‘Like, Comment, Subscribe’ Details YouTube’s Existential Struggles, Creator Frustrations

Tech-related books arranged in a pile with white cover book on YouTube at the top.

Many books have been written about tech’s biggest platforms. From Hatching Twitter to How to Turn Down a Billion Dollars, Elon Musk, Super Pumped, No Filter, and An Ugly Truth, deep reporting provides readers with an inside look into the influence of these firms. But one platform largely remained ignored by book authors, until now: YouTube.

Founded 17 years ago, the social media app has gone from being just a place to upload your videos to one of society’s most important communication tools. But its road to phenomenal growth wasn’t smooth by any imagination and its history is quite complex.

Leave it to journalist Mark Bergen to tell it. In Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to Domination, the Bloomberg News reporter succinctly details nearly every phase of the video social network, from its creation to Google acquisition, the multiple CEO changes, its quest to appease creators, and existential angst — all in under 400 pages.

Character Arcs Galore

With people, companies and events that have storied histories, it makes sense for books to focus on one particular point in time. In Like, Comment, Subscribe, nearly two decades of experience is dumped on you and it’s quite an enjoyable read. Yes, I’d say this book is a page-turner!

Bergen doesn’t sugarcoat anything about YouTube, though he doesn’t let loose on the company either. I felt I was taken along for the entrepreneurial journey, learning how a scrappy YouTube fought for relevancy, dealt with big-time issues (e.g. a lawsuit brought against it by Viacom), what led to the $1.65 billion acquisition by Google, the contrasts between the two tech firms, adjustments to the leadership styles of co-founder Chad Hurley, Salar Kamangar and Susan Wojcicki, and the seemingly nonstop pivots.

But what I found fascinating was the character developments. It’s not that Bergen made people up — they really exist — but the book reminds me of weekly episodic TV. Think The West Wing, 24 or The Big Bang Theory where every episode has a plot and more light is shed on an individual character’s history and relationships. Like, Comment, Subscribe has this in spades. There are perhaps dozens of such story arcs that I can recall, from creators PieDiePie and VidCon founder and creator Hank Green to Multi-channel Networks (MCNs) and insiders Robert Kyncl and Claire Stapleton.

From Human to AI Curation

As someone who spends their days curating for Flipboard, reading YouTube’s evolving efforts was insightful. Maybe it’s me, but I was curious about the team’s reactions to then-emerging trends like unboxing, fashion and kids videos. We see those now as natural but fascinating to look back and see how it all started. I appreciated Bergen thoroughly detailing YouTube’s “Head” and the use of “coolhunters” to discover content creators, illustrating the enormous mission these essential “front-line workers” had to demonstrate why the platform was worth using.

Today, AI algorithms are the flavor of the week, so establishing YouTube had human beings doing the work before relying on algorithms is an important connection to make. Of course, the AI is now able to manage content at scale, though it’s not without its own flaws, which Bergen recounts extensively.

‘The Heart of YouTube’

You can’t have a book about YouTube without including discussing the people doing the heavy lifting: Creators. Though the creator economy really boomed over the past three years, it really started with the video app. But YouTube’s relationship with creators hasn’t always been smooth.

Bergen recounts with aplomb tales of creators who felt wronged or frustrated by changes made to the platform. Creators constantly scrambled under every change, including when YouTube decided to switch up metrics it deemed important, made algorithmic tweaks that penalized innocent channels, modified its monetization strategy, and more. It felt that with every step the platform took to embrace them, YouTube took two steps back, dinged by its own efforts.

Fun fact: At some point, YouTube’s Wojcicki started referring to creators as “the heart of YouTube.”

In some way, I better understood YouTube as it struggled to find ways to have good relationships with its creators. It’s easy to chastise social media platforms over their failings in the space, but after reading Like, Comment, Subscribe, you get a sense of the fragile relationship that exists between influencer and the platform.

Outside Influences

When I say Like, Comment, Subscribe squeezes two decades of YouTube into 386 pages, I’m not joking. Bergen looks at external battles the company has been engaged with. There’s the alleged conservative bias claim cast by Republicans, the challenge of disinformation, how the company dealt with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, boycotts from advertisers, and a deadly shooting at its San Bruno, Calif. campus in 2018.

There are many subtle themes I thought about when reading this book. The first third or so of the book examines YouTube’s creation to acquisition. The second third highlights the company’s explosive growth. The last part looks at outside factors threatening its existence.

You’d expect users and advertisers to flee YouTube by now. But poignantly as one employee told Bergen: “How do you boycott electricity?”

No Blame Assigned

You won’t walk away loving or hating YouTube any more or less after reading this book. What I took away was a better understanding of the platform and that success didn’t happen overnight. It’s not a point of view unique to Like, Comment, Subscribe and it’s not as if we should be pitting books about Facebook, Twitter, Apple and YouTube against each other. But, it’s astounding to know the growth challenges YouTube dealt with.

Though Bergen doesn’t pass judgment, what he does highlight is the uncertainty YouTube has in defining what it is. Is it a media company or a tech one? What stance should it take on content? The book paints a good picture of the battle the company frequently deals with. It wants to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to everything but knows it can’t.

The Verdict

More than 300 people were interviewed for Like, Comment, Subscribe, including 160 current and former YouTube and Google employees. The detailed reporting is evident, but don’t expect to find a lot of surprises.

I really enjoyed reading Bergen’s book and am glad I pre-ordered a copy. It’s filled with amazing facts and context to help you better understand YouTube. I wonder where the platform goes next after achieving what’s been described as “world domination.” There’s certainly no shortage of creators for it to continue to engage and it’s branching out more into streaming. But what’s next? I suppose we’ll have to wait for Bergen’s next book…

Like, Comment, Subscribe hits store shelves on September 6, 2022.

But up next…

Want to learn more about YouTube?

I’ll be speaking with Bergen about Like, Comment, Subscribe on my “The Created Economy” podcast on August 18 at 2 p.m. PST. It’ll be one of the first interviews he’s done ahead of the book being published.

We’ll broadcast live, so if you have your own questions for him, tune in!

Oh, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. 😉

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.