Youtube cutting off the long tail

On Feb. 20, the rules for participation in the YouTube Partner Program will change. Among the benefits of being a partner was the opportunity to earn revenue from the ads that run when a Youtube video is displayed. Before this date, a creator became eligible for ad revenue once he/she had accumulated 10,000 lifetime views. After this date, you must have 4000 hours of viewing time in the last running 12 month period and 1000 subscribers.

Google indicates that the change will:

“will allow us to significantly improve our ability to identify creators who contribute positively to the community and help drive more ad revenue to them (and away from bad actors).”

I am the type of creator that will be penalized by this change. I meet the 10,000 view metric, but fail both the 4000 hours and 1000 subscriber standard.

I am not a bad actor. I post instructional videos for educators wanting to use technology applications in their classrooms. I have a couple of textbooks devoted to this goal, but made the decision several years ago to create much smaller and less expensive textbooks (available via Amazon) in combination with free online resources (supplemental information and instructional videos). The price when my textbook was last published by Cengage was $140. The Amazon price is now $9 and the Kindle combination with the online resources offers more and more current content than the $140 version.

I originally offered the video content I created from the server I rent. As more and more content was added, I became concerned with the load serving the video required. Moving the content to YouTube was a way to avoid this issue, to offer content to those who had no interest in my other educational products, and to make a little money (a few dollars a month when my instructional videos are viewed). Just for the record, when my YouTube video is embedded within a web page I serve, viewing the embedded video generates no revenue.

Consider the reality of reaching the 1000 subscribers and 4000 hour thresholds. Nearly all of my videos are say 8-10 minutes in length. Several are recommended by YouTube and have been viewed in the 1.5K range. Still, my estimate is that my annual viewing time would be about 18,000 minutes (YouTube analytics are reported in minutes). This is a long way from 240,000. I also do not have a lot of subscribers. People come to my individual videos when searching for a particular need or perhaps when assigned by a college professor. I make no effort to continually create videos which is what tends to attract and hold subscribers. I create videos when the issue or product presented fits an instructional need related to my other content. I could continually create videos on the many similar products available to educators but the replication in this approach has little benefit.

The YouTube decision fits a disturbing trend I see with tech service providers. The initial promise that all could become creators (this was what Chris Anderson described as the long tail) has given way to only the big content generators will be supported. The few dollars YouTube might compensate me is of little actual consequence, but the cost to YouTube was also quite minimal. It is the principle here that is disturbing (see Rushkoff’s “Throwing rocks at the Google bus”).

Writing so your mother would understand

The willingness of much of the public to dismiss scientific conclusions has led to calls for scientists to do a better job and take the time to describe their work and their findings to the public. I think this issue in this political climate is more complicated and there are some scientific conclusions that are simply too inconvenient for public support, but part of the problem is certainly lack of understanding.

I think I have developed some skills in doing this. I have written several textbooks and this requires communicating in a more basic style. One of my editors told me I had to “unpack” certain ideas I was trying to communicate. I think this meant that I was assuming too much and I needed to be more careful in what I assumed. Given all of the criticisms of college textbooks, I may be assuming too much. Yes, textbooks are expensive and textbooks are lengthy and this is a reason for much of the criticism, but effective communication is still an additional issue. In fact, you may not be able to both “unpack” what you are trying to communicate and shorten what you have to say. I read somewhere that there were more new vocabulary words per page (important, but unfamiliar terms) in Introduction to Psychology textbook than a foreign language textbook.

They tell you in freshman English composition courses that understanding your audience is important. My recollections of freshman composition do not contain any actual strategies or experiences related to this problem. I learned much more when I took a course in “Technical Writing” which I credit as among the most valuable of my undergraduate experience.

Back to the topic of writing so your mother can understand. I don’t think my parents ever quite understood what I did. They understood the teaching part, but not the research or writing part. I did learn to write for novice learners by writing for my wife. I write textbooks that concern the classroom application of technology. My wife worked directly with teachers to help them apply technology. Because she had so much experience in application, she was a great judge of whether I was adequately explaining ideas so that practicing and future educators would understand.

There is a level beyond what I am describing here. What about writing for those without much of background and who may even be hostile to challenging ideas? This is the challenge for scientists. They are not writing for college students enrolled in courses, even introductory courses, in their disciplines.

Here is a blog post that examines this challenge. I found the suggestions and the perspective to be quite helpful. The author describes writing “opinion pieces (op-eds)” that might appear in a newspaper. This seems a practical way to understand the challenge and the techniques. I will not review the ideas here, but I do recommend your attention to what this blogger suggests.

TIES, MECC and state-level k12 edtech services

This article from the Grand Forks Herald caught my attention. The articles describes a decision by Minnesota K12 institutions to end their collaboration to support TIES (Technology Information and Educational Services).

TIES is an organization that goes back as far as I can remember in supporting technology use in Minnesota schools. TIES and MECC (the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium) provided some of my earliest exposure to the field of educational technology back in the days of the Apple II and the first Macinstoshes. TIES was around even before my wife and I first began working in this field which was before the day of the microcomputer. Because of several leading technology companies at the time (Honeywell, Control Data, IBM) and the role of state universities, Minnesota was an early leader in the field.
(see the section on the history of MECC which also describes TIES)

This history is likely unknown to most, but I can often get a hint of understanding among the earliest generation of innovators when I mention Oregon Trail. Cindy and I worked in Grand Forks, ND, so our proximity allowed us to attend NECC and TIES conferences in Minneapolis.

MECC was founded in 1973 and disbanded in 1999. TIES had earlier origins and it appears it is now ending its run as an organization supported by schools and perhaps will live on if another agency steps up. The way schools procure technology (hardware and software) and services (access to larger tech systems and professional development) is changing and funding models have changed as well. The cost to individual schools contributing to TIES increased to the point that schools began to drop out creating a death spiral for the rest.

My own experience has been with North Dakota and this experience has become less relevant as I have been out of the state now for several years. When my wife and I began our focus on educational technology my wife was working in a district that was ahead of the curve. She was one of two individuals hired to support the local school district with the understanding at the time that this was likely a two-year position. Twenty five or so years later, she has been retired for several years and the local staff is much larger. Cindy worked in what was one of the larger districts in a state that has many small districts. The region created a consortium to provide professional development, but the district continued to support a local staff. The state also provides certain services and unlike Minnesota that state is expanding certain services to higher education institutions. It is interesting to see adjacent states moving in opposite directions.

I don’t see a huge role for state level services. There are simply too few services at this level that can compete with commercial online services. I would not spend money at this level. If districts are large enough, I am still a fan of Human Resources available within a the district. The problem with infrequent access to expertise and guidance is the same problem so many see in professional development in general. Too much happens without the opportunity to explore and then too little mentoring is available when ideas are implemented. If practical, I suppose online interaction could provide a way to deal with these issues. I am just unaware that many have been able to make this work.

Layering ethics

I have written on multiple occasions about the educational potential of layering educator annotations and prompts on existing online content. My interest is prompted by the great amount of online content that could be improved as educational resources by such additions. There are a growing number of surfaces that provide this capability and they do so in different ways.

I will say upfront that there are some who object to this practice no matter the method used by a layering service. Some simply want their content to only be available as they have created it. While I can appreciate this position, I see a middle ground. As I suggested, the technology of how layering is implemented varies. Some techniques acquire the content from a source (a web site, a video available on the web), add the additions specified by second party, and then make the combined product available. Other techniques create a similar product by combining the product from the original developer and the designer wanting to add a layer of content each time the combined product is requested. What the user sees may appear very similar, but what is happening online is very different. In the second case, the server on which the original content creator has placed his or her content is involved each time someone uses the Internet to download the combined content to a browser. More to the point, activation of this server may be related to expectations that original author has for displaying ads or related sources of revenue.

So, take YouTube as an example. Some creators want their videos to include ads that appear when a video begins. They are compensated a few cents each time YouTube serves one of these videos. If I would download one of these videos and then serve it myself, the creator would not receive compensation when the video downloaded from my server was viewed. My use of YouTube content would not necessarily be inappropriate. My responsibility would not be to YouTube. I might make a request of the video creator, and if grant, serve the content myself.

In promoting layering services, I have made the decision to focus on services that involve the server used by the original content creator each time a viewer makes the request to view a composite product. This is the position I have taken in the book I have written on the subject and in the online content I have created to expand on the content in the book.


I great example of the type of service that meets the standard I describe above is TurboNote. This service allows comments/questions to be attached to video or web pages and then shared with designated learners.

I have created an example of an annotated video as it would be shared with a specific user. (TurboNote extension must be installed on Chrome browser to view)

The Byrne frame controversy

Many educators follow the blog posts of Richard Byrne whose Free Tech for Teachers [] provides frequent suggestions and tutorials on the use of technology in the classroom. Mr. Byrne used to teach, but now makes his income by speaking, conducting inservice workshops, and generating ad revenue from his online content.

Byrne has been aggressive in protecting practices that he believes infringe on his rights as an online author. If you follow him on Twitter, you will receive tweets in which he calls out services that display his material without permission.

The reason I am commenting on a specific Byrne complaints is that a recent target of his ire employs a practice that may seem similar in some ways to a practice I have defended – the layering on annotations on the work of another author []. The similarity is that in both cases the original author loses some control over how his/her content is displayed.

Byrne’s most recent target is a service you might be familiar with as an educator – EdTech Update []. This site aggregates articles on educational topics. If you visit the site and spend much time reviewing the work of those who write about education, you will likely recognize many of the sources. So, as an educator, you may be looking for a one-stop shop for online education content and this might be a valuable source. As I understand the strategy of the site it does some other things. For example, it provides a list of what are the most popular (trending) articles. So, the site is collecting data and using these data to improve the service provided.

As I understand the Byrne criticism, this service operates without the approval of the original authors and does so through the use of RSS and frames. I hope my interpretation is accurate. Many of us use RSS as individuals. RSS is a method by which a service follows work posted on sites you designate and lets you know when something new has been posted. Most blogging platforms, the wordpress platform I use for example, enables an RSS feed. This is very helpful to readers as they are notified when an author on one of the potentially hundreds of sources they follow has written something new. It is not necessary to actually visit each of the sources to see if something has been added. Depending on the RSS system, the information provided is usually the title and a snippet from the source. You read these short segments and make a decision of whether or not you want to connect to the full post. Byrne is complaining that EdTech Update is doing something similar, but not for personal use. The snippets are aggregated and served to users by EdTech Update. If you visit the Update site, you should see what I am describing.

In addition, when a user selects the snippet made available by RSS, EdTech Update takes you to the full post, but does so within a “frame” from the EdTech server. If you are checking on my description by visiting the site, take a look at a sample URL to see what I mean.

So what is happening this URL is that you are viewing a post from Ditch The Textbook displayed within a window controlled by edtechupdate. If you follow a link within the Ditch the Textbook site, you will still see this new information displayed within this same window.

This may sound like situational ethics, but it could be worse. You do see the ads as intended by the content author so I assume that the original author still receives any revenue generated by his/her work.  Of course, it does not have to work this way. Many of us write blog posts pointing to resources we find valuable, We substitute our personal effort for an automatic process. The frame technique is what I consider the most egregious issue. Moving from snippets to the source is how RSS typically works when you use an RSS reader. I admit I do not understand the motive to keep content within a frame, but it does seem a step too far when relying on content generated by others.

I have explained this issue as I understand it. I welcome corrections should others feel my interpretation is incorrect.

Layering update

I have not written about layering recently (you can search this site for the layer tag). A recent search for layering tools has prompted another post.

I use the term layering to describe an online service that allows a user to add content (annotations, highlighting, questions, external links) on top of the online content generated by a different individual. Actually, you could layer content on top of your own original content, but the core issues I want to address here involve the addition of content on top of what someone else has prepared. I use the word “layering” because the word offers a mental image I prefer. There is the content of the original author and there is the content generated by one or more different individuals. These “layers” of content are stacked so that the content of the original author appears as intended by that individual, but other content is added on top.

My interest in this capability is related to educational applications. I sometimes describe the opportunity a teacher has to take original content and to add elements to that content to generate a composite product that is more ideal as an instructional resource. These elements might include annotations intended to activate existing knowledge before reading new material, highlights added for emphasis, questions inserted to encourage beneficial cognitive activities or checks on understanding, etc.  I have written a small book for educators on this subject and offer free online resources.

Others see broader opportunities in what I describe as layering. Some describe the opportunity to “annotate the web” as a way to expand or criticize online content. For example, it would offer a way to identify falsehoods in online content or a way to add discussion to a primary source.

The opportunity to layer content on the work of other authors is not without controversy. I have written previously about the negative reaction some authors have to others commenting on their work. One comparison that might help you understand this negative reaction might be what happens when authors allow comments on their material – say a blog post or a YouTube video. Not only can comments be negative, but comments can be completely off target or involve personal attacks. To prevent such comments, content creators may turn off comments.

I can certainly see how such concerns could be valid, my focus has been on layering methods that are limited to a controlled group (a teacher and his/her class). A moderated use such as this would only reveal comments within the group and would allow the teacher to supervise. Some, however, may simply object to the appearance of a modification (even when the original content is still intact) without permission.

As I have explored various layering services I recommend to educators, I have become aware of a different concern. This concern is related to some of the various techniques by which a layer of content can be added to an existing web resource. I was investigating a service called Genius. This service has positive goals and influential technology backers. The service is very easy to use but it has been described as a proxy server that overrides certain security features  assumed by the original author. I have searched for more recent descriptions of how Genius works and sent an inquiry to the company for a comment on this concern, but to this point I am assuming the Verge concern (see link above) is still valid.

The practice of layering Internet content raises interesting questions. In what I consider the ideal application, the author’s original content is all presented (including ads) and the original content can be clearly differentiated from any annotations or added components by color or some other mechanism that makes clear what has been added. This composite is viewed by users who understand that what they see is a combination provided by multiple individuals and these viewers opt in to view this composite. By opt in, I mean the viewers must activate access to the service combining the inputs so that they understand what they are viewing is not the original. I don’t think existing copyright law would prevent this set of circumstances and I doubt the number of such services would exist should the practice be easy to challenge. You certainly don’t see comparable composites with print media, but similar composites in print would require republication of an original author’s work. This is a content model unique to the Internet.