In the wake of repeated scandals, a new YouTube rule makes it dramatically harder for smaller creators to make money on the platform. But the rule may have no impact on the platform's worst offenders. Worse, it prioritizes advertisers over users.
The past year has been a tough one for YouTube. There have been cartoon images aimed at children that veer into violent and scary territory. There have been videos that drew hundreds of comments from pedophiles and disturbing scenes of child abuse. There have been videos promoting violence, racism, and hatred. Then concern over YouTube hit a fever pitch this year when superstar Logan Paul posted video of an apparent suicide victim in Japan's Aokigahara Forest. Like San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, the "suicide forest" is a popular destination for those who seek to end their lives.
All these events have drawn a lot of negative response from YouTube's advertisers, understandably perturbed at having their ads run alongside this distasteful stuff (although the suicide forest video ran ad-free). Google, YouTube's parent company, built the success of its search engine and advertising program by consistently putting users' interests first and advertisers' desires second. This time, it's come up with a solution designed to appease advertisers but offer little help to viewers creators without a big following.
The response to YouTube's public image crisis began in December, when YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki explained in a blog post that the company was beefing up its monitoring of video content, both by vastly expanding the team of humans responsible for reviewing content and deploying machine learning to flag inappropriate content. YouTube followed up this week--soon after the infamous Logan Paul video--by enacting new rules that make it much harder for YouTube creators to earn money from the platform by having ads run with their work.
It's the second time in less than a year that the platform has made such a change. For more than a decade, anyone who wanted could post videos to YouTube, have ads run on them, and receive a portion of the proceeds, although that made for negligible sums for YouTube members with smaller followings. Then in April, likely in response to advertiser complaints, the company announced that only channels with at least 10,000 lifetime views could do so. Members grumbled, but for anyone serious about posting video to the platform and sharing it on social media, it was a relatively easy number to reach. Now YouTube has raised the bar considerably. New channels now need at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in the past 12 months before they can be considered for advertising, and the rule will extend to existing channels on February 20.
The new requirements, especially the watch time rule, will be challenging for many of the platform's smaller channels to achieve. One music producer with several YouTube channels told TNW that under the old rules, YouTube channels with a smaller following could at least earn enough to cover the costs of DIY video production. Under the new rules, he'll be canceling some YouTube projects, and so will others he knows. He added that the gap between the old rule and the new one is "massive."
Though many are unhappy, some creators are pleased by the change. A Google spokesperson sent me a list of tweets supporting the new rules, mostly by creators on the right side of the new threshold. This one is representative:
I personally think the new YouTube partner changes are a good thing. It's kind of insane to let ANYONE post and make money, it encourages copyright infringement, extremist, spiderman & Elsa creeps, and other shady stuff, it's what caused the adpocolypse to begin with.-- Ethan Klein (@h3h3productions) January 17, 2018
In it for the money?
In the blog blog post announcing the change, Neal Mohan chief product officer and Robert Kyncl, chief business officer argue that while many channels will be affected, most were making very little money from YouTube in any case. According to the blog, 99 percent of them were making less than $100 per year from advertising, most of them quite a lot less.
The blog authors add that the move will "tackle the potential abuse of a large but disparate group of smaller channels." But they don't say exactly how changing the rules about advertising revenue will tackle that abuse.
When I posed this question to YouTube, a spokesperson explained that the platform has had an ongoing problem with clickbait videos that pack their headlines with SEO-friendly words and/or use attention-grabbing thumbnail images in the hopes of getting lots of views and making a quick buck. Similarly, many users steal appealing content or impersonate YouTube stars, which is why some popular creators are happy to see the new rules. Making it harder to start making money from YouTube is expected to discourage these kinds of abuses, the spokesperson said. I can see how the announcement that content will be reviewed before it can start making money might indeed discourage some of this behavior, and reducing the number of channels that are eligible to make money can help YouTube keep that promise.
On the other hand, if their numbers are right and the vast majority of YouTube channels that currently carry advertising make less than $3 a month from it, then it's safe to say that most people who post to YouTube aren't doing it for the money. Three dollars a month of lost revenue doesn't seem like a powerful disincentive to get someone who's been posting racist or violent content to stop.
The new rules will, of course, make it much easier to protect YouTube's advertisers. With a greatly reduced crop of YouTube channels able to carry advertising, coupled with greatly expanded capabilities for reviewing content, the company now has a much better shot at keeping advertising off channels that post offensive content.
So far as I can tell, that appears to be YouTube's new strategy: To focus its attention on its advertisers and the channels big enough to serve them. As for the rest of the platform and its viewers, there may be less clickbait but otherwise things may not change much. Most of the pornographic, racist, violent, and otherwise offensive content will likely still be there--but now it will be ad-free.
Updated with comments from YouTube.