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YouTube's TikTok rival, Shorts, starts rolling out in US

Shorts' suite of tools is basic compared to TikTok's bells and whistles, but YouTube hopes it has an edge with its 2 billion monthly visitors and track record of paying big creators piles of cash.

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Angela Lang/CNET

YouTube is rolling out Shorts, its response to the TikTok phenomenon, in the US starting Thursday and continuing over the next "several weeks." This suite of creator tools for making short, vertical, looping videos is expected to be available to all creators on YouTube in the US, whether they have millions of channel subscribers or none at all. 

You may have already noticed a carousel in YouTube's mobile app labeled Shorts beta to let you watch some looping vertical videos. And an earlier version of the Shorts' creator tools have been available in India since September. As of Thursday, YouTube is tweaking the product and rolling out tools to the US, which allow creators to more easily make these videos with editing, sampling and adding things like text overlays.  

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YouTube Shorts introduces in-app editing features for vertical videos, like adding text to specific parts of a clip. 

YouTube

It makes Google's massive video site the latest tech giant trying to tap into the sensation around TikTok, the social video app owned by Chinese company Bytedance. Facebook's Instagram launched it own TikTok copycat, Reels, in August, after Facebook shut down another wannabe, Lasso, last year.

YouTube's Shorts, as a beta version, isn't a flashy, final product, and it's missing a number of TikTok's big bells and whistles. But YouTube, eventually, aims to lean into its existing strengths that an upstart app can't match: insane audience scale (more than 2 billion visitors a month), a track record of paying creators ($30 billion over the last three years alone) and the biggest library of online video on the planet to explore and remix. How often have you watched a viral dance on TikTok only to switch over to YouTube to watch the official video?

Shorts includes some capabilities at the heart of TikTok's memes and viral hits, like adding text to specific points in a video or sampling audio from other Shorts. And, yes, dance videos will have songs to sample -- YouTube has deals with all the major record labels and publishers, as well as a bunch of indies. 

But Shorts, for now, lacks other features that have played into TikTok's appeal, like duets and funky facial filters, like the ones that remove someone's beard or make you look like you're old enough to join the AARP. 

"We're laying a lot of foundational things now," Todd Sherman, the product lead for Shorts, said this week in an interview. Over the course of this year and beyond, Shorts will be adding more capabilities as it observes what rises to the top, he said. "The most exciting thing is that we're going empower an awful lot of people to be creative in ways that really nowhere else in the world they have that ability."

At launch in the US, Shorts doesn't have monetization, but Sherman said the company is exploring all options for ways Shorts creators can make money. Preroll and midroll advertisements, the kind of monetization at the heart of YouTube, aren't ideal for videos that max out at 60 seconds, he noted. "We're really going back to principles about what it means to define a new business model here," he said. 

Shorts also doesn't have the ability to sample from YouTube's entire catalog of video yet either. Sherman said the company plans to roll that out soon, and existing YouTube creators will have the ability to opt out of their videos being available. 

YouTube is also experimenting with how it curates and recommends Shorts. TikTok is known as an app where a creator is more likely to go from obscurity to internet-famous overnight. That's partly due to TikTok's recommendations strategies, but it's also partly because TikTok doesn't have a deeply entrenched, huge firmament of stars yet -- there's more room for new influencers to quickly break through. 

But YouTube is experimenting with recommendation algorithms for Shorts that differ from the ones for longer-form YouTube, which may give more oxygen to lesser-seen videos, Sherman said. A viewer's Shorts feed may have nine recommended popular videos and then the 10th clip is one nobody's ever seen before, he said. 

"YouTube's a big stage. It's a place that's very interesting for lots of creators who want to find an audience in long form," Sherman said. "We're really creating another stage here, one that we want to level the playing field and give this new generation of mobile creators a place where they could make it their home also."

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