In 2016, Ethan Klein, a YouTuber with over 6 million subscribers, uploaded a video titled “YouTube is Not Being Honest with Us.” In it, he complains that YouTube’s platform discriminates against his channel by hiding it from users who subscribe to his content. He shares message after message from his fans who wrote in to say that his videos weren’t showing up in their YouTube subscription feeds. At one point, he claims that YouTube is unsubscribing users from his channel without their consent.
Klein’s complaints then shift to YouTube’s Trending tab and its tendency to promote videos from mainstream media companies while ignoring content from channels like his. At the time of his recording, most of the videos featured in the Trending tab had only generated a few thousand views, whereas his videos often rack up millions of views within the first 24 hours after he posts them. Klein’s verdict? The Trending tab is rigged. “I wish they would just explain what they’re doing,” he pleads. “Just tell us what you want, what are you doing?”
Given the Trending tab’s position on the YouTube homepage — it’s the second most prominent icon on the menu bar — it has tremendous influence over what YouTube’s 2 billion users watch every day. While a Trending placement can generate millions of additional views, YouTube’s methodology for compiling the list has remained inscrutable. An official video titled “How YouTube’s Trending Tab Works” describes it as “a list of what videos are new and popular, specific to a viewer’s country.” The term “trending” indicates that there’s some kind of algorithm at play, but YouTube creators have long suspected that many of the videos chosen for the Trending tab are handpicked by YouTube’s staff.
Those suspicions were recently vindicated. Earlier this month, a YouTuber named Stephen (I couldn’t find his last name referenced anywhere) presented data he’d collected from 40,000 videos over a six-month period. These videos had all been featured on YouTube’s Trending tab, and Stephen’s team had categorized each video and recorded how many views it had generated prior to it being featured on Trending.
From there, Stephen created a series of graphs. In one, he mapped the average number of views a channel’s video generated before being featured on Trending and compared it to the total number of times videos from that channel were promoted on Trending during the six-month period. For instance, the popular YouTuber Logan Paul only made it to the Trending tab four times over the six-month period, and those four videos averaged 11 million views each. ESPN, on the other hand, was featured 84 times on the Trending tab, and those 84 videos only averaged 500,000 views each. In other words, ESPN needed 10.5 million fewer views than Paul to be featured on Trending. YouTube seemed to be lowering the bar for ESPN.
And those findings were consistent. Over and over again, Stephen found that mainstream television programming — The Ellen Show, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon — was featured most often on the Trending tab and it typically had to cross a very low viewership threshold to get there. “I want to stress, this is not due to the fact that [late night shows] are getting more views than these other YouTubers are,” he says.
Stephen also noticed that YouTube seemed to be featuring a lot of videos from mainstream news sources like CNN and the Associated Press, so he filtered his dataset so it only focused on news channels. Here, the disparity between mainstream media channels and independent channels was even more stark. About 95% of all news videos on Trending come from traditional media. Philip DeFranco, an independent YouTube star who often presents his take on the news, needed 1.4 million views to make it onto Trending. The AP’s YouTube channel only required 10,000.
For many YouTubers, Stephen’s findings simply provided more confirmation of their longstanding belief that YouTube had turned its back on independent creators. During its first decade, YouTube and its parent company Google relied on these creators to collectively churn out millions of hours of content and build a vibrant community of repeat visitors. But as YouTube’s senior executives have increased their focus on producing revenue and profits, we’ve seen a marked shift in how the platform caters to content creators. Mainstream entertainment companies that produce ad-friendly, premium content are seeing the red carpet rolled out for them at the expense of independent video creators who feel they’re being pushed aside.
The Trending tab isn’t the only area where independent creators feel they’re being discriminated against. They’ve also been raising the alarm about abuse from IP rights holders, especially the major music labels that keep siphoning away money by filing bogus copyright claims.
Late last year, the YouTuber Gus Johnson uploaded a video titled “YouTube’s content claim system is out of control.” Johnson recounts how, a few days earlier, he had published a video that referenced the song Bohemian Rhapsody in the title but “didn’t play even a fucking microsecond of the song.” Despite the fact that his video contained not even one iota of copyrighted material, EMI Music Publishing, the rights holder for Bohemian Rhapsody, had claimed the video as copyright infringement. What did this mean for Johnson? That all ad money generated by the video would be directed away from him and toward EMI Publishing. “This is not a problem that’s unique to me, at all,” says Johnson. “This is a huge site-wide problem.”
Indeed, YouTubers have sounded the alarm about the music industry’s increasingly draconian enforcement of its intellectual property rights, even in cases that seem like obvious candidates for fair use. According to a report from The Verge, YouTubers have seen their videos demonetized for the sin of quoting a single line from a song or even playing a standalone D chord. Rights holders use a tool called Content ID to automatically scan the millions of hours of video uploaded to YouTube each day and claim any video that uses even a snippet of copyrighted music. The tools has reportedly generated over $3 billion in revenue for the music industry.
While the copyright claims system has an appeals process that allows a YouTuber to argue for why their ad money shouldn’t be taken away, YouTube often sides with the music corporations. “The thing is,” says Gus Johnson, “you’re not going to easily win this shit.” And once the appeals process has been decided in the music label’s favor, the YouTuber really has no other recourse.
Last year, I wrote about the mental health strain YouTubers face and why this is leading to creator burnout. One of the reasons behind this is that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm increasingly favors longer videos; a decade ago the average YouTube video clocked in at roughly five minutes, whereas today the platform recommends videos that are at least 15 minutes long. If you’re a mainstream media company with a full-time staff, you can create longer videos without too much strain, but independent YouTubers who produce and edit their own videos have found themselves stretched thin by YouTube’s changing norms.
To be fair, executives at YouTube have acknowledged many of the above problems. CEO Susan Wojcicki published a blog post in April that at least gave lip service to the idea that the copyright claim system was out of hand. “We were already looking into this issue but hearing this directly from creators was vital,” she wrote. “We are exploring improvements in striking the right balance between copyright owners and creators.” In that same post, she addressed the claim that YouTube’s Trending tab is dominated by mainstream channels and shared the company’s goal “to have at least half the videos on trending come from YouTubers.”
I think YouTube values its independent creator community and understands the vital role it plays in assuring the company’s continued dominance in the video space. But at the same time, executives are engaged in a pivot to television-like content, and many of the YouTubers who create independent content aren’t well-suited for this pivot. The challenge for Wojcicki and others is to strike a balance, one that caters to brand advertisers while also sustaining the creative output of the YouTube’s creator community. With other streaming video companies spending billions on developing original content, YouTube’s creators the one things that makes its platform unique. Turning its back on them is not an option.