I, like most other people out there, am painfully embarrassed of my middle school years. My head sported a permanent bowl-cut, I spoke to my “girlfriend” exclusively through AOL messenger and my internet presence consisted solely of a tricked out MySpace page that blared Green Day’s “American Idiot” to anyone unfortunate enough to visit.
When MySpace died, it was not due to a loss of interest in social media. Users still wanted a way to connect with their friends, they had just found a better platform in the burgeoning Facebook.
So goes the cycle of internet websites; one day you may be one of the most visited websites in the world, and the next a barren cesspool of awkwardly-named indie bands.
But this is not always the case. Sometimes, before a suitable replacement is found, a website will go fully nuclear and implode on itself, disrupting the entire online economy in its wake. This internet landscape, in one way or another, always ties back to online search giant Google.
Seemingly too big to fail, Google has spread it roots into every facet of the internet. And with its acquisition of YouTube in 2006, it cemented itself as the ubiquitous service through which virtually all online activity was conducted for a large segment of the internet-conscious population.
Accompanied by the slogan “Broadcast Yourself,” YouTube began as a simple depository for user-submitted videos. When people want to listen to the new Gorillaz single that just dropped, they go to YouTube to hear it. When Mrs. Lippy wanted to show you an episode of “Magic Schoolbus” in science class, she went to YouTube. When I asked my roommate to give me a Euro-trash hipster fade in my bathtub with kitchen scissors, he sought guidance on YouTube.
Since then, it has grown into a veritable media powerhouse that pumps billions of dollars into the pockets of content producers every year. Their partnership program, a service reserved for more popular channels that places monetized ads before videos, has commercialized the platform and, in a sense, put content creators at the mercy of the companies that pay them. The more views they get, the more money advertisers are willing to pay. And the more advertisers are willing to pay, the more food they can put on their table at the end of the day. For many creators, YouTube is their livelihood. When the money stops coming in, content stops coming out.
Everything we do on the internet is used to create a comprehensive profile on our tastes. For example, when you scour the web for tickets to a Florida-Georgia Line concert, you may find things like “Hooked On Phonix 12 Book Collection”, “3ft x 7ft Confederate Flag Blanket” and “Duck Dynasty Season 4 Blu Ray” in your Amazon reccomended items list. People aren’t tasked with monitoring the internet activity of every single person (thankfully for you and your incognito search history). Algorithms have been created to match advertisements with content and search queries, determining what white trash items go in your reccomendations and what ads show up before YouTube videos. Unfortunately, the margin for error in these algorithms is sizable, an issue that could very well bring about the end of YouTube.
In the past month, advertisers like Pepsi, Starbucks, Walmart and GM have all pulled ads from the platform in response a Wall Street Journal story exposing the flaws in YouTube’s advertising methods. In the story, writer Jack Nicas explains that ads from companies like those previously mentioned have been showing up attached to videos featuring less than savory content such as endorsement of racist, sexist and violent acts. The advertiser boycott has made a huge dent in Google’s wallet, which has in turn affected the ability of content creators to make money. And without a viable and ubiquitous replacement for the platform, online media could be in danger.
Unless Google refines its ad policy (which would require a great deal of time and money), YouTube will continue to suffer at the expense of its user base. Several online content producers, such as the creators of the popular podcast FunHaus, have already expressed uncertainty in their financial future.
And for people like me who can’t do math or science or anything that can guarantee financial stability, that is a scary thought.