The hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty is trending like wildfire. The tag was first coined by the biggest YouTuber existing, Pewdiepie, in a now restricted video. Several months have passed since the video was uploaded, but creators and viewers alike are still concerned YouTube is moving in a direction they do not approve of.
YouTube is unquestionably the biggest internet video platform. It is the second most visited website in the world, with one of its most popular uploads, the music video for Psy’s “Gangnam Style”, attracting over 2.8 billion views. A mixture of various aspects has contributed to the site’s success, but arguably the most significant feature is its free, unrestricted and creative content. However, YouTube is a business and businesses aim to earn profit. While it has managed to balance freedom and profit in the past, recent changes have led some to believe YouTube handles neither of the two aspects wisely.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint when the rumored downfall of YouTube began, the public disdain regarding the platform undoubtedly started with a video posted by Pewdiepie in September of 2016. In the video, he complained that YouTube was demonetizing his videos. In other words, several of his videos were deemed “not advertiser-friendly” and had their advertisements detached from them. Soon after, a huge number of YouTube’s creators reported that some of their videos had been demonetized as well. A post made by YouTube on its creator blog, describing the content that was inappropriate for advertisement, sparked controversy. The list included sexual content, violence, inappropriate language, promotion of drugs, and most importantly, controversial or sensitive subjects. Philip DeFranco, a successful YouTuber running a news show channel, pointed out that such policies were bound to affect news and commentary channels more than others. Also, heavily right-leaning channels and channels promoting LGBTQ+ content saw relatively worse damage. This phenomenon naturally led to perceptions that YouTube and its policies are biased. Several content creators including DeFranco expressed concern that such systems could be perceived as a form of censorship and thus a violation of the freedom the platform promised to provide.
Through research, DeFranco discovered that the demonetization system was not anything new and had been in practice for months and maybe years. Creators’ reactions were delayed because YouTube did not notify them in any way about the advertisement status of their videos before recent developments. Although YouTube has advanced the system by letting creators recognize demonetized videos and allowing them to appeal for such videos’ ads to be restored, the question remains; how much money did creators lose while they were unaware of demonetization? Few YouTubers were even aware of the situation because no e-mails or any kind of notifications were sent to creators that had their videos demonetized. Moreover, YouTube did not provide an explanation of how the demonetization process worked, leaving people confused about why some channels were affected more than others.
Despite efforts to satisfy brands with “safe” videos to invest In, YouTube has been steadily losing advertisement profit since March this year. After it was discovered that random ads were still being placed on videos promoting hate speech, racism, and extreme violence, prestigious businesses such as PepsiCo, Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Toyota all pulled their advertising, joining a growing list of dozens of companies in Europe and the US. In response, YouTube announced on its official blog that it will be “strengthening YouTube for advertisers and creators” and that “there is a difference between the free expression that lives on YouTube and the content that brands have told us they want to advertise against”.
Ad placement is not the only problem YouTube faces. YouTube has a optional “Restricted Mode” individual users can use which filters out content that may be seen as “sensitive” or “inappropriate”, especially to underage viewers. This March, users creating and consuming LGBTQ+ content discovered that through Restricted Mode, some channels focusing on LGBTQ+ content were blocked almost entirely, including videos without any mature content. Not only LGBTQ+ channels but countless other YouTubers were swept out as well. Because the only explanation YouTube offered was that the code blocked out mature videos, there was understandable confusion regarding exactly which content was classified as “mature”, and what age group “mature” was meant to begin with. Intentionally or not, YouTube was unfairly targeting certain groups of people and limiting the audience they could reach. In response, managers of the site posted an apology on their blog on March 20th. However, they simply explained how a system malfunction was responsible for the whole dispute and promised that YouTube will undo any damage while working on improving the system. There was no specific plan disclosing details about exactly how they plan to improve it.
Is YouTube over? I say no, and that it won’t die anytime soon. YouTube promised that it will listen to the people’s suggestions and change problematic systems one step at a time. Also, its advantages regarding advertising compared to cable TV have always brought in tons of ads and will continue to do so in the future. Still, these events highlight what has always been a huge problem of YouTube: communication. More often than not, YouTube activates a new function or system without a single word to creators on how it may affect them. YouTube may be a private business with every right to do whatever they want to its site, but it should tread more carefully if its goal is to remain competitive as a video domain. Like YouTuber TheNotAdam points out, YouTube can always reach out to creators before changing the site in drastic ways to minimize the backlash. This is so much better than the alternative, which is dropping potentially destructive features on creators out of the blue. Transparency is key for users to maintain trust in the platform and accept the apologizes they provide for their mistakes. Two-sided, open communication between the managers and the creators may possibly be the only way to promote freedom of expression all the while gaining profit. YouTube must remember the values they set all the way back in 2005: “Our mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world”.