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YT84: YouTube — Living and Dying by its Killer Algorithm



YT84: YouTube — Living and Dying by its Killer Algorithm

King Charles I was publicly beheaded in 1649 for inciting civil war in England. A witness recounts “such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and I desire I may never hear again.” When the royal family regained government control 12 years later, Charles II tried his father’s executioners with furious vengeance. Oliver Cromwell, who led the vote for Charles’ execution and then later died of malaria, was dug out of his grave and beheaded. Charles II’s rage consumed every judge, jury and clerical attendant who consummated Charles I’s execution, with one notable exception: the masked executioner.

YouTube, one of the internet’s largest social media platforms, operates according to teachable moments in the disastrous fallout surrounding the death of Charles I of England. When YouTube must punish a creator, YouTube avoids entanglement in concrete systems of rules, provides critics with no center for complaints, and prosecutes the offending party without delay. YouTube works like the masked executioner.

The History of Demonetization on YouTube (2012 – 2017)

YouTube began ousting its own creators in 2012. When the term demonetization first blipped on the internet, commenters mocked it: “demonetization … yes, a word they insist on using,” reads one online comment from 2012. YouTube creators receive a share of revenue generated by ads running before their videos. Demonetization refers to YouTube withholding some or all of that money from video creators for offending the platform’s Advertiser-Friendly Content Guidelines. Demonetization threatens the livelihood of creators who live off ad-revenue shares.

Demonetization marked YouTube’s evolution beyond an online video repository. The transition spurred advertiser investment, but when YouTube began policing its ad-friendly content guidelines an enormous swath of the video content on YouTube suddenly became controversial. Though YouTube publishes almost no operational data, it’s widely speculated that the platform was not profitable for years and it’s easy to understand why: From 2009 to 2015, the hours of video content uploaded every minute exploded from 15 hours to over 300. The smooth functionality of a platform supporting that much data transfer and streaming is an extraordinary achievement by itself, and advertiser revenue keeps it running.

YouTube is beholden to its advertisers as their main financial income. In order to satisfy backers, the platform’s content guidelines forbid content that’s controversial, sensitive, suggestive, violent or otherwise inappropriate. Because of historically lax enforcement, a tremendous amount of YouTube content has always been in violation of the rules’ strictest interpretation.

The standard of enforcement changed drastically when, in 2017, the Wall Street Journal exposed a history of anti-Semitism by popular YouTuber PewDiePie, whose channel has 92 million subscribers. Quickly thereafter, The New York Times reported on paid-advertisements running before religious extremist content in clear violation of YouTube’s ad-friendly content guidelines. The platform’s failure to discern ad-friendly content spooked away major advertisers such as AT&T, Verizon and Procter & Gamble. In response to media scrutiny and free-falling ad sales in Q1 and Q2 of 2017, YouTube unleashed the hounds on its own video content creators: the algorithm went live in the event that would later be known as the Adpocalypse.

Contemporary YouTube (2017 – 2019)

YouTube’s newly activated algorithm began demonetizing creators’ video libraries faster than they could say “PewDiePie!” Beyond demonetization, creators’ channels were assigned strikes for content breaching YouTube’s Ad Friendly Content Guidelines. Controversially, the algorithm often assigned these strikes in quick succession, even overnight, and targeted channels’ entire video libraries, some of which contain thousands of videos. The first Adpocalypse purged hundreds of accounts and thousands of videos.

Arend Richard, CEO of The WeedTube, was once a prominent YouTuber with over 120,000 subscribers. When Adpocalypse initially struck other segments of the YouTube creator community, WeedTubers realized their livelihoods were in danger. Surely enough, accounts featuring videos with cannabis smoking were demonetized and/or assigned strikes, seemingly at random. Richard calls YouTube a “bad company with a great platform … they’re all algorithm and no people skills.” Creators like Richard understand and appreciate YouTube appeasing advertisers, but understandably want more insight into YouTube’s decision-making process.

The Adpocalypse re-engaged advertisers but upset creators who felt and still feel in 2019 that YouTube has failed to address its lack of transparency, dialogue and grievance process. The company appears content to meter cold justice without accountability, just like the masked killer of King Charles I.

Is it ethical in the age of information to conceal policy enforcement information and impose demonetization through an algorithm that is both unaccountable and nearly incontrovertible? Further, YouTube’s deft accommodation for angry advertisers proves the company’s capacity to deal with problems. Negligence of creators’ concerns suggests the platform is uncaring or otherwise preoccupied. One wonders what algorithmic operations YouTube, owned by Google’s umbrella company Alphabet, perform beyond scanning text for potential demonetization. Demonetization distracts from an important question: what is YouTube really up to? Haunted by the specter of the algorithm, jaded creators are moving on.

“We’re the people who grew up on YouTube, we are a little bit older now, and want more adult humor, conversations and content.”

– Arend Richard CEO, The WeedTube

The WeedTube: A Kingdom for the Creators

After the first Adpocalypse, Richard knew weed-smoking culture was not long for YouTube. By the time the second — and more severe — Adpocalypse purged YouTube in November 2017, Richard’s team was already working on a solution. The WeedTube would provide a community-friendly video platform, safe from external influence, where advertisers and creators have more rein to produce the content audiences want. Richard misses YouTube — but things have changed — and he never wants them receiving another monetized cent from all the communities they’ve snubbed.

The fundamental problem that’s led to the creation of The WeedTube, Richard explains, is that YouTube has chosen allegiance to its advertisers’ vision of appropriateness. Legacy creators are growing up: they prefer more adult humor and topics, and YouTube refuses to accommodate their audience’s changing tastes.

“We’re the people who grew up on YouTube, we are a little bit older now, and want more adult humor, conversations and content,” Richard says.

Richard envisions The WeedTube, which launched its app on April 20th of this year, adopting all of the creators and business opportunities YouTube has rejected. Niche platforms periodically grow to define their genre. As a former YouTuber, Richard knows what his co-creators and audience want, and he expects The WeedTube to grow into the next big thing.


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