Scrutiny, when it comes to the delivery and consumption of media, feels like it has become the new norm. Phenomenon like fake news and imperfect algorithms (like Facebook’s) clearly has many feeling reflective. And seeing how both spread misinformation and inflamed public discourse, such introspection feels very appropriate. However, even extremely deliberate attempts at this sort of examination can produce unintended consequences for a platform's users.

Advertising Anxiety & Paralyzing Uncertainty

One might recall YouTube waking up to the controversy the Wall Street Journal had reported in March of this year. Big brands (such as Amazon and Microsoft) had their promotions unintentionally placed in front of videos that literally had racial slurs or anti-Semitic language in their titles and descriptions. Videos peddling overtly racist and extremist rhetoric were making money from some of the platform's biggest advertisers.

“Well, [advertisers] definitely don’t want their brand to be anywhere associated with that so they pulled their stuff,” recalled Noah Chrylser, a fourth year New Media Marketing student and an avid creator on YouTube who wishes to pursue content creation as a career. “That spawned this whole kind of fear in YouTube.”

Big brands pulled their ads in protest, pressuring YouTube to get on the issue. They sought more control over what content their promotions would appear in front of. As a result, over the course of this year YouTube has taken several steps to that effect. Their intent has quite apparently been to better vet videos seeking advertising monetization. It is notable how advertising revenue is what prompted YouTube to address — although not necessarily remove — such content.

Yet, as reported by Bloomberg this past August, over 400 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. Trying to properly assess all that media (both for their own and their advertisers’ sake) is a tremendous endeavor. YouTube has even admitted that their new tools are not perfectly accurate.

According to Chrysler, their new automated review process has mistakenly demonetized more than just the targeted inflammatory videos, but innocuous content as well; quite often with little to no explanation why.

“YouTube’s algorithm is now flagging content that used to be not considered inappropriate, but now with these crazy new guidelines that they have, they’re all inappropriate,” argued Chrysler. “It’s really scary, because ad revenue [has] basically become so inconsistent that people cannot rely on it to grow at all, which is pretty awful.”

This type of financial uncertainty underlines the realities that are often unavoidable when needing to use third party platforms for one’s creative work, as pointed out by Professor Mark Reisch of RIT’s Film and Animation program. It’s the type of relationship that any sort of media creator needs to be careful within.

“Companies also change their User Agreements all the time,” Reisch pointed out. “It could be a matter of one sentence in there that changes how much money you’re going to be making.”

He recalled how sites like CafePress, where users can sell user-customized products, have made decisions in the past which dramatically impacted creators’ revenue streams, very often with little warning.

“If you’re working with a third-party site you definitely have to make sure and find out what your rights are,” Reisch said.

In the case of YouTube, Chrysler argued that there hasn’t been enough communication on YouTube’s part about what the new standards for monetization are. Particularly when it comes to what constitutes inappropriate content, or even if this is all just because the algorithms are not perfected yet. From his perspective, it has made creators feel as if only very vanilla or bland content is safe. 

“I just wish that there was more communication between YouTube execs and the people who literally make the platform what it is, the creators who spend their entire lives and livelihoods growing these networks and growing these channels," Chrysler said.

Knowing the Business

While monetization wasn’t always this inconsistent (or gated by higher barriers like the "10,000 views for a channel" requirement), Chrysler claimed that getting enough views to sustain oneself was still a difficult prospect.

Reisch felt similarly. “It’s a lot of work and it’s not something that you can really casually do and make money off of it,” he said. Resich also stressed that whether it be YouTube or another platform, it's important to know the exact ratio(s) of what a piece of content — or amount of effort — will yield in actual revenue.

“A good way (I think) to judge YouTube revenue is to subtract the last three zeroes [of the view count] and then double it typically,” Chrylser explained. Doubling it is in reference to a possible CPM (Cost Per Thousand [advertising impressions]). “Basically it’s like how valuable is your audience when they watch an ad, and if they’re really valuable then you’ll get a lot of money from that advertiser when they put an ad on your video.”

However, what's important to note is that the CPM metric is designed for advertisers, not creators. Hank Green, cofounder of YouTube channels like Crash Course and SciShow as well as the conference Vidcon, wrote about this in 2015. Interestingly, in the same piece he anticipated how many content creators would actually seek ways to monetize their content outside of advertisers. Essentially describing Patreon, he argued that targeting a smaller audience of those willing to pay for content could effectively result in a higher CPM and more lucrative business model overall.

“It used to be the idea that if you get more eyes, then you get more money. That’s still kind of the idea, but now it’s like you can get less eyes and if those eyes pay you then you can still sustain yourself,” noted Chrysler. “The Patreon model is scary to me, because you run the risk of having an audience that is possibly going to feel that you owe them something.”

For Chrysler, having to produce content because he already took people's money would dilute what drew him to creating content on YouTube in the first place.

“When I feel that sense of obligation, like I owe this to another entity, then it’s like ‘I don’t want to do that,’” Chrysler said. “I want to make these for me. If people like them, then enough attention will make it so that I can support myself doing this."

***Below is for the Timeline Graphic***

March 2017: According to the Wall Street Journal, Google promised to give advertisers more ways to keep their promotions from appearing in front of controversial content and prevent ad revenue from going to purveyors of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech. Even so, big brands like Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Amazon and Microsoft suspended a lot of their Google-related advertising until it could be demonstrated that the issue was under control (yet some returned as early as April).

April 2017: YouTube made it so a channel must have 10,000 lifetime views before being eligible for applying for ad monetization. A new, supposedly more scrutinous​ review process was established to become a part of this updated partner program, supposedly in part to ensure brands’ ads weren't placed in front of offensive videos.

May 2017: Patreon reported to TechCrunch that in the span of a year its monthly actively paying patrons had doubled to 1 million, as did its number of active creators to 50,000. As Waypoint (Vice’s Gaming site) would later note in September, increasingly more creators have been sidestepping the confusion of making money off of video advertisements on YouTube by raising funds on platforms like Patreon.

June 18–Aug. 1: YouTube began rolling out tougher human and machine learning measures to prevent the monetization of inflammatory content; explicitly pointing to videos which support terrorism.

Aug. 24: Google began policing YouTube as it never had before, reported Bloomberg. This entailed adding warnings, disabling ads and new restrictions on making money off of videos flagged for having offensive content.

Sept. 28: YouTube made it so creators choosing to use Patreon instead of ad monetization would need to sign up (and go through the review process) for its partner program. Again, the intention was to ensure all content meets community and advertising guidelines. After becoming partners, creators can choose to keep monetization off.