Man, people really like using the word “censorship.”
This time, over the fact that YouTube is now removing advertising from videos they deem are not “advertiser-friendly.”
This is, of course, the latest in the never ending parade of straws/nails for the YouTube camel/coffin respectively, no doubt leading to a mass exodus of all YouTube creators to some new better-in-every-way video website. Any day now.
Yet there are real questions here that we should be asking. Namely, what is the process through which a video is determined to be unfriendly to advertisers? How are those guidelines enforced and updated? In attempting to create an ecosystem that’s attractive to advertisers, to what extent do advertisers themselves have influence and to what extent does YouTube make decisions on behalf of advertisers?
This isn’t where the conversation went. Rather, the conversation booked a one-way ticket, as it so often does, to Censorship City.
Hidden in the discourse around this topic is a seismic shift in how the general public perceives YouTube creators and their content from when we started back in 2010. Back then, we were terrified of putting ads on our videos, lest viewers get angry at us for doing so. Today, people are angry at YouTube for NOT putting ads on videos. 2010 Freddie would’ve laughed time-travelling 2016 Freddie out of the room if he heard that.
To take a quick jaunt down memory lane, the Partner Program, and the ability to “monetize” your videos was still very early stages when we started our YouTube channel. We had watched as Smosh led the vanguard as one of the first channels with advertising enabled. They charged headlong into putting ads on their videos, and received a ton of backlash from their viewers for doing so. Those viewers hurled insults at Ian and Anthony for “selling out,” but over time, that attitude changed.
I think Harley from EpicMealTime had a large effect on attitudes toward advertising and money on YouTube. He had the screen presence and confidence to directly address the fact that people were making money from internet videos. Through his showmanship and self-promotion (they did a series of Netflix promotions at netflix.com/bacon which are still seared in my brain), he paved the way for the rest of us to talk about brand deals and the fact that money was a big part of the YouTube ecosystem and continues to be to this day.
Come to think of it, the entirety of this generation of Vine/Snapchat/Instagram stars probably owe EpicMealTime for making “making money off Internet videos” a cool, desirable thing to do.
When looking at the outrage about YouTube removing monetization from controversial videos, there seems to be an implicit assumption that creators should (or even deserve) to be paid for their videos, and that all points of view should be monetarily supported. But this assumption ignores the reality of the very real demands of the people who are actually ponying up the money in the first place — the advertiser.
Let’s say you have a dope widget that you want to promote with unskippable video pre-rolls. You pony up some cash and pay Google to show your ill-advised unskippable video pre-roll ad to guys aged 18–22. Google happily takes your money (because YouTube is crazy expensive and they need that paper), algorithmically determines what videos to pair your dumb ad with, pops it in front of those videos, and splits your money with the people who made those videos.
I don’t think any reasonable person would object to you, as the advertiser, having say in who and what you want to pair your ad with. You probably don’t want your ad running before a video of some dude getting beheaded, or grisly Russian dashcam footage, or some fifteen-minute racist webcam rant. In short, you probably don’t want your ad paired up with any of, say, this:
The red highlights were present in the original image linked to me on Twitter, as if this is something we should take exception to. But is it that surprising that an advertiser would want to avoid association with “war, political conflicts, natural disasters, and tragedies?” With “graphic imagery” highlighted, it suggests that the presence of graphic imagery would not be okay, but the lack of it makes everything alright. Is it really that shocking to believe that an advertiser would rather not be associated with anything that has the faintest whiff of even the most conservative interpretation of “controversial or sensitive subjects?”
(By the way, if as an advertiser, you do want any of that stuff, you still have the option to target specific videos/channels. That’s always been true. YouTube is not, as far as I can tell, removing the ability of advertisers to pay for ads on mostly whatever they want. UPDATE: Waiting to hear back on if this is, in fact, the case)
And if you specifically said “Hey, I don’t want my videos on such-and-such’s channel,” no reasonable person would claim that’s censorship of that channel. Nobody thinks any of the companies that withdrew their advertising around the Duggar family’s reality shows were engaging in “censorship” of that show or TLC. It’s their money, they can spend it however they wish.
Yet what bizarre world is the act of not paying somebody for content they are freely allowed to create, upload, and share on your platform considered censorship? If you wrote a controversial book, it isn’t censorship if a bookstore decides they don’t want to sell your book, even if your entire livelihood was based 100% on selling controversial books, even if they once sold your books in the past, and even if you disagreed with their assessment of controversial.
To continue this analogy — the bookstore would still offer to stock your book on their shelves and pay for the shelf space, and they would let anybody read it for free, provided you were ok with that. This book is going to be on a shelf surrounded by other books you wrote (that they are selling) as well as related books other people have written as well.
Basically, anything potentially controversial will now actually cost YouTube money — they can’t offset the cost of hosting and serving that video up with direct ad money anymore. They’re simply not directly profiting off those videos, and neither are the creators.
This is not censorship. This is not some “form” of censorship. Ask yourself: Do you believe that creators deserve advertising on anything they create, regardless of content? Do you believe advertisers should be required to monetarily support any kind of content? If depriving a content creator of money for their work amounts to censorship, then does anybody who uses an ad blocker while watching somebody’s videos engage in de factor “censorship” of that creator?
And look — there’s some real shit at stake here. For example, how does a channel that is doing great investigative reporting make their money if they can’t off ads anymore? Change the word “channel” to “newspaper” and you’ll be right in the middle of the crisis surrounding print journalism that’s been going on for over a decade.
The fact is — YouTube is a free service. It’s trying to support itself through advertisements. Therefore, it will cater to advertisers. A user who essentially costs YouTube money has very little say. The way to have a say is to concretely support the creators and channels you watch directly by giving them money. There are options here: merchandise, crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, direct donations. This will actually allow them to cover any topic in any manner of their choosing. There’s not likely going to be some mass exodus of creators. More likely is a mass exodus of creators to some other form of monetization because advertisements and media buyers have always been risk averse and that’s not likely to change.
And not every person who creates content will be able to completely support themselves financially. But the inability for an individual to support their lives off making YouTube videos does not constitute censorship. And for those who actually have something at stake, falsely equivocating “choosing not to monetize some videos due to advertisers” with “censorship” does those channels a disservice.
Which gets to what I believe is the root of all this: fact is, controversy gets views. Views make money. Chasing that money is the driver of every video trend since the Partner Program began. Song covers, chesty reaction videos, and pranks all had their own eras of popularity. Nowadays, you’d probably stumble on a quickly filmed reaction or commentary to a song or trailer first before finding the actual thing. When YouTube stops paying out for controversial videos, there’s a lot of people who stand to make less money.
The trends of what makes money is subject to a constant ebb and flow. This is why those questions at the beginning are important. They address the core of exactly how this process is happening, and provide important, actionable insight into exactly how YouTube will shift things around for the sake of advertisers. That insight is invaluable for creators to be able to make informed decisions about the content they’re making and what they hope to get out of it (self-expression, or just plain ol’ profit). That insight also is invaluable for viewers to understand the realities of how the content they consume is supported, and be able to make an informed decision on how they wish to support the creators they watch.
In the end, this is why I take umbrage over calling everything “censorship” or the intellectually lazy cop out of something “being a form of censorship.” It’s not just semantics — the flippant use of that word immediately degrades the conversation into platitudes when there is real nuanced discourse that should be happening, and that can lead to better informed creators and viewers.
After all, how can you expect to have solutions or even productive discussion when your understanding of a situation is clouded and inaccurate? Or when you’ve been emotionally provoked into attacking a strawman?
Time and time again, the discourse turns to outrage —but outrage that is poorly supported, often unfounded, and wastefully misdirected. And too often, this outrage only manages to generate sympathy for the “wronged” party while neither illuminating nor addressing any of the real issues at play.