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The Story Behind that YouTube Error Screen Static

When an error becomes beautiful.
Image: author's Screenshot

In one of my countless hours spent online, as I was trying to watch another of countless embedded YouTube videos, I was met with an error message and quiet, nigh unnoticeable static.

Here's an example that will work for American audiences, but I can't speak for anywhere else:

Error messages are far from rare on the internet—it only takes a change in privacy settings on YouTube for an embed to go bad. Static is a lot more rare, and it also doesn't make sense. It's a skeuomorph, an anachronism on par with your cell phone complaining that a gopher bit through the cable. There is nothing involved in the presentation of a YouTube video that can pick up static. As a matter of fact, since the digital transition, your TV shouldn't be picking up static any more either.

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So what the hell is going on in those broken YouTube links? I put on my journalism hat, and found out.

“The people who work here can all think of something that needs more love,” Phil Harnish, a web developer at YouTube, told me. Harnish's work mostly involves “working on the video player or page the videos appear on.”

Far from being an error, the static is one of YouTube's trademark Easter Eggs, the development of which pays homage to the medium that YouTube is still in the process of killing off: television.

“We played with a lot of knobs like you might find on an old TV," Harnish said. "Contrast, vertical sync, that sort of thing. The 'static' idea came up casually, and in fact, that honor belongs to an intern.”

It took a bit of fine tuning (no pun intended) to come to the subtle black on black static. “Frivolous features are never finished, so it was pretty hard to walk away,” Harnish continued. “Some variations were bordering on seizure inducing but, in the end, subtle won.”

It didn't escape the team's notice that they were spending their time on something that, if the development team is really on their game, should never appear. “There is something ironic about spending so much time making an error look nice,” Harnish said. “Errors aren't supposed to be seen, so they can be an afterthought and can stay ugly for a while.”

There are plenty of places online to search for YouTube's other Easter Eggs, which Phil called both a "creative outlet" and pedagogic. "One can learn a lot building these quick little features," he said.

It's impossible to know what someone who was born in the post-static era, which we're half a decade into, might take away. “It definitely occurred to us that static is almost extinct. I wonder how good the effect actually looks next to the real thing,” Phil said.

Anyone have a TV to compare?