thana requirement.”

For that reason, it might be time to call it be the same name we call other such technologies: infrastructure.

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