YouTube Shorts works. Todd Sherman is sure of that. Sherman, the product manager behind YouTube’s endlessly scrolling short form TikTok competitor, is quick to quote the numbers: 1.5 billion users a month watch Shorts and they watch 30 billion videos a month. “And those numbers were back at the beginning of the year,” he says. “It’s grown since then.” Creators monetize; viewers watch; everything seems to be going in the right direction.
The question of what YouTube really stands for — as it becomes increasingly clear that the TikTok-style vertical scroll is part of the future of video, and now that Shorts is probably part of that future — is how Shorts really fit into it. YouTube is already so much more than a simple video uploading service, and as the company also tries to integrate music, podcasts, games, movies and more, making Shorts meaningful in the YouTube app can be just as difficult. turn out to be like competing with TikTok and Instagram roles.
This week eg. YouTube brings Shorts to its TV apps, so you can watch the short video from the comfort of your home. On the one hand, this is a completely natural idea: Shorts are a fast-growing type of content and many people watch YouTube on their TV. Everyone wins, right? On the other hand, in the TikTok/Shorts/Reels era, short video is so closely associated with smartphones: the quick tools for editing and remixing a video, the in-app camera, even the vertical orientation and swipe-scrolling feed.
The YouTube team had to reconcile all that with the bigger screen. That means even simple questions – like, should Shorts be repeated when played on a TV? – get complicated quickly. “I think for videos that are particularly short, in short form, looping is often helpful because you really need more than one watch to get the value out of it.” But with a 60-second video, Sherman says, “You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end…and you usually don’t want to repeat it that often.”
One version of the Shorts UI that YouTube tested was like a side-scrolling queue of Shorts videos, all of which played as the queue moved from right to left. Another was dead simple: just the video in the center of the screen. The team ended up showing the video in the center of the screen, with the like and dislike buttons next to information about the video’s creator and sound. However, they still scroll vertically and still walk. For now.
“The UI challenges are certainly not trivial,” Sherman says, “because it does almost the opposite of bringing landscape video to the phone.” He says there’s a lot more to learn about how users want to interact with short video on their TVs, how those videos should be displayed, even whether to change the algorithm depending on screen size. “Are the things you enjoy with a very personal experience for you the same things you want to watch on a device that usually has more than one person watching?” he asks. Perhaps, he wonders aloud, Shorts on TV should give more preference to generally popular videos. Or to videos you already like. This is all brand new, he says, and it’s helpful to remember that nobody really knows anything.
Shorts generally raises a lot of questions for the YouTube app. In the beginning, the short videos were usually treated like any other video, on the creators’ shelves and pushed into recommendations. That didn’t really work; the youtube subreddit is full of people building Chrome extensions and scripts to remove Shorts automatically, and they just don’t seem to belong to what the company now calls “longform YouTube.” More recently, YouTube has moved Shorts to its own tab in the app and to its own section of creators’ channel pages. Short form is still promoted all over the YouTube experience, but now it’s treated as a separate thing.
But connecting Shorts to the rest of YouTube is crucial to making Shorts work. “If you’re watching a short video,” Sherman says, “and you come across someone commenting on another video — maybe they’ll get a green screen for it — we want to make it easy for the user to get there.” The team also wants to make it easier to turn a long video into a short video and vice versa.
“Or, for that matter,” Sherman continues, “if you find yourself on a long watch page and that video has been remixed, we want to make it easy to get to all those shorts.” He keeps riffing: If you watch a video with the soundtrack to Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero”, you should be able to see all the other Shorts with that sound, as well as the full music video and all the other Swift videos you want.
A particularly ambitious version of what Sherman is talking about could eventually make Shorts the new YouTube homepage: a more immersive, more interactive way to browse content that then seamlessly guides you through the rest of the platform. Just like TikTok builds a music app to help listeners move from viral clip to full album, YouTube sees Shorts as a gateway to YouTube. Sherman seems both excited and wary of this idea, but most of the time he thinks it’s too early to know much about anything for sure. “You and I are standing on this frontier looking forward to something that no one has really nailed.”
YouTube’s opportunity in almost every category is the same: to figure out how to build a great game/music/kids/podcasts/any product and then connect it to the rest of YouTube in non-copyable ways. With Shorts, TikTok can’t seem to beat at its own algorithmic game, but if Shorts YouTube can make both a fun feed of its own and a guide to everything else on the platform, it might have something that’s actually both native YouTube-yes and thoroughly TikTok-y. Then it just has to find the best way to get all that video with you, on any screen anywhere. It’s working on the biggest you have, but many more to come.