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It’s been an interesting few weeks in terms of freedom of speech, and what that means on the internet. On 31 August, YouTube made a small but significant change to its advertising policy – it set new guidelines for monetizeable content, and included rules specifically against offensive content.
In a lot of contexts, that’s pretty justifiable: It shouldn’t ever be the case that a system is put in place that rewards hateful and destructive speech. Under the previous system, ad revenue was pretty much a direct correlation to viewership, and controversy is a constant driver of viewership.
For example, it would be possible to create a YouTube channel that featured nothing but trolling and baiting other people, and not only would you get a response to that, you’d actually be rewarded for your efforts with ad revenue. That cannot possibly be a reasonable thing to reward – it directly fans the flames that make YouTube an unpleasant place to be.
Trouble is, “offensive” is an extremely subjective and rapidly-moving target – nowhere more so in the US, with college campus politics and ludicrous entitlement driving a new generation of offenderati. A recent, glowing example of this was a Lyft passenger who berated the driver for being racist, simply because the driver had a Hawaiian bobblehead accessory in his car:
That’s one element to consider. The second is how quickly instances like that are used to fuel internet mobs – groups of people with internet access and nothing better to do. They’ll gang up, post harassing messages on social media, try unearthing private information about their target, and generally try making their lives miserable.
If that Lyft driver in the article above was on social media, he would have been targeted with death threats, his information would have been made public, he’d probably be barraged with phone calls and texts for being “racist” – none of his fault, and all of it perpetrated by what I can only imagine is a mentally unstable woman.
That behavior – distasteful as it is – is a fantastic driver of “engagement” on these platforms. It drives eyeballs to videos, it drives comments (albeit bad), and it drives uploads – mainly rebuttals and rants. And YouTube is, in my opinion, justified in trying to protect themselves from that. Not only because advertisers will be insisting on it, but also just because it’s the decent, human thing to do.
But because everyone’s so easily offended, and because people can be rallied up into attack mobs, there’s a very real downside: The systems by which YouTube enforces this policy are largely automated, and there’s basically no preemptive defense. If you say the wrong thing on YouTube, or you upset a group of people (maybe no more than 50 people, even), they can rally against you and flag all your videos for inappropriate content. And after a certain point, the system simply starts demonetizing your videos.
That’s a bit of a slap in the face to the people that work on producing great content for YouTube. It takes a lot of effort to build a channel and an audience, and the ad revenue from that was what made it viable for a lot of content creators to keep doing that. There’s a large overlap between the people that are passionate about creating YouTube content, and the people that believe strongly in the views they’re sharing.
And since we’re now living in a world where simply existing is offensive to some people, it’ll become harder and harder for those content creators to justify spending so much time and effort producing content for YouTube (which already takes 45% of all ad revenue), when it’s so easy for someone to get a hate mob together and torpedo your earnings.
YouTube is by far the largest platform for community-driven speech in the world, and they’ve swung a bit of a double-edged sword here. They’ll likely end up with a profitable network, but at the cost of burning down a vital square for public debate.
Meaning that the final holdout just bit the dust. Facebook has been tailoring their algorithms for years, designed to put profitable content in front of you. Twitter’s losing the battle for their independence, and will have to start making larger compromises pretty soon if they want to remain relevant. And now YouTube has thrown their independent content producers to the wolves.
Kinda makes you long for MySpace a bit.