Youtube Rot

Anyone who has been blogging for at least few years now, can attest to this: Youtube videos sometimes go away after they have been up for a while. Most of the video hosting services do not have policy of deleting old and inactive content, but it still happens. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes the author deletes the video himself. Sometimes he or she deletes their whole account nuking all the content they have ever submitted in one swift click of a button. Other times Youtube forcibly deletes their account for a TOS violation. Finally, many videos are lost to broken and often abused anti-piracy compliance procedures (delete video first, ask questions later… or never). Regardless of reasons, the slow fading away of embedded videos is a fact of life.

If you don’t believe me, you can easily verify this for yourself. Pick a blog that you like and dig into it’s archives from 3-4 years ago. Look for video posts. I can almost guarantee that you will find at least one (but likely more) broken embed that looks like this:


Chris Wellons (btw, go read his blog – good stuff) was recently browsing through my own archives and found quite a few dead videos there. These vids just vanished. They were swallowed by the cyberspace void never to be see again. They became ex-videos. They have ceased to be!

What’s worse, I forgot which videos were they to begin with. Some of my old posts would tangentially discuss a video that I embedded but at no point would even hint at what the content was – and I did not remember. So there was no way for me to even go back and re-embed it or post some explanatory blurb. These posts are now mysteries.

Of course, the web being what it is, all online resources are prone to sudden disappearances like that. Broken links to articles, and broken images are also a frequent sight on pages that have not been updated in a while. But I find it that Youtube videos are much more volatile than anything else.

This is probably due to the fact that most of other content people tend to link to is self hosted rather than tied to some free service that needs to react to 10 million wanton copyright infringement complaints each day. For example when I put an image or an article here on Terminally Incoherent it will stay up as long as I keep paying my hosting fee. It may go down every once in a while because my host can’t keep their shit together, but it won’t disappear overnight one day. Even if Dreamhost decides to delete my file due to a complaint (or for fun) I can effortlessly restore it under the same URL if I need to.

Furthermore, we already have established ways to prevent this breakage from happening – or to work around it. Hot-linking to image files is for example, considered rude and inconsiderate (if not dangerous – what if the original author of kitten.jpg you hot-linked replaces it with goatsey or tubgirl out of malice?). It is considered a common courtesy to copy an image, host it yourself and then link back to the original source. This way the author gets the credit, but does not have to suffer the costs of serving the image to your readers.

Similarly, you can avoid making your post incomprehensible after an article you linked to goes away, by simply quoting the source. Textual quotes give the readers the much needed context without forcing them to leave your page to read some long article they may not be that interested in to begin with.

Video hosting these days is almost exclusively done through Youtube like services. You can still self host videos just like images but it is just not as easy. To host a picture, all you need to do is upload it. To host a video, you will usually need to convert it into a FLV, upload it, set up a flash based FLV player somewhere and then combine the two. It takes some work. Or you can just post the video in it’s original form for download, but it will be huge, inconvenient to handle and it will kill your bandwidth. Posting your stuff to Youtube or similar place is really the best the easiest and quickest way you can get your stuff out there.

Once you host the video on their servers however, you are at their mercy. If your vid is taken down, you can’t easily restore it. You can beg them to bring them back, and dispute the take down but that does not always work. If you re-edit the video (for example in response to a complaint, or just to fix it up) you can’t re-upload it with the same URL. Your new upload will get it’s own unique address, an all the existing links will be pointing to the old one – or to a 404 error page if the old vid was taken down for some sort.

Locally caching videos the way we commonly do with images is impractical. Youtube currently does not provide us with an easy way to download the videos it is hosting. While there are many sites that specialize in extracting FLV files out of Youtube pages they are all unofficial. Some video services frown upon that practice, try to interfere with it and explicitly ask you not to grab their source files in the TOS. Most of them go out of their way to make embedding their content super easy for the end user. They provide you with an embed code (often in several formats such as HTML, BBCode and etc) and syndication buttons for popular services.

Because of this, embeding is the accepted method of sharing videos these days. So we have a broken system in place, used by millions of people. We know that this system often results in broken links and that there are no easy to apply and viable alternatives. So what do we do about it?

There exist services that specialize in allowing you to watch “deleted” Youtube videos. or which cache videos on demand, or automatically. but they don’t help us. For one, they are not reliable – some videos are lost to them as well. And in either case, we trade one service for another which may be even less reliable in the future. But even if a video is available via such service, it does not change the fact that original link or embed is broken. That’s really what we are trying to prevent here.

There is really no way for us to stop or avoid Youtube rot – it just happens randomly. You can try to be cautious of what you link to, but you just never know which video will stat up forever, and which will be gone after 2 weeks. Best thing we can do is to try to work around it. Now that we know Youtube rot exists, we can take steps to make our posts and articles less vulnerable to it’s effects.

Here is my proposal: each time you embed a video, include the following in the body of your post somewhere:

  1. The exact title of the video as it appears to youtube so that your readers can easily google it once it is gone
  2. The name or nickname of the original creator, to help narrowing down the search
  3. A brief description of the video contents to provide context for your readers if the video can’t be found elsewhere

When I say brief description, I mean brief. You don’t need to do a House of Leaves type transcript of every scene and every dialog. Just give your readers some idea of what happens in the movie. You can even phrase it in the form of a comment as in “I never knew hat doping menthos into coke and watching it explode could be this much fun”.

Most people don’t do this. They just post the embed code and then comment on it, but they do not take time to properly describe, tag or attribute it. I know, because I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Think about it though. Next time you include a video in your post, take a 10 seconds to copy and paste the title and the author below it. Take a minute to comment on it’s contents. This will pay off in the long run. In a few years, someone will stumble upon that old post of yours and will still be able to make sense of it. Better yet, thanks to the full title and author they may even be able to locate the vid you mentioned on some other service.

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11 Responses to Youtube Rot

  1. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    To host a picture, all you need to do is upload it. To host a video, you will usually need to convert it into a FLV, upload it, set up a flash based FLV player somewhere and then combine the two.

    You are right about this, but, really, why is it like that? Why isn’t embedding video as simple as ❬video src=””❭. One would have thought that the w3c could have squeezed that one in, say, somewhere between ❬blink❭ and creating a css box-model that would confuse Einstein.

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  2. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Yeah, it would be nice but it just doesn’t work in practice – at least not for mpg files.

    The sad part about digital video is that the file extension only tells you half the story – it tells you about the wrapper format. You still need to know how the actual video stream is encoded. So you can have two mpg files, both requiring different software.

    Implementing a video player in a browser in a cross platform fashion is a nightmare.

    That said HTML5 draft originally included native support for Ogg Theora video trying to get some sort of uniform baseline for online video. Sadly it was dropped due to strong opposition from Apple and Nokia.

    Oh, and Firefox 3.1 Beta does support native Oog playback. :)

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  3. When I saw the title I was about to comment how your archives are full of dead, rotted Youtube videos, but I see you did that for me! Locally hosting videos could be a viable solution if it weren’t for copyright. If you download that Youtube video and host that locally, you could be in for some trouble. Images don’t seem to be as susceptible to this.

    Your proposal is some great advice, the kind that’s only obvious in hindsight. If the video has any popularity it’s likely to be found elsewhere given some meta information. If not, the post still has something to say. Post’s with “Hey check this out: <embed>” rot along with their videos.

    The Firefox video tag support is exciting. Perhaps once it’s established Theora and Vorbis on the web will really pick up and we can start dumping Flash video. Other browsers adding support for Theora should be pretty simple thanks to ogg’s liberal BSD license. Naturally, IE will never support it without a special plugin. Or it will support MSTheora, which happens to only work with IE.

    Unfortunately, The Firefox ogg support was announced almost a year ago, so it may yet be awhile.

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  4. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    How about hosting your own videos? I’ve heard of the JW FLV Player and there’s a WP plugin catering to that too (WP-FLV). Of course, the biggest downside to this is that you will have to bear your own hosting and bandwidth fees.

    I think the reason for YouTube rot is that the web is too juiced up on quick bites. If a recently uploaded video goes viral, it will make waves around the world for a while, until it gets forgotten because the next viral video gets uploaded. And the unending cycle continues.

    I’m not sure how’s the process to claim a copyright infringement on YT, but it looks freaking easy to me. Anyone who’s anybody can claim that a particular video is infringing some obscure copyright law. And YT, in its infinite wisdom, seems take it down immediately.

    The solution I have is simply to download videos from file sharing websites that I like (usually some sports or comedy thing), occupying a special place on my HDD.

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Chris Wellons: Actually, images are as susceptible as anything. In the past I’ve seen artists and photographers go ballistic when they found out someone posted their “masterpiece” on their website. These were pretty much the same type of people who would have that stupid script blocking right click on their gallery page. :P

    Mini rant: WTF is the deal with the “photographers” who post their work “portfolio” in a flash driven gallery with 240×320 sized pictures. What is the point of that?

    The thing is that most people don’t care if you re-post their image. Videos on the other hand – yeah, you could get in trouble.

    @Mart: Yup, the copyright removal thing is broken. As far as I know there is virtually no verification of any kind. If they get a request, they nuke the video and if the uploader contests it they may or may not bring it back.

    They also seem to have some sort of auto-detection script that does pattern matching on newly uploaded videos. My brother made a “end of semester” music vid featuring clips of him and his friends taken at parties at at school set to the “It’s the end of the world as we know it” song. It got rejected and deleted before it went public. So either he was extremely unlucky and fell a victim to a manual spot-check conducted by some low wage drone, or it’s was a script.

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  6. IceBrain PORTUGAL Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux Terminalist says:

    I think the main problem is that people don’t consider the future of their blog/profile. Who considers the fact that posts will be read two or three years from now? Most of the blogs I now don’t even last that much.

    As someone said, this may be considered a “dark” century in the future, as a great deal of information is lost and discarded.
    All the data in Geocities, for example, will disappear in a little while, as Yahoo is prepared to pull the plug. The folks at are working fast to backup most of it, but I’m sure that many websites full of interesting stuff will disappear, along with thousands of blinky texts and “under construction” gifs.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @IceBrain: Yeah, contrary to popular belief there are some valuable pages there.

    They almost closed down File Front as well – but I think it was bought out the last minute. If they closed it down we would pretty much lose close to 48TB of game mods and other gaming materials.

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  8. dawn SWITZERLAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    It’s funny how your proposal is actually a basic principle of web accessibility. Will problems like disappearing videos and images make people unknowingly follow accessibility guidelines?

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @dawn: Sssh! Don’t tell them. You are going to expose my clever ploy to trick people into running accessible blogs!


    But yeah – you are right. Accessibility is sadly still only a rare afterthought for most of us. I mean, let’s face it – how many websites have descriptive alt tags for their images?

    Most people ignore the alt attribute. Those who don’t can usually be grouped like this:

    1. People who include alt tags only to pass the validation – they usually just type whatever in there
    2. People who use them to add clever roll-over remarks to their images (the way XKCD does it)
    3. People who genuinely care about accessibility

    It’s sad, but I didn’t even think about accessibility when I was writing this. It never even crossed my mind.

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  10. dawn SWITZERLAND Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    Doesn’t matter. I hope you take your own advice and don’t forget to provide short descriptions of videos you post in the future. It’s really a joy to see that someone has done that when you don’t have flash installed (or enabled) or you’ve reached their site with a text-based browser.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @dawn: I will do that. Especially since I can now kill two birds with one stone – prevent Youtube rot and ensure better accessibility of this website. :)

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