YouTube Shorts is a TikTok clone. It’s also YouTube’s master plan.

Making short-form video fit within YouTube's ecosystem is harder than it looks, though.

YouTube Shorts player

YouTube Shorts looks like TikTok, but could be something more powerful.

Photo: YouTube

At a glance, YouTube Shorts looks an awful lot like TikTok. Full-screen videos, vertical scrolling, likes and comments, the whole nine yards. YouTube doesn't even try to deny it. In fact, the only part of the characterization that Shorts product manager Todd Sherman disagrees with is that those are TikTok features. "Think about the Vine multi-segment camera," he said. "Think about countdown timers. Think about speed controls from Musical.ly. Think about providing audio sources from Dubsmash." The point is, Sherman said, the way TikTok works is actually more about an industrywide standard than a single app's point of view. It would be like calling every blog a Geocities clone.

Sherman would know, by the way: He was a product manager for tweets at Twitter, and then the product lead for Stories and Discover at Snapchat. He knows a thing or two about copying and being copied. And in an industry where every new idea is immediately copied by seemingly every competitor, everybody's both a leader and a follower.

The real question for YouTube is the same one that faces Instagram with Reels or any of the other companies trying to build a more interactive, mobile-first future of entertainment: What's your edge? Sherman's answer is clear. YouTube's edge is YouTube's library. Countless hours of videos, which 2 billion users spend hours every day watching and interacting with. With Shorts, Sherman said, "We are going to effectively remix YouTube."

Here's what that looks like: Every single video on YouTube, by default, can be used as a soundtrack for a Short. Any music video, any meme — anything can, with a tap or two, become background music for these quick vertical videos. The strategy is deliberately permissive, and seems likely to make some people angry. Creators can opt out, and YouTube's typical Content ID-based copyright rules apply, but Sherman said he expects most people to jump on board. "I'd say that their excitement comes from being interested in understanding how their video might be the source for a meme, and getting lots of traffic back from it."

That traffic flow is the other key to YouTube Shorts. People who hear a song or a bit in TikTok are often stuck Googling lyrics to figure out what it is, or at the very least going to Spotify to listen to the whole thing. Shorts users can just tap their way back to the music video or originating meme.

YouTube Shorts home Shorts is integrated into the YouTube app, and YouTube's trying to make that feel seamless.Photo: YouTube

The power of this flow is now obvious to everyone in the entertainment industry. One TikToker on a skateboard, for instance, was sufficiently powerful to drive sales of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry up and to the right, and make a 1977 Fleetwood Mac song the 29th most popular song in America. Social media has minted new artists, made new stars out of long-suffering ones and even changed the way music is made. Culture is created and consumed one vertical video at a time.

Right now, particularly with music, that ecosystem moves across lots of apps and services. YouTube wants it all to happen on YouTube. Users might discover a song through Shorts, watch the official video on YouTube, check out the album through YouTube Music and buy concert tickets or subscribe to the artist's channel to get more involved going forward. Then they'll make their own Short with that artist's next track, where new people might discover it. "It's great to get another promotional vehicle," said Lyor Cohen, the head of YouTube Music. "And another promotional vehicle that's tethered to economics is just fantastic."

Improving discovery is a key piece of the puzzle. If there's one part of TikTok that has proven tricky to copy, it's the seemingly psychic algorithm that can instantly figure out what viewers want and send them down the exact right rabbit hole. YouTube's recommendation is more heavily reliant on things like engagement, which sometimes leads viewers down problematic, radicalizing rabbit holes. With Shorts, Sherman said the plan is to be more experimental. "When you're in a video feed, and people are just swiping," he said, "it's easier — compared to 10- or 20-minute videos — to insert a video in there." YouTube's curation and recommendation is partially hashtag-based, too, helping people find and participate in trends.

In a way, actually, Shorts represents the entire future of YouTube: more integrated, more interactive, putting consumption and creation on equal planes in the app. "We were originally the user-generated content platform that enabled a whole bunch of creators to find their voice," Sherman said. "Shorts feels like an echo of the same story, except now instead of desktop computers, DSLRs and video-editing software, it's really all based on the phone."

Shorts is just YouTube's latest attempt to crack this, and it has proven elusively difficult over the years. With YouTube Gaming, the company tried to fork a part of its audience before eventually re-integrating it with YouTube Main (as it's known inside the company). Cohen and the YouTube Music team continue to sort through how to combine a premium streaming service with a cavalcade of user-generated content. YouTube Stories hasn't quite caught on, though it's still a part of the platform.

YouTube Shorts is integrated all over YouTube. Users will see side-scrolling shelves of vertical videos in lots of parts in the app, for instance, and in YouTube's underlying infrastructure, every Short is just a regular video with different metadata.

As for the roadmap? Sherman and Cohen would only say that it's long, but yet again TikTok makes it pretty easy to guess. Instead of just grabbing sound from a video as background for a Short, users could do a side-by-side duet with a video. They could stitch their own video with others. They could make Shorts trailers for their main channel videos. Sherman said YouTube is launching the feature now, in a deliberately basic fashion, in order to get creators involved in shaping the format as soon as possible.

The format so far is TikTok, but on YouTube. That might always sound a lot like a TikTok clone, or it could feel like the place the format has always belonged. YouTube has at its disposal more of the ingredients for the future of entertainment than any other platform, by a long shot. But putting them together is the hard part.

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Photo: LaunchDarkly

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