• December 1, 2016
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

YouTube’s Moment of Silence(ing)

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YouTube. Everybody knows about YouTube, right? It’s the best possible combination of home videos, narcissism, and free speech, and it’s all a mostly no-cost prospect for consumers. Whether you’re too cheap to go see a movie, too cheap to get cable TV, or just unable to look away from your computer or mobile device, YouTube has something for you, and there’s a breed of young entrepreneurs who are making bank on content production for the service.

At least, they were making bank, until YouTube decided to make some sudden changes to a few policies, and to the way they enforced others, that left some video slingers without advertising income. Go ahead and Google “YouTube demonetization” and you’ll find plenty to read about. The issue, in a nutshell: YouTube channels are largely advertising-supported ventures, with the income split between content producers and YouTube itself. As such, YouTube has certain guidelines for what constitutes appropriate content and can strip advertising from (demonetize) any video whose content violates those guidelines or is otherwise deemed “advertiser-unfriendly.” This move has to be bad—it has demon right in the name. Highlights of content producers’ complaints include (1) the changes were made without warning; (2) existing unenforced guidelines were suddenly being enforced, again without warning; and (3) decisions on content were in the hands of bots, not humans.

Unlike content sites like Netflix or Hulu, the vast bulk of YouTube’s content comes from small providers—people with a webcam and an ax to grind, or production companies with shoestring budgets and a passion for filmmaking. YouTube only recently started offering premium paid content, so its success up to now has been built on the efforts of the little guy. Cutting them off from ad dollars is going to hurt YouTube too, isn’t it?

It’s worth mentioning that not all of every content producer’s revenue comes from onsite ads; some have sponsorship deals, or are supported by crowd-funding or subscriptions to offsite services. However, even those often combine with the ad-revenue-sharing program. It’s a big deal for every channel.

Wondering where YouTube will get its money is troubling to an outsider like myself because I don’t understand it; it’s certainly troubling to the content producers who had built their content revenue strategies around the very specific advertising framework of YouTube (which I also don’t understand). But more troubling is the use of automation to demonetize broad swaths of content with no warning. In addition to suddenly making a big deal about profanity (in the videos, that is; the comments section is still horrifying), controversial topics were suddenly verboten, even if they were presented as help. Suicide counseling stories got cut off because they mention suicide, sexual health advice got cut off because it mentioned our various dangly bits, and so on. Even discussions of feminism or other sometimes-touchy issues were cut off from revenue.

These changes, as mentioned previously, came without communication or consent, throwing the channel community into chaos. While it is true that decisions can be appealed, it is a manual process that only starts after the ads are cut off; producers start losing money instantly and have to find the time to straighten things out with YouTube instead of making more videos. For some channels, this isn’t a huge deal, because only some of their content has been demonetized; for others it’s literally everything on the channel.

What options does the content-producing community have? A First Amendment case is unlikely, since YouTube isn’t censoring content; it’s just not letting it earn money. They could try to adhere more strictly to YT’s guidelines and terms of service, but that will require effort and will change the nature of their work. If I want my entertainment’s integrity compromised by the need to make a buck, I’ll go see a movie.

Fans and subscribers, who are also part of the community built up around the content platform, could protest in some way, but it’s also unlikely. We’ve been watching these videos for free, after all, so how motivated are we likely to be?

Unless there’s a compromise to be made somewhere, YouTube may have just cut its own throat, and we’re about to watch it bleed to death. Ironically, talking about subjects like that won’t be allowed to make money on YouTube.

Marshall Lager monitors the culture for Third Idea Consulting, even if it looks like he’s watching funny cat videos. Come share the popcorn at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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