YouTube: A Hornet’s Nest?

14 February, 2019 marked 14 years of YouTube, the revolutionary idea that changed the way we know video-sharing. YouTube -the most popular video-sharing site on the web today- is estimated to be worth $100 billion. But how did it come into existence? Well, the answer is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). One person’s FOMO birthed this genius. The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show is one of the most striking incidents that has happened in the history of television. As Justin Timberlake’s performance was about to end, he tore off a part of Janet Jackson’s outfit, briefly exposing her right breast in front of a TV audience of 140 million viewers. This incident became the talk of the nation for several weeks to follow. Almost everybody had seen it, (Super Bowl is one of the biggest television events in the US) but there were many who hadn’t. One person who missed it was a PayPal employee Jawed Karim. He couldn’t catch the halftime show and was unable to find any videos of the same online. This FOMO led to the birth of the online video giant, YouTube. Karim and his two other friends, Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, soon began working on the algorithm for a site where people could upload their own content. This site was launched exactly one year after Super Bowl XXXVIII and was called YouTube (probably the only positive thing that came out of the Super Bowl controversy). Once it was launched, it became a huge success, and one year later Google bought it for $1.65 billion dollars. This is termed to be one of the smartest tech acquisitions in history. Today, YouTube has become the source of bread for thousands of content-creators called “YouTubers” around the world, with many of them becoming millionaires by uploading content on the site. Each day, videos of various genre are uploaded on YouTube- product review videos, vlogs, comedy, gaming videos, educational channels etc. Ever heard of PewDiePie, Jake Paul, Jeffree Star? These YouTubers have earned millions of dollars simply through videos. YouTubers are creators who regularly upload videos to build up their fan base. These fans are extremely invested in their lives and treat them like celebrities. YouTubers aren’t just limited to YouTube; they earn money by going on tours, selling their merchandise, authoring books, brand deals, through Patreon (think of it as an online tip jar), etc. Many like Superwoman (Lilly Singh), Hannah Hart, Flula Borg etc have ventured into acting and grabbed roles in some Hollywood movies. Some of the early YouTubers are clearly business tycoons now earning a hell load of money. With a seven-year-old kid having the net worth of $22 million dollars (YouTube channel- Ryan ToysReview), this platform is clearly magical. YouTubers are making a huge part of their full-time living by uploading videos on a platform where other people can watch it for free. So, how does that work? How do YouTubers make money from their videos? The answer is AdSense. AdSense is a program run by Google that allows creators to earn a share of money from the advertising we see before a video. The advertisers bid on these by paying more for unskippable ads and longer video spots and less for banners and other undesirable placements. YouTube then runs these ads and the money gets shared between YouTube itself and whatever channel’s video that ad was run against. So, if you get a lot of views, monetizing your videos seems like a fairly easy way of earning money. Being a YouTuber with a lot of subs definitely seems like the dream job, doesn’t it? However, there has been a lot of trouble in paradise recently. The focus on mental health lately has led many YouTubers to publicly address the fact that they are experiencing what is known as a“YouTube Burnout”. What’s a burnout you ask? The Urban Dictionary defines burnout as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by a prolonged period of stress and frustration”. A lot of big YouTubers like PewDiePie, Alisha Marie, Casey Neistat and others have publicly addressed their burnout. Some of them also took a sabbatical from YouTube. Despising a thing that led to your success definitely seems bizarre. But it is very difficult for us, who have trillions of videos from millions of creators a tap away, to understand this burnout. To project the grimness of this reality, let’s talk about the YouTube channel “Soy Jessi” run by an 11-year-old and her brother Pepe. Jessi has about 1.1 million followers and has been in the YouTube business since the past four years. Two years ago, her channel started blowing up. But in May 2018, her mom was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer, and she died suddenly. They made a video about it with her mom’s twin sister. The video has about 7.5 M views which is great because lately, the channel has been taking a hit. After her mother’s death, the little kid took a break from YouTube, but that has led to a decline in her viewership. Before that, she used to have millions of views, but after the break, she gets only a few hundred thousand. Taking a break from YouTube is said to be career suicide. Many other YouTubers have talked about the pressure and stress they have been experiencing because of YouTube. What is causing this burnout? One of the main culprits is YouTube itself. When YouTubers decide to monetize their channel, they are supposed to abide by YouTube’s guidelines. One such guideline needs them to certify that their videos aren’t offensive or politically sensitive; as advertisers have become increasingly concerned about the possibility that their ads will be run against videos that might turn off consumers and lead to outrage on Twitter. This allows YouTube to easily demonetize videos if they are against the guidelines. This causes a lot of pressure on creators regarding their content. This has also led to a huge decline in some creators’ overall revenue from AdSense. YouTube is also constantly changing its algorithms without informing the creators. PewDiePie said in a video, “It’s really frustrating to be a creator on YouTube because we don’t really know what’s going on.” YouTube’s algorithms support and promote channels that are frequent and have a lot of engagement. (This is also the cause of the PewDiePie vs T-Series war, as YouTube’s algorithm promotes channels like T-Series, that uploads almost 20 videos per day.) This, coupled with frequent demonetization of the videos nudges creators to upload more and more. This leads to a compromise in the quality of content, along with the constant stress of generating more and more content, results in the breakdown of YouTubers.

Frequent demonetization has also become a reason for concern for YouTubers. Lately, lots and lots of videos are being demonetized without proper reasoning, this births frustration in the minds of YouTubers. One more reason is that the returns that the YouTubers get from their videos aren’t worth the costs. The reason behind this is the decrease in CPM (cost per thousand or millie). CPM refers to the amount of money the advertiser has to pay each time their advertisement reaches a thousand views. This money goes directly to YouTube, which cuts its share of 45% and pays the rest 55% to the Youtubers. According to sources, the average CPM has decreased from $7.6 in 2013 to $2 now. David Dobrik (11 M subs) said in an interview that he is now earning 1/6th of what he used to earn when his views were 10 times lower. He also talked about how his videos aren’t able to fund themselves now and how he needs to pull out money from his other ventures to make videos. Recently, viewer suppression has also been on the rise. Viewer suppression refers to a particular creator’s videos not appearing on the trending page or the viewer’s recommendation page. This happens to the channels for which the advertisers are a bit jumpy about. Basically, this means that YouTube is making videos with apparently risky content harder to find through its algorithms. This reduces the views per video and hence less revenue through AdSense. The worst part is that all these filters and algorithms that are causing suppression or demonetization aren’t being explained to YouTubers. And hence, they are left clueless about what led to the demonetization of their videos. Moreover, these filters, suppressions, and demonetizations aren’t manual, and the bots being used to label the videos aren’t able to differentiate between a video raising awareness about suicide and a video mocking mental illness. This uncertainty about the guidelines, algorithms and monetization policies is causing a great deal of frustration amongst the YouTubers. The video-making business needs to be a safe, positive space for everyone and YouTube needs to realise just that. The endemic of this burnout must be properly addressed by YouTube, else YouTubers will be like hornets against YouTube.

Authored by Surbhi Bassi

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