Saturday, May 6, 2017

YouTube, to survive, must grow up

You may not be aware, but there’s a crisis over at YouTube, which they’re calling the “adpocalypse". 

About a month ago, a journalist at the Wall Street Journal took a screenshot of the site running ads on videos containing extremist content. There are charges that the screenshot was Photoshopped. (Traditional media does have a vested interest in discrediting anything on the Internet—its lower-cost competitor.) But the brouhaha prompted advertisers to take a closer look at what they were associating with their brands over at YouTube. Many of them didn't like what they saw.

Since then, advertisers have been fleeing the video sharing site in droves. Google (the owner of YouTube) has lost millions. In an attempt to lure advertisers back, YouTube has been demonetizing any video deemed “controversial” or “sensational”. Moreover, there are suddenly far fewer ads to go around. 

The result has been a sharp decline in the ad revenues earned by YouTube creators—somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 95%, depending on the size of the YouTube channel and the nature of the content. This has brought dire predictions of the impending “death of YouTube”. I certainly hope that YouTube doesn't die; and as I’ll explain shortly, I don’t believe it will.  

I have been messing around with YouTube for more than ten years now, and I’ve been posting videos there since 2008. My YouTube channel has undergone several major iterations. I have never been a YouTube star, nor anything close to it. Nor will I ever be. My game is writing, not vlogging; and practically everything I have ever done on YouTube has been related to a book I’ve written or am in the process of writing. 

I once had a video on an obscure nonfiction topic that received a little over 50,000 views. That may sound like a lot, but it’s peanuts in YouTube terms. Popular videos receive millions of views. My videos have always been lucky to get view counts in the hundreds or thousands. 

But I have long enjoyed watching videos on YouTube. Or at least, I used to. In the early days of the site (YouTube was launched only in 2005), YouTube was a truly diverse, dynamic—and mostly friendly—place. 

One of my favorite channels in “the old days” of the site was that of Peter Oakley (1927 - 2014). Oakley was known on YouTube as Geriatric1927. Oakley vlogged regularly about his experiences during World War II as a radar mechanic in the British military. I wasn't the only one who enjoyed Oakley’s videos: Geriatric1927 was the most subscribed channel on YouTube in 2006. 

In the early days, almost everyone who was on YouTube was there because they had some passionate interest that they simply wanted to share with the world. The production standards were generally rough in those days. But if you were interested in a nerdy topic that was never going to find its way onto television (like foreign language learning, in my case) you could find something that fed your obsession on YouTube.

Then the ad revenue sharing YouTube "partner program" was launched in 2007, and a different kind of channel began to assert itself. YouTube’s more diverse, interesting content was pushed aside by clickbait channels focused on video games, profane adolescent comedy, snarky political rants, teenage girls’ makeup tips, and live (often staged) pranks. 

Technically, the production standards improved. But the content became a lot less appealing to anyone over the age of twenty-five or thirty.

Today the most popular YouTuber is Felix Kjelberg, a 27-year-old man-child who vlogs under the name PewDiePie. The mainstays of Kjelberg’s programming are video games, and the sort of humor that only a ten-year-old could love—or even laugh at. Kjelberg knows his target audience: Although pushing thirty himself, he deliberately acts like the world’s biggest seventh grader. 

Google the phrase, “too old for YouTube”, and you’ll get a series of blog posts and articles on the extent of the site’s adolescent tilt: The consensus seems to be that to be a YouTube vlogger, you should be under thirty. This is a shame, because thirty is the age when most of us, finally liberated from the navel-gazing self-absorption and provincial concerns of childhood, finally have something meaningful to say. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have no desire to see the juvenile content driven off YouTube. But must juvenile content set the standard for what YouTube is fundamentally about?

Young people also thrive on unnecessary melodrama and snark, and it's no surprise that you can find these commodities in abundance on YouTube’s top channels. Jaclyn Glenn is a twenty-something YouTuber who has half a million subscribers. Glenn specializes in making fun of anyone with religious beliefs. (In one video she mockingly covers her face with some Jesus-themed stickers that she dug up somewhere.) She also talks about her recent breast augmentation surgery. (One of her videos is entitled “I’m Getting a Boob Job.”) Glenn also spends a lot of time publicly feuding with fellow YouTuber Onision, who has nearly 2 million subscribers. Onision’s videos include gems like, “Why Do Girls Like Yoga Pants?” and “Tumblr and Poo FAIL”. Yes, really.

Many YouTubers—both those who perform and those who merely watch—seem to be angry, and actively courting the anger of others. Racial conflict, feminism vs. anti-feminism, and other tropes of the culture wars are common themes on the site.  It is no surprise that YouTube comments are among the most toxic on the Internet. 

But controversy is part of the clickbait game. As far as advertising revenue is concerned, controversial YouTubers profit as much from those who hate them as they do from those who love them. Whatever generates controversy and melodrama keeps the clicks and comments coming, and that keeps the ad revenues flowing.

To be sure, not all programming on YouTube is bad. One of my YouTube favorites is Philip DeFranco, a young independent journalist who provides thoughtful commentary on current events. The only gripe I have about DeFranco is his cringeworthy opening tagline: “Hello, you beautiful bastards!”—which he admits has cost him ad revenue. DeFranco is too old for that kind of schtick (31), and what’s more, he’s far too intelligent. 

But that’s the point, see. To succeed on YouTube, you must be “edgy” (i.e., say the F-word a lot and gratuitously insult people); you must be “youthful” (i.e. childish). In other words, you must constantly convey the impression that you’re not quite an adult—even if you are one.

Therein lies the problem with the YouTube culture. The economics of the site have long been geared toward garnering clicks from adolescents. While less puerile content can be found on YouTube, it is overshadowed by the PewDiePies, and—in one case at least—a viral video in which a twentysomething gamer does nothing but stare at a banana for five minutes.

Which brings us to an important question: How much do the eyeballs who tune in to such fare really benefit advertisers? Do most PewDiePie viewers buy SUVs or mutual funds? What is the annual income of the average PewDiePie viewer, after you subtract out parental allowances?

But it’s on the Internet, so it’s gotta be immature, right? Well, not quite. Facebook is an example of an online venue that started out as hopelessly youth-centric, and eventually grew up. When I log on to Facebook nowadays, I’m as likely to see my friends’ parents (most of whom are in their seventies) as I am my friends’ teen- and twentysomething kids. The idea that an Internet venue must pander to the juvenile crowd in order to succeed may have had some validity in 1999. But your parents and grandparents have figured out the Internet now. 

The current adpocalypse will not mean the end of YouTube. It will mean a shift in the kind of content that is incentivized on the site; and that, in turn, will mean a rise in the age of the average YouTuber. Just as Facebook is no longer exclusively about teens and twentysomethings, so YouTube may finally grow out of its adolescent phase.

That might just make the dollars that advertisers are spending to run alongside videos there worth something. It will also make YouTube a site worth tuning into again.