Tech by VICE

Can Torrents Power a More Democratic YouTube?

This teenage developer thinks so.

by Jordan Pearson
Jul 12 2016, 9:00am

Image: Flickr/Andrew Smith

A decade on, YouTube makes and breaks careers and has expanded into the physical world with production studios for its most popular "partners." Trying to compete with it may be kind of, well, pointless. That's why 16-year-old Serbian developer Milan Kragujevic is designing a different kind of streaming site.

It's a bit bare bones at the moment, but the idea behind TorrentStream is a more democratic streaming service powered by peer-to-peer sharing. Torrents are a type of file commonly found on sites where you can pirate the latest Game of Thrones episode, but they're also simply a method of sharing media.

Unlike YouTube, which serves every video from its own servers, the video files that users watch on TorrentStream come directly from other users. Once someone watches a video, they then "seed" parts of that video to others, who watch it after them. More popular videos will have more seeders, and thus load faster.

"This technology [...] means less costly solutions and leads to [a] more self-publishing-friendly web"

The end result, theoretically, is that the cost to the person running the service will be extremely low: Users themselves are doing most of the work delivering video across the web. There may be no need for the ads and middling attempts at monetization that have characterized YouTube.

"The point of using TorrentStream in the real world is to save money on the server side, which means much cheaper servers than YouTube's, which would mean we would see a meritocracy form on the website," Kragujevic wrote me in an email.

"This technology [...] means less costly solutions and leads to [a] more self-publishing-friendly web and more freedom on the web," he continued.

Kragujevic previously built a browser-based version of Popcorn Time, a site for streaming torrent files with a Netflix-like interface. That project ended in 2015.

The major downside of TorrentStream is that videos with no views may load slowly, or (like a regular torrent stuck with zero seeders) may not load at all. One could make the argument that for all of YouTube's ads and general corporatism, at least a video with no views will still load just as quickly as the video for the latest pop banger. On top of that, there really is a very low barrier for people to upload, say, their home videos on YouTube already.

This might disadvantage TorrentStream as a direct competitor to YouTube, but one can see how a cheap and decentralized alternative might be desireable to the kinds of people who deal in reprehensible genres like "revenge porn" on the dark web. Kragujevic was clear that he will not be hosting any illegal content, however.

Even Kragujevic admits that the service isn't perfect, and he's still working out the bugs. Really, he wrote, he has no interest in starting a full-on streaming site himself, but merely wants to demonstrate that the technology works and can power a service.

At the very least, it's a novel idea, and after a decade of dominance it's not hard to see how some might be eager to finally come up against YouTube in earnest.