I want to tell you about a special place on the internet. It’s free to attend, fun to navigate, trolls don’t exist, and there are LEGO movies on tap. It’s YouTube Kids–Google’s new app for iPads and Google Tablets that reimagines YouTube as an experience just for children.
But you know what? As full-fledged grownups, we dig many of its ideas, too.
Most video interfaces, whether YouTube or Netflix, offer a mostly silent experience, punctuated by a few clicks or maybe a whoosh as you scan through content. YouTube Kids, however, plays a happy music track in the background–similar to the Nintendo Wii–and your gestures are accented by a suite of overstated sound effects–”beeeuuuu,” “uuuiieeee,” and various piano chords. Because sounds effects are to the ears what sprinkles are to the eyes. And ask any kid: Sprinkles should be on everything.
YouTube, much like Facebook and Twitter, is ultimately organized like one big popularity contest. How many views? How many shares? All that really matters is to be viral. “An Amazing Selfie Proposal” with 3,600,077 views urges you, “Don’t be the last to see this! Don’t you remember what happened with Gangnam Style??” The numbers alone create a sense of urgency. Nothing cuts through this high school mentality like a few seasons of Sesame Street, presented without viewcount.
“SUBSCRIBE TO THIS CHANNEL! SUBSCRIBE!” begs every video you watch on YouTube, pleading for you to sign up to see the creator’s next thing and help those numbers go up. YouTube Kids has channels, but you can’t subscribe to them, so the content isn’t designed to pander to you (like, let me just pull something from a hat here, “Why Is My Tongue Stuck To This Flagpole”). Maybe that will change as more content arrives and Google executives decide they need more tools for “discovery,” but until then, it’s a blissful world grounded in taste, where ads live only as pre-roll commercials.
Case in point, I heard this gem while testing: “Don’t you just love to watch trucks work? Twenty Trucks is a YouTube channel for kids where you can learn about cool trucks, [with songs] that you can sing and dance to. Like a dump truck! And so many other awesome trucks.” [Note: You can’t actually subscribe to anything on YouTube Kids. And I know, I know, I just ranted about subscriptions. But Twenty Trucks gets a hall pass.]
Though only time will tell if children will still enjoy clips of “Thomas the Tank Engine” without countless racist and homophobic rants sitting beneath.
YouTube Kids allows parents to set timers to limit their child’s video consumption. To get into those controls, they need to enter a four-digit PIN. The good news? They’ll never need to remember it, because rather than asking you to set a PIN, the interface prompts adults to type in the digits of corresponding spelled out words, so “eight” becomes “8,” etc. In other words, the keys to the kingdom are sitting right in front of those lovably naive children, if only they could read well enough! An informal office poll among Fast Company parents suggests that this trick might only work until age 5, but still, totes adorbs.
The biggest difference of all, though, comes from the curation of content itself. YouTube Kids has a limited set of partners for the time being, filled with an inherently limited set of shows any adult would know (“Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow,” etc). No, YouTube Kids doesn’t have many tools for “discovery”–there are no trending topics or sidebars with suggested shows kids might like–but right now, there just isn’t enough content to require kids to mine for the gems that they might like or care about.
YouTube Kids can have a streamlined approach–organizing all content under the umbrellas of Shows, Music, Learning, and Explore (the latter of which is the closes Kids comes to creating a catch-all YouTube feed, as it includes curated “cat videos” and “viral videos for kids”)–because there’s just not that much video here.
Maybe YouTube could learn from this product. As inefficient as it may sound, I’d download a curated YouTube app that was more catered to my tastes–maybe something that was focused on music videos, movie trailers, or sketch comedy–if it meant I didn’t have to wade through the garbage of reposted clips and other stuff I didn’t care about.
There is only so much Google can do with the YouTube interface alone. Sooner or later, it’s just as important for them to do something about the YouTube content, whether that’s the videos themselves or the comments underneath them. As Google eyes cable and television as its next YouTube conquest, the company would be smart to take cues from its own spinoff app–even if it’s just for kids.