YouTube’s Downward Spiral Continues

It’s time for creators to prepare for a YouTube-less future.

Everybody is mad at YouTube, and they should be. Ever since major advertisers briefly left the platform this past March, a response to the website’s hosting of videos featuring hate speech or terrorism, the largest source of video content on the internet has been in a self-imposed downward spiral of short-sighted overreactions, taking a chainsaw to a task in dire need of a scalpel.

The result is the panic-stricken creator landscape you see before you today. Now, YouTube reserves the right to demonetize any video, without explicit notification, they deem to be unsuitable for all advertisers, and their bar seems pretty freaking low, in that regard.

Everywhere you look, creators are having their ability to make money through their content stipped away, and they pretty much never know why. Specific reasons for a particular video being demonetized are never provided, so YouTubers aren’t even able to adapt or change. And, it’s not like this is only happening to small channels; even people with big followings, big enough to have personal contacts at YouTube, are also being hit, and have no idea why. Hannah from Yogscast recently announced her intention to stream more on Twitch and seek revenue through crowdfunding, as her videos are being demonetized and she can’t seem to figure out what’s triggering it.

And, you see, like everything else they do, this is the major problem: YouTube doesn’t seem to believe in transparency, or investing human capital to find solutions. All of this is being handled by bots with itchy trigger fingers, without any sort of real-live support backing it up.

Gaming content creators have been hit particularly hard, and there’s a lot of conjecture that the inherent violence in many games is the root cause, that it has nothing to do with the creators themselves, but the games they’re playing, but in addition to the demonetization lacking consistency even within games, the platform has been going after simple political discussion, news features, and simple vlogs. U.S. Senator Ron Paul’s channel, for example, was completely demonetized without any clear cause. It would be one thing if it was because it featured violent rhetoric or hate speech, but by all accounts, this is not the case. It just seems that YouTube has deemed politics off-limits when it comes to ads.

I want to be clear: this will kill the YouTube creator community. If left unchanged, it’s only a matter of time.

Many wonder why YouTube would behave this way. Of course, the purpose of any business is to make money, and YouTube makes it’s money through advertisements, so that they’d bend over backwards to make them happy isn’t much of a surprise. But, the degree to which they seem to have committed to this new paradigm, where any content even remotely offensive, even remotely inappropriate for a small child, seems not only unnecessary in mollifying advertisers (It’s not as if nobody advertises on cable TV because the content isn’t “ad friendly.”), but also intentionally designed to eliminate the open and accessible nature of success on the platform. If nobody can survive, financially, on YouTube, then who will end up making the content?

The unfortunate answer, it seems, is the old guard. Production companies and studios, making new celebrity-fueled garbage for YouTube Red. Plus music videos. Everybody loves music videos.

Here’s the thing: YouTube still doesn’t make money. Hosting videos is extremely expensive, and while the site is ubiquitous, its revenue still hasn’t managed to outpace the cost of keeping the lights on. That’s why they’re able to provide so little support for their creators, from a philosophical standpoint: it’s unclear supporting them, and their content, is even sustainable.

Meanwhile, advertisers are more than happy to sell their wares during the latest Taylor Swift video, or to sell toys to kids. This content, “ad friendly” and plentiful, is easy for YouTube, low risk. Transitioning the entire platform towards these genres, scaring away the content that cost more to host than it generates, makes sense in that context.

She’s YouTube’s Biggest Star, And They’re Cool With That

Still, they’re making a huge mistake. Over time, hosting costs may or may not decrease, but having control over the major video distribution platform for all content, that’s priceless. They could own the future, if they’re willing to take a risk now. It’s not like they’re going to disappear under the weight of their operational costs; this is Google we’re talking about here. But, it seems like the people in charge are in a hurry to become profitable, and it’s steering them into dangerous territory.

So, what does this mean if you’re a creator? If you’re on YouTube, and you have a real following, I would say the time to start thinking about getting out from under the platform is now. Youtube is never going to give you the support you need, but your fans are more than capable of picking up the slack and following you wherever you need to go to make this work. Many creators are leaning more on live-streams through Twitch, Mixer, and other platforms, and this is a great way to diversify your content, revenue, and viewership. But, beyond that, they’re taking their talents to other video platforms, transitioning their viewership so that, someday, they can survive without YouTube.

Newer creators need to diversify in the same way. Creators can’t be dependent upon one platform, one source of revenue, they have to be agile, monetizing in multiple ways, and creating content for multiple digital destinations. The more your brand transcends any single location, the more it can survive in the event that platform becomes no longer tenable. YouTube is teaching us all a hard lesson, right now, and that’s at the center of it: the more you’ve spread your brand out, the more capable it is of surviving when things go wrong.

The writing’s on the wall: ad revenue on YouTube is no longer the reliable, consistent source of income it once was, and that doesn’t seem it will be changing any time soon. Meanwhile, as creators struggle just to keep creating content in this environment, instead of creating more transparency, YouTube is investing in the failure that is YouTube Red, casting celebrities in even more low-cost content designed for children. One can only hope that, someday soon, the decision makers at Google realize they have to do a better job supporting their independent creators, and start piloting things in the other direction. Until that day comes, though, it’s time for creators to start preparing for a future without that big red play button.

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