By Tedi Rollins
Elm Staff Writer
From its beginnings as a small start-up to the hugely popular website, YouTube, has made its name as a social media network which enables everyday people to have a voice. For years, the video sharing site has provided viewers with music videos, TV shows, and, most importantly, independently produced content in a variety of genres.
In YouTube’s early years, it existed as a sort of social network where individuals could express their own talents and opinions for others to see. As Amanda Hess, a writer for The New York Times said, “Since its 2005 debut with the slogan ‘Broadcast Yourself,’ YouTube has positioned itself as a place where any people with camera phones can make a career of their creativity and thrive free of the grip of corporate media gatekeepers.”
In recent years, YouTube has deviated significantly from its original purpose. With the website’s increase in viewers came an increase in creators, not all of them independent from corporate media. YouTube currently hosts its own web shows and has large media producers that use the site to supplement their other content (i.e. clips from network television shows and Buzzfeed videos). These companies overshadow the plethora of individual YouTubers who are still making content.
While the boom of large-scale producers may create videos enjoyable to audiences, they have not necessarily been good news for the independent creators who exist at the website’s core. One primary issue lies in advertisements. For years, YouTube allowed individuals to make a profit off of their own talents without needing to sign to a larger agency. YouTubers received revenue based on how many people viewed their videos and, subsequently, the ads that were placed before them.
In March 2017, YouTube made a major change in their policy. Several companies had begun to pull their advertisements from the website because they did not want to be associated with the potentially controversial content that occurred in some videos. In an attempt to curb this, YouTube came up with an algorithm that blocked advertisements from being shown on videos that contained such content. The problem is that the algorithm does not consider the context in which the topics are being discussed, it just generalizes any mention of them.
As Hess said, “YouTube uses machine learning systems that can’t always discern context, or distinguish commentary or humor from hate speech. That limitation means that YouTube routinely pulls ads from content deemed ‘not advertiser-friendly.’ That includes depictions of violence or drug use, ‘sexual humor,’ and ‘controversial or sensitive subjects,’ including war and natural disasters.”
The result of this is that smaller news channels who may report on these issues, or creators who may partake in an innocuous discussion of the topics YouTube deems unsuitable, may lose the funding that comes from advertisements. One could argue that this is a prime example of censorship: people are losing the majority of their income because a robot finds the topics in their video offensive.
While it is certainly necessary for YouTube to keep advertisers happy, the website needs to come up with a method of doing this that does not cause harmless videos, channels, and YouTubers to get caught in the crossfire.
The corporate takeover of YouTube has more or less stolen the platform that once enabled anybody to have a voice. Early on, people could (and did) make careers out of producing their own videos. Think of Bethany Mota, PewDiePie, and Jenna Marbles, who all became famous from their YouTube channels.
Between the growth of the website, which can cause small creators to be overshadowed by large producers, and the advertisements potentially ruining their funding, the website may diverge entirely from its original goal as a platform.
As YouTube continues to develop even further, I hope they find a way to stop prioritizing profits over the independent creators who made the website successful in the first place.