Friday, May 11, 2018

The YouTube "adpocalypse" continues, along with questions about YouTube's future

Yet another major company, Cisco, has yanked all its ads from YouTube

This is a continuation of the ad revenue implosion that began last year on YouTube, otherwise known as the "adpocalypse". 

Companies are concerned about their ads being run on videos featuring extremist, controversial, or risqué content. There were several high-profile cases of this occurring during 2017, and many corporate advertisers canceled their ads. In response, YouTube began to curate its ad-eligible content more stringently. 

I'm not completely unsympathetic to the corporations. Most people would understand that companies don't want their ads running on videos that feature, say, the advocacy of neo-Nazi or radical Islamist ideology. Nor would companies want their ads running alongside pornographic content. (Pornographic content is verboten on YouTube, but some of it inevitably slips through.)

In the wake of the adpocalypse, the complaint from many YouTube creators was that YouTube's response to advertiser concerns amounted to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. 

For a while, any channel that discussed controversial topics in the news--from any viewpoint--saw its videos demonetized. Then the algorithms were made even stricter, and even cooking channels (in one example that I am familiar with) were deprived of ad revenue.

Then, finally, YouTube demonetized all "small" channels. YouTube's execs decided that every channel in the partner program had to be very carefully vetted. And that simply isn't possible if you don't set some minimum standard threshold for subscribers/views. (There are millions of channels on YouTube, many with only a handful of subscribers.)

My channel was demonetized in the final round of cuts. I never had anything controversial or even mildly sexual on my channel. (I use my YouTube presence to host video readings of my novels and short stories.) But throughout the latter half of 2017, I neglected to post much new content, as I have been "rebalancing" what I do on social media. (This is a challenge for every fiction author, by the way.) My channel always had a very small native following on YouTube; most of my video views result from my videos being posted on Facebook and this blog. As a result, I was demonetized for being "too small" to warrant the time needed for individual vetting. 

I'm not bitter about any aspect of this, starting with my channel's limited popularity. The most popular channels on YouTube have always been those based on adolescent comedy, video gaming, makeup tips, and politics. The audience trends younger, and the most popular YouTubers are invariably under 35. A middle age author reading his fiction is only going to attract so much attention within the YouTube ecosystem. I've always been realistic about that, and I've never had any illusions about being the next Pewdiepie or Philip DeFranco. 

Nor was I upset about the demonetization. I never earned more than a few dollars here and there in ad revenue. My purpose in being on YouTube is to spread the word about my fiction, not to sell ad space for Procter & Gamble or Taco Bell. So when YouTube informed me that I was about to be demonetized, I didn't exactly put my house up for sale or call the bank for an emergency loan. 

That all said, the recent and ongoing changes do make me wonder how much longer YouTube can survive in its current form, as a video hosting site for the masses. With the push toward curated content, YouTube seems to be trying to remake itself into a Hulu or a Netflix, with highly polished, rigidly curated content. 

But this was never YouTube's niche. And it's reasonable to ask: What can YouTube realistically offer in this regard, that isn't already offered by Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Video? 

Many of the top channels on YouTube (the ones receiving millions of views and subscribers) display moderate performance and production values. But they can't compete with what Netflix and Amazon are doing. For example, I enjoy watching Philip DeFranco. He provides some insightful commentary on current events, from a refreshingly non-partisan perspective. The guy is whip-smart, and he puts a lot of effort into what he does. Nevertheless, his videos still have an amateurish feel about them. Philip DeFranco is not a professional journalist, but rather a very talented amateur one. 

But talented amateurs, of various levels and various niche concerns, have always been what made YouTube so interesting. If you want something polished and curated, there are already plenty of sources than that. YouTube maintains our interest with with its rough edges. 

Yes, sometimes these rough edges are controversial viewpoints. But sometimes they are delightfully obscure hobbies and obsessions, like the YouTube "polyglot" community, that is dedicated to serial language learning. 

YouTube has also been an invaluable platform for visual and musical artists who do not yet have a major worldwide following. Thanks to YouTube, I discovered Motion Device, an indie rock band that specializes in covers of the hard rock songs I remember fondly from my 1980s youth. 

During the first round of the adpocalypse last year, a YouTube executive pointedly reminded advertisers that YouTube "is not TV". Hear, hear. 

But if YouTube does not become TV, can it remain viable as an advertising platform? And if YouTube does become just another online television network, will it still be worth watching? These are the questions.

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