The hidden economy driving our culture

Photo by Casey Gomez

It is dangerous to assume that sites like YouTube exist for our benefit. We do reap several benefits from these sites, but they are similar to the comforts afforded to a pig being raised for slaughter: the pig is fed well to ensure a hearty yield of pork, while we are provided with engaging content to ensure that we stick around for a heaping dose of ads.

This isn’t to say that YouTube wants to kill us — though if SquareSpace would pay out ad dollars for it, I wouldn’t put it past them — but rather that we are more of a product than a consumer in the grand scheme of the online economy. I’m aware that this trope is played out; a past teacher of mine with a voracious appetite for conspiracy theories would often remind his captive audience of high school students that if you aren’t paying for a service, you aren’t the main beneficiary.

But if we look deeper at the relationship between YouTube, its advertisers and its users, it becomes alarmingly clear that our entire view of the internet lies on shaky ground.

Here’s an extremely simplified description of this relationship. YouTube allows users to freely view or upload videos. To facilitate the traffic and sheer volume of content on the site, they have to pay for storage and server space — as well as turn a healthy profit.  Since this money isn’t coming from users, YouTube takes money from advertisers in exchange for promoting their products on the site. 

To ensure that these ads get seen, YouTube places them on the videos of users that have consistently drawn a lot of viewers. These users are then given a cut of the advertising money, incentivizing them to continue creating content that will get views and siphon cash into their — and YouTube’s — wallet. With this model, YouTube became less of a utility and more of a profession, with creators tailoring their content to garner the largest possible amount of views.

This model isn’t inherently problematic. People aren’t willing to pay for YouTube — as YouTube Red’s glacial growth rate has shown — and the advertiser-funded model has been media’s go-to since the days of radio. But in the unregulated Wild West of online user-generated content, the corporation-content relationship isn’t as cut and dry.

In March of 2017, several advertisers discovered that their products were being pedaled on a video titled “Chief Keef dancing to Alabama N—–.” Upon closer scrutiny, companies discovered that their ads were appearing alongside several videos featuring extreme violence, racism and other distasteful content.

This led to a mass exodus of advertisers from the platform with powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola and Johnson & Johnson withdrawing all advertising.

Now bear with me, because we have finally gotten to the part of the story that actually affects the average person.

YouTube, eager to redeem themselves in the eyes of advertisers, began a crackdown on any content they deemed unsavory. And by “they,” I mean YouTube’s poorly tuned content identification algorithm. See, it would require an unfathomable number of man hours to manually wade through the sea of content that is uploaded to the site every second. It is much more cost effective to have an algorithm process every video on the platform and demonetize the content it deems inappropriate. 

This content included a well-researched educational series about World War I, a large swath of popular LGBTQIA vlogs and several other types of videos that propelled the service to its current level of popularity.

As YouTube continued its  automated crackdown on channels, more and more creators found their income streams running dry.  Some were forced to pursue other careers, while many others found themselves drastically altering their content in order to toe YouTube’s arbitrary line and protect their livelihoods. Meanwhile, viewers — you, me and the overwhelming majority of the people that use YouTube — found themselves at the mercy of a hidden economy that was directly dictating the kind of content they had access to.

I’ve written about 2017’s “Adpocalypse” at length, so this may be old news for some of you. What makes these events prescient today, however, are the growing fears that YouTube, a staple of the internet landscape, may soon cease to exist.

Users have recently brought attention to an unsettling amount of thinly veiled pedophilia on the platform, prompting YouTube to remove hundreds of channels and millions of comments from their site. Though this purge showed much more discretion than its 2017 counterpart, the real issue arose in the aftermath. Several important advertisers, such as Epic Games, Disney and AT&T, once again absconded with their precious advertising dollars. Some of these companies had returned to the platform just weeks earlier.

Unfortunately for content creators, they have no control over what users say in their comments. YouTube’s comment sections are a veritable cesspool, and several channels found that their channels were demonetized as a result of inappropriate comments on their videos. It makes sense that YouTube would want to do everything in its power to court advertisers; with no money, the service can’t operate. Through their scorched earth policies, however, they’re doing this at the expense of valuable contributors to their site.

And while I’m sure the site will find a way to bounce back from this scandal ­— one that I personally believe has been overinflated — there is one aspect of YouTube that will never sit well with me.

Views sit at the center of the online economy. Views are the main metric that companies utilize to measure the reach of their advertisements. Views are the signposts guiding the flow of YouTube’s money, dictating the ration that each creator will receive. 

Certain types of content will always get more views that others. Some formats are more attractive to advertisers, and as such they are more attractive to YouTube. The site intentionally pushes this content, recommending it and featuring it on their front page. In short, this advertiser economy secretly controls what we watch and, by extension, our culture at large.