This is the most consequential technology in America


(Spoiler alert: It's YouTube.)

You think you know YouTube. This is where billions of people learn how to change a tire, pursue a favorite yoga workout or capture footage of Monday's solar eclipse.

But you might not know that YouTube is also the most popular way to listen to music and one of the largest cable TV providers in the country. YouTube is the healthiest economy on the Internet. And it was rocket fuel for artificial intelligence.

I'm interested in YouTube's identity because it's important to understand the impact of technology on our lives. As popular as YouTube is, its power over the internet and us is somehow still underestimated.

Let me try to convince you that YouTube is the most consequential technology in America:

YouTube is the #1 place for listening to videos and music

YouTube is perhaps best known for wasting a few minutes at the supermarket checkout or in the toilet. (Excuse me.)

However, YouTube is also America's top living room streaming destination. Nielsen data consistently shows that Americans spend more time watching YouTube on TVs than any other streaming service, including Netflix.

There's no reliable data on the total amount of time we stream on TVs, phones, computers, and other devices, but YouTube would likely be at the top of that measurement too.

YouTube TV, which works like cable TV but is accessible over the Internet, is also now one of the leading cable TV providers in the country.

When it comes to music, more people listen to songs on YouTube than we listen to on Spotify, the radio or any other audio service.

In a survey of people in several countries by Mark Mulligan of MIDiA Research, about two-thirds of respondents watched music videos on YouTube. About 43 percent listened to music online through other means and 31 percent have a streaming music subscription such as Spotify and Apple Music.

PS: According to the Pew Research Center, YouTube is by far the most widely used social app among American adults. The most used app among teenagers is not TikTok. It's YouTube again.

It's the healthiest economy on the internet

When you post on Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, or X, you are essentially making those companies' products for free. YouTube doesn't work like that.

For every dollar that advertisers pay to appear on millions of YouTube videos, the person who created the video receives 55 cents. Google, which owns YouTube, keeps the rest.

YouTube has had this financial arrangement for almost 20 years. Even today, no other major app offers such a consistent way to generate income from what they create and publish online.

YouTube's revolutionary payment system is important to you, even if you never make a cent from making a YouTube video.

A healthy Internet economy, like a well-functioning United States economy, is one in which everyone believes they have a chance to thrive. This includes you as a viewer, the people who produce the information or entertainment content you view, and the companies that distribute the material.

YouTube is far from perfect in this regard, but it may be the closest thing to a financially ideal online economy.

By the way, if you take out a YouTube Premium subscription that allows you to watch videos without ads, YouTube gives a portion of your money to the video makers in proportion to your watch time.

If you watch a lot of videos from MrBeast and Not Just Bikes, these YouTube channels get a big chunk of your subscription money. Most music services like Spotify or Netflix don't work with the relatively democratic system for paying the people who produce something.

Even if you only listen to jazz music on Spotify, Taylor Swift will still get a lot of your subscription money.

YouTube is an important, controversial AI data fuel

You know an app is important when it becomes a wrestling match for companies to grab every little piece of data to “train” their AI.

According to the New York Times, ChatGPT owner OpenAI has invented a way to suck up more than a million hours of YouTube videos and podcasts and turn the spoken words into fuel for coaching its AI. As the Times reported, Google has also transcribed YouTube videos to train its AI software.

What OpenAI did could violate YouTube's terms of service, and what Google did could violate the copyright of people who make YouTube videos, the Times reported.

OpenAI said it uses “numerous sources, including publicly available data and partnerships for non-public data.” Google reiterated the YouTube CEO's recent comment that the company's AI is trained on some YouTube materials “consistent with our agreements with YouTube creators.”

YouTube is definitely buggy. It is used to mislead and harass people and spread propaganda. But for better or worse, YouTube is even more important than you probably think.