YouTube is an exhilarating, cacophonous medium in large part because it is made of many products loosely united by an interface and advertising sales network. There are professional operations that moved from television (if you wonder why Jamie Oliver no longer fills hours of food network, it’s because he’s a YouTube personality), performers who came up on the internet, and people who are putting their amateur videos online, because that’s just how we seem to behave in 2016. At its most interesting, YouTube is compelling because all these elements exist side-by-side, redefining both professionalism and amateurism in one stroke.
the squeeze is on if you make something related to current affairs
That is, however, a consumer’s vision of YouTube; the commercial vision is that YouTube is a source of content against which ads can be sold. This function is overwhelmingly automated, thereby saving producers the hassle of negotiating ad rates and giving a few new arrivals the possibility of getting rich. The benefits of this system, however, largely belong to those selling the ads; everything else is largely incidental. That is a useful rule to keep in mind when thinking about product changes in the YouTube ecosystem, such as its new “Advertiser-friendly content guidelines”:
Content that is considered “not advertiser-friendly” includes, but is not limited to:
- Sexually suggestive content, including partial nudity and sexual humor
- Violence, including display of serious injury and events related to violent extremism
- Inappropriate language, including harassment, profanity and vulgar language
- Promotion of drugs and regulated substances, including selling, use and abuse of such items
- Controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown
If any of the above describes any portion of your video, then the video may not be approved for monetization. If monetization is approved, your video may not be eligible for all available ad formats. YouTube reserves the right to not monetize a video, as well as suspend monetization features on channels that repeatedly submit videos violating our policies.
In the abstract, that all seems fair enough: The Glad family of products probably doesn’t want to advertise against bong-making tutorials, even if that is one uses for their plastic wrap. Moreover, insofar as Google makes a cut off ad sales, it makes sense for it to introduce incentive for more advertiser-friendly content.
But where it all gets weird is that definitions of “not advertiser-friendly” can vary, and this variance is enough to wreck the business models (insofar as they exist) of all sorts of video-makers. Here, for instance, is a peeved YouTuber:
These are not exactly prime examples of advertiser-hostile accounts, but the risk calculus varies depending where you are in the transaction. Car companies can live with a few videos they can no longer advertise against and so can YouTube. Some people will change their content; others will live without advertising. But the squeeze is on if you make something related to current affairs or politics or—if you’re not feeling generous to Google—life. And sure, there is a form of appeal or recourse, but if you were in the business of making Let’s Play videos, depending on the benevolent intervention of moderators would make for a pretty risky business plan.
There’ll still be plenty of interesting content out there, because people already uploaded their weird creations to YouTube with next to no promise of money. The instinct to share trumps almost everything, which is part of the reason policies like this can be implemented. For weird YouTube creators, mind you, this is an awfully steep price to pay for the need to avoid technological awkwardness. Advertisers, in old and new media alike, want their content next to things that won’t turn you off spending money. (This, incidentally, is why many news organizations can turn off ads on coverage of things like a recent terrorist attack.) All the content covered by the new YouTube policy may not have that effect, but the risk calculus for the advertiser is different than that of the creator. YouTube, as the intermediary, gets to come down on whichever side it wants and set the rules. You can’t really be surprised which side it chose.