Between Demonetisation and a Hard Place: The Future of YouTube

As someone who has spent many hours binge watching YouTube videos since teenagehood, it is fascinating to see how the platform has transformed over time. From humble beginnings of viral videos including ‘Numa, Numa’,‘Keyboard Cat’, and ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’… to the unforgettable and infamous ‘Leave Britney Alone’.

Speaking as both a fan and a critic, one of the most attractive things about YouTube as a platform is the connection between the creators and their audience. Almost anyone can grab a camera and share their thoughts, feelings, and talent with the world. YouTube has changed significantly since its inception, with corporations having a growing influence over content, as well as the consistent (and confusing) changes to the algorithm. The role of the ‘YouTuber’ is certainly becoming increasingly significant and complex, and gaining success on the widely view platform is more difficult than ever. YouTube has had to adapt, grow and change to meet the needs of its 2018 audience. Here’s a roadmap to the YouTube we know and love today!

The Role of the ‘YouTuber’

The relationships between creators and viewers have changed significantly since YouTube’s beginnings. Studies have shown that teenagers and young people are more invested in the lives of YouTubers than traditional celebrities. Social media influencers are referred to as ‘Micro Celebrities’, where fans have a sense of promised authenticity, due to the accessibility of their private lives and two-way forms of communication.  

As a consumer, this makes sense. I can’t say that I am one to follow celebrity gossip closely. I don’t really care for the royals or the Kardashians, but I do find the lives and truths of others endlessly fascinating. YouTube provides us an exclusive insight into the lives of people who make us laugh, teach us new skills, make us think or just take us away from our own struggles for a short period of time. Arguably, the connection is so strong due to the creators sharing their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Particularly in comparison to the typical Instagram influencer sharing aesthetically pleasing (sponsored) pictures from their $10,000 hotel room in the Hamptons. So, #nopressure for YouTubers, but these relationships, or perceived relationships are very important.

In fact, researchers from the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK published a report in 2017 entitled #StatusOfMind which examined the positive and negative psychological effects of various social media platforms on young people, naming YouTube as the most positive platform for mental health. YouTube ranked highly on levels of emotional support, self-expression and community building.  

Jean Burgess, in “YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture” follows YouTube’s story so far, focusing upon the participatory culture which is so integral to the platform. YouTube has always presented itself as a neutral service for sharing and viewing content, as well as documenting events, to the rise of the YouTube stars we know and love today.

Burgess also suggests that YouTube’s diverse culture has been collectively created by its users. YouTube fits the definition of participatory culture, where there are low-barriers and gatekeepers to self-expression. While it is sometimes hard to resist falling down the frustrating rabbit hole of YouTube comments, it is widely appreciated that public opinion can be shared and dissected. There is a degree of social connectedness, where fans bond over their favorite creators, buy merchandise and share amongst one another. 

The Faux Intimacy of YouTube

Arguably, the relationships between YouTubers and their subsequent audience eludes to the idea of parasocial relationships, where the fan will invest a lot of emotional energy and time, while the influencer is blissfully unaware of the fan’s existence. This applies to YouTube as the creator produces one-sided interpersonal connections and an illusion of intimacy which is highly fabricated. Which creates the idea of a faux reality.

Julia Alexander, writer for polygon, discusses the faux reality of YouTubers, noting:

“The most prominent YouTube creators live their entire lives online, interacting with fans and monetizing every incremental step of their day…everything is about rabid-fire engagement with the audience in a quest to stay relevant”

Think: fake controversy and relationships, exaggerated storytime video’s, diss raps, and the recent (and cringey) boxing match between creators KSI and Logan Paul, selling over 15,000 live tickets and thousands of online streams. This alludes to the idea that although creators may have a deep level of compassion for their fans, aspects of their lives may be fabricated to boost their numbers and social blade. This is arguably due to many of the algorithmic changes in recent years. It is undeniable that there has been a major shift in YouTube content very recently. Content creators seem to be, in a way, breaking the fourth wall and discussing the real issues of YouTube burnout, mental health and the dark reality of creators lives that may seem ‘perfect’.

Shane Dawson, in particular, has been a luminary in this kind of content. Dawson has a history of being open and honest about his own struggles with his mental health. His recent venture into investigative docu-series content has opened up and put a critical eye on the world of YouTubers, for all to see. So far, Dawson has explored YouTuber burnout through his series with Bunny Meyer (aka GRAV3YARDGIRL), the events leading up to the Tanacon fiasco, an event organised by Tana Mongeau, and most recently the life and story of the very controversial Jeffree Star. He has just released the first part of his 8 part series investigating Jake Paul, which he has revealed will focus heavily upon exploring the sociopathic, narcissistic and disordered personality traits that Paul and many other YouTubers display.

Do YouTuber’s Have Creative freedom?

With almost 1 billion hours worth of content viewed globally each day, the platform is saturated with content, and each creator must work tirelessly to gain and maintain an active following. In 2017, YouTube came under fire for allowing ads from major companies to appear next to videos promoting extremist views or hate speech. The platform lost millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

This caused what has been dubbed the ‘Adpocalypse’ by Felix Kjellberg, better known as  ‘PewDiePie’ which is YouTube’s most subscribed channel. Kjellberg is no stranger to controversy and came under fire for making anti-Semitic ‘jokes’ in 2017. He was somewhat of a catalyst for the ‘adpocolypse’ and was very vocal about the impact of revenue changes following the controversy. Kjellberg discussed losing a large portion of ad revenue, and having video’s demonetised without notification or explanation of how the content violated the new criteria. Of course, he was not the only creator adversly impacted by these changes. 

While implementing systems to ensure unfavorable or offensive videos may seem reasonable, the ‘adpocolypse’ had severely negative impacts on some of YouTube’s most popular creators. YouTube enabled advertisers to voluntarily opt out of having their ads on certain categories of video content, the video’s were automatically viewed and labeled using artificial intelligence. The categories included sexually suggestive content, tragedy and conflict, sensitive social issues, and video’s containing profanity.

Of course, the rigid categories exclude most content which is appropriate for teen and adult viewers. For example, a news or commentary channel discussing a recent natural disaster, or an education channel dedicated to history content and discussing the First World War may be demonetised. YouTube certainly doesn’t always get it right.

One primary example of this is the demonetisation and age gating of LGBTIAQ+ content, particularly where words such as ‘trans’ or transgender are used in the title. By restricting this kind of content, it not only hurts the creators but limits resources and support for young people who may not have access to it otherwise. Especially when traditional media has very minimum representation LGBTIAQ+ youth and YouTube has become a ‘safe haven’ for the transgender community.

An article examining YouTube’s system of monetisation, and dealing with intellectual property suggests can be considered a suppression of creative freedom in the 21st century. Certainly, there are many easily identifiable issues with YouTube’s monetisation system.

Amanda Hess, in her article for the New York Times discusses how these changes hurt independent media, she notes:

“The architecture of the internet has tremendous influence over what is made, and what is seen … YouTube’s process for mechanically pulling ads from videos is particularly concerning, because it takes aim at whole topics of conversation that could be perceived as potentially offensive to advertisers, and because it so often misfires. It risks suppressing political commentary and jokes. It puts the wild, independent internet in danger of becoming more boring than TV”

The Future of YouTube

YouTube staff certainly have their work cut out for them, to make a profit, support their creators, and ensure that content that promotes violence or hate-speech is removed. The lines are increasingly blurry between free speech and discriminatory content, and while safeguards are certainly needed for advertisers, YouTube must give their creators some freedom to showcase their creativity. Even when it may not be ‘brand-friendly’. As a fan, I do hope that YouTube will continue to allow a range of voices, narratives, and experiences to flourish, even those that I do not necessarily agree with. Diversity is important, YouTube is a reflection of our society and a visualisation of this crazy, messy, and sometimes hilarious world that we live in.

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