Why Internet Videos are Longer Than Ever

Diego Thomazini/Shutterstock Inspiration GP/Shutterstock Login/Shutterstock Remix by Caterina Cox

By now, a thousand Google Docs have been filled with all manner of reactions, takeaways, and thoughts about British YouTuber Hbomberguy’s epic video essay “Plagiarism and You(Tube).” It’s an exhaustive examination of poor citation, outright theft, and other attribution issues facing creators on the platform that has become a lightning rod for commentary about what and does not constitute plagiarizing text online. Just three days after being posted, the video has become essential viewing for YouTube creators, particularly those working in the “video essay” format.

But aside from the very thorough and compelling content of the video itself — much of which focuses on the particular actions of a media and cultural critic named James Somerton — one notable aspect of the release that has received some additional scrutiny is its length. No matter how gripping your commentary or eye-catching your thumbnail, three hours and 51 minutes is a major time commitment to ask of your audience. That’s almost a half hour longer than Martin Scorsese’s crime saga “Killers of the Flower Moon.” 

For a long time, it wasn’t even possible to post videos that were this long on YouTube. Until 2010, the platform restricted all content to no more than 10 minutes. (In July 2010, YouTube briefly upped the limit from 10 minutes to 15, before dropping the time limit altogether later that year.) The site and app earned its reputation from people sharing quick, viral video clips — like buzzy “Saturday Night Live” sketches or flubs from the local news, say — but the actual reason behind the 10-minute limit was entirely practical. Before the platform’s Content ID system was in place, which could quickly identify and flag copyrighted videos, allowing longer videos was an open invitation to piracy. The time limits prevented YouTubers from streaming Hollywood movies or TV shows for free.

Today, verified YouTube users can post videos of up to 12 hours in length or 128 GB in size, and there are a variety of different options for creators working with different formats and structures. The company’s quick-hit TikTok competitor, Shorts, has become so wildly successful that many staffers at the company have expressed concern that it could soon begin to cannibalize the core long-form product. Nonetheless, there are ample examples of the opposite trend. In April of 2023, Verge looked at the phenomenon of “extended highlights,” which recreate entire sporting events by stringing together clips of the best moments. 

Obviously, the biggest single boon to posting a longer video on YouTube is increased watch time. Beyond just clicks, the longer a video is watched per user, the more likely YouTube’s algorithm is to recommend that video to others, expanding that creator’s reach. Bearing the psychology in mind – that some users will be less likely to click on a video with a massive running time in the first place — it’s important to strike a balance, producing content that’s long enough to stand out algorithmically but not SO long that it scares off potential viewers before they start watching.

Longer videos also allow for more ad breaks. A lot of creators purposefully make videos that run at least 8 minutes because this is the minimum requirement for a “midroll” ad break that interrupts the content. Conventional wisdom typically still holds that 8-10 minutes is the ideal length, long enough to add up considerable watch time and get spots for midroll ads without overwhelming viewers or running out of compelling things to say. 

Still, these standards obviously shift over time. Recent analysis from Think Media concluded that there is no “ideal length” for YouTube videos at all. They should be however long the creator requires, so long as they’re well paced and watchable. Additionally, in many kinds of cases, the disadvantages to posting longer-form content don’t matter, and longer essentially is always better.

Very long runtimes, for example, help to explain the incredible dominance of young kids’ content on YouTube. Many popular channels like the animated singalong hub Cocomelon or the family unboxings of Ryan’s World post videos that run for several hours in length, keeping little ones tuned in and distracted all afternoon. Cocomelon compilations often run over two hours in length and appear on playlists that run these collections in sequence. In Time Magazine’s 2021 profile of kid influencer Ryan Kaji of Ryan’s World, they noted that – despite the channel’s emphasis on kids actually going outside and playing on their own — the intensely long videos encouraged “a certain amount of sedentariness.”

Ambience-themed videos, including ASMR clips and so-called “Slow TV” segments, provide an even more extreme counter-example. These videos aren’t designed to be closely watched and scrutinized for their full runtime but provide soothing backgrounds or calming environments when left on. This still camera and microphone capturing an eight-and-a-half-hour train ride through Switzerland has over 1 million views; the most watched segment arrives over 6 hours in.

There are even extended YouTube clips that play nothing at all. A video titled “24 hours+ of pure black screen in HD” has collected over 48 million views in the past 6 years and became popular enough that the creator eventually had to do a “face reveal” and greet his fans by popular demand.

Features that allow viewers to control the speed at which clips play also make posting longer videos more practical. In July, YouTube started allowing Premium subscribers to play content at 2x its normal speed. This would bring Hbomberguy’s plagiarism exposé down to under 2 hours.

Video length agnosticism has spread to other apps as well. While TikTok defined itself entirely with short-form content, designed exclusively with mobile devices in mind, even that app is trying to keep viewers tuned in longer by encouraging creators to extend their posts. In October, the company started testing 15 minute uploads with some users and told creators that users spend more than 50% of their time on the app watching content that’s longer than 1 minute in length. Meta’s Instagram has also played around with the idea of expanding time limits on its Reels feature, which currently limits posts to just 90 seconds.

In terms of streaming content’s length and structure, we’re in a moment where both creators and major tech platforms are taking a trial-and-error approach. In Passionfruit’s discussion with Hbomberguy just this week, he noted that the plagiarism video followed last year’s epic examination of “Deus Ex,” which ran for around three-and-a-half hours. While he’d anticipated pushback after releasing such a lengthy and cumbersome project, instead, it proved wildly popular with subscribers and has amassed over 11 million views to date. (His concerns from the time are made immediately clear. The “Deus Ex” video opens with a title card informing viewers that they can use the chapter headings to divide the content up over multiple viewing sessions.)

Just a few years ago, 90 minutes was considered too long for YouTube clips, but Hbomberguy now complains that if he mocks an 8-hour video, he’s condemned as anti-long form content. It’s an environment with a surprising amount of creative freedom, in which nothing is certain, and standards continually change. Which can be a bit intense but also exciting.

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