YouTube has been trending in the news due to various reports from YouTube creators displaying notifications received from the video-sharing website saying that their videos have been demonetized. In case you’re unfamiliar with how YouTube stars earn money, they have an AdSense account which allows them to earn revenue from ads on their videos. When a video is demonetized, it means the creator is unable to receive income from the AdSense revenue from said video.
The company, unfortunately, has the right to do this. In fact, they’ve been demonetizing videos since 2012, when they first introduced their new “ad-friendly” guidelines. At the time, and today, the company uses an algorithm to remove videos that do not follow the rules. But, even though the company has previously held guidelines for ad-friendly content, the descriptions of what is considered ad-friendly are vague and seem to censor creators, rather than help them create better content.
YouTube’s relationship with advertisers and creators
YouTube has been around since 2005, but didn’t start growing in popularity until it was purchased by Google in 2006 and featured on the cover of Time magazine with its originators and creators marked ‘Person of the Year.’ When YouTube first came about, it was focused on growing its user community because, well, without users, what would be the point of YouTube?
In 2007, the YouTube Awards became a thing where content creators could be recognized for making the best videos, likely kicking off a round of inspiration for those who wanted to be internet-famous. We have Snapchatters and Insta-famous photographers today, but YouTube gave birth to the original “video blogger,” or vlogger star. It might have been an unexpected audience for the founders of YouTube, but as people started to become celebrities from their videos shared online, a huge community (and audience) started to form.
Thus, YouTube has been a huge part of our culture—from watching viral videos, to streaming movies and music videos, to seeing YouTube stars interview celebrities and even President Obama. In 2014, YouTube reached one billion users.
Once ads started rolling out, viewers would get frustrated and annoyed, but, bringing advertisers into the spotlight allowed creators to monetize their videos, therefore, people who were getting lots of views could start to earn a living off their craft.
There are two ways monetization works with ads on YouTube. The first is the ‘unskippable ad’, which is generally 15-to-18 seconds long and is an ad you have to watch in order to view the video. Advertisers are always charged for these ads because you have to see it. The second is the ‘skippable ad’ where you’re allowed to skip the ad after five seconds. If you skip the ad, an advertiser won’t be charged. Users are able to determine which type of format they want on their videos, though YouTube recommends “allowing all ad formats on your videos to maximize your earnings.”
Though it’s a hot topic these days, monetization and demonetizing videos isn’t new for YouTube. Almost ten months after Google purchased the video-sharing service; YouTube started rolling out its first ads within videos. Back then, a 15-second ad would just pop up on the bottom of your screen and sit for ten seconds or until you clicked it away.
What has changed is how YouTube prioritizes its relationship with its advertisers over its creators. YouTube has always appeared to have a big heart for its creators-we’ve all seen those fun billboards with the screenshot of a star and cute message saying, “You: give cupcakes superpowers.” But, the reality is that those ads came about when ad executives asked YouTube to do a better job at promoting its creators. Sure, the ad agencies wanted to make sure they were making more money, but I think it’s funny that they had to ask YouTube to run a promotion for its creators to do so.
Now that creators are flourishing on YouTube, the company wants to keep its advertisers happy and make sure they want to be involved with the content being created. Thus, it started rolling out guidelines back in 2012 and though creators were always aware of it, the advertiser-friendly guidelines are vague and essentially censor anyone who curses, has a sexual sense of humor or discusses controversial topics.
Censoring its creators
Back in 2015, YouTube was treading in hot water when it forced creators who made money from ad revenue to sign a deal for its $9.99 monthly YouTube Red subscription. Anyone who did not comply with the deal would have their videos publicly hidden in ad-supported and ad-free sections of the site. What’s happening today is that creators have to comply with a set of advertiser-friendly guidelines or their content will be flagged and removed from the site.
For example, on it’s guidelines for creating ad-friendly content, YouTube says, “Controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown.”
Matt Ciampa, aka BrickBoys518 on YouTube, has been making videos since 2009. His channel is filled with Lego tutorials of anything from furniture to cars, and aims the video toward kids and young adults, with the occasional older fan. Having started his videos during the early days of YouTube, Ciampa says he sort of grew with the platform, but has since gotten out of practice and doesn’t post as frequently as he used to. Though he does not make more than enough to sustain the hobby and channel, his videos are monetized.
“I was annoyed when I heard about the policy update, but not necessarily surprised,” Ciampa said in an interview with Paste. “YouTube has a history of making unfavorable and unexpected changes (re: basically every major site redesign). I didn’t find out about the policy though, until my newest video wouldn’t monetize.”
Like many other YouTube creators, Ciampa received a message stating that the video would not monetize because it wasn’t advertiser friendly. The reason being that Ciampa used a Lego SWAT truck. However, after a closer look, Ciampa says he probably shouldn’t have tagged “hostage negotiation” on the video. Fortunately, YouTube does allow users to resubmit videos for review, so after removing the questionable tags, Ciampa was able to get his video reviewed.
“It’s just another detailed and nuanced process that YouTube has decided to outsource to an undeserving algorithm. Any person could watch my video and realize it’s safe, but the algorithm immediately flagged a tag,” described Ciampa about the algorithm YouTube uses to demonetize a video.
By using an algorithm to censor creators who don’t follow the vague rules of what’s considered inappropriate by it, YouTube is taking a flawed approach to making its site better for creators and advertisers. But, it is a smart decision on the company’s part, as Ciampa notes that it’s a incredibly large company and there’s no way humans could possibly keep up with moderating all the content that’s being uploaded.
“Using a computer to filter things is instantaneous,” says Ciampa. “But at the same time, this algorithm can’t make inferences, so simple issues with phrasing can prevent people from monetizing.”
What happens next?
YouTube, like Facebook, has learned the hard way that algorithms, though convenient and quick, don’t necessarily work perfectly. As Ciampa stated, someone could have an innocent video up, but due to tagging or a word that seems inappropriate out of context, the video would be taken down because the algorithm doesn’t get it. Unless the company works out a different approach, it’s likely YouTube creators will start to leave its platform-and then advertisers would follow when there’s nothing left to monetize.
“They need human moderators that can think and infer and understand the bigger picture,” says Ciampa. “I don’t expect to leave YouTube over this, but Vid.me is looking very tempting as a secondary platform.”