Like death and taxes, seeing a version of “YouTube is over” trend on Twitter just hours after a new policy change goes into effect is a certainty.
YouTube’s updated harassment policy is no exception. Under the rules announced last week, YouTube will “no longer allow content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes such as their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” Essentially, people can criticize a creator’s work, but the basis of those criticisms can’t be attacks on their person. YouTube says the rules are being implemented because bullying makes “people less inclined to share their opinions and engage with each other.”
The recent policy change is just one of many that’s made creators reconfigure their approach to YouTube in recent years. To the site’s endemic creators, it can feel like they’re being pushed around as YouTube prioritizes more traditional content, but the changes have often been much-needed ones designed to help the platform evolve.
At 14 years old, YouTube is going through a growth spurt. The company is entering its formative teenage years, learning to grapple with newfound responsibilities and account for its actions. Certain oversights YouTube got away with a few years ago because people weren’t paying as close attention — like allowing controversial creators could monetize their channels and types of prank content such as dangerous driving behavior seen through the Bird Box challenge — can’t be considered oversights anymore. The problem with growth spurts is they hurt. Over the last few years, those who feel the most hurt by YouTube’s changes are creators.
The new policies arrive months after Vox’s Carlos Maza accused conservative pundit Steven Crowder of using homophobic language in his videos to continuously harass him. YouTube’s executives initially argued the comments didn’t violate the company’s policies, but they later stated new policies would go into effect to address creator-on-creator harassment. The new policy covers videos that may not individually violate YouTube’s rules, but are part of “a pattern of repeated behavior across multiple videos or comments.”
Despite good intentions, the expanded harassment ban has creators worried it could lead to a crackdown on popular types of videos. Portions of the YouTube community, including drama channels and commentators that often focus on the behaviors of others on the platform, could have their videos violate the new policy. Their videos tend to be about other creators, and while some might be in the name of comedy, the end result is viewed as bullying by many.
“Channels that repeatedly brush up against our harassment policy will be suspended from YouTube’s Partner Program, eliminating their ability to make money on YouTube,” the new policy reads, adding that even if a video doesn’t cross the line, repeated attacks could be seen as harassment.
For years, both YouTube and creators profited off the drama-fueled rants that creators tossed at each other. YouTube even alluded to the biggest interpersonal fights between personalities in its 2017 Rewind video, showing Jake and Logan Paul standing opposite each other, prepared to fight, while others watched. (Diss tracks are reportedly fine, labeled as artistic expression, but even this can’t be abused.) Creators were allowed to make these videos in the past, so they did, and a community was formed in the process.
Already, YouTube has taken down a commentary / comedy video from a major YouTuber, seemingly as a warning. Ian “iDubbbz” Carter, a popular creator and controversial comedian, started his “Content Cop” series in an effort to bring attention to problematic habits of other YouTubers, including laying out Brian “RiceGum” Le’s over-the-top clickbait material and Calvin “Leafy” Veil’s own cyberbullying behavior. Carter’s video on Veil was removed by YouTube, and, while the language he used, teasing Veil for his personal appearance and behavior, violated the company’s new policy, the decision was met with scorn from the community because Carter called to attention behavior that wasn’t acceptable.
“The only thing keeping other YouTubers in check is other YouTubers,” Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg said in a recent video. “We have this anarchy system; don’t come and ruin it for us, YouTube. The rule is if you do dumb shit on YouTube, you will get called out on it. We need that — it’s the only thing keeping us sane.”
Concern around the new policy is just another symptom of creators having to deal with years of uncertainty, navigating new changes from YouTube that could affect their livelihoods. Dozens of new policy changes and suspected algorithm shifts over the past few years have led to creators frantically trying to figure out how to make money on the site. Creators who weren’t gamers tried to get in on the Minecraft trend because advertising money was there; people suddenly became vloggers and uploaded daily to appease the algorithm; trying to make content that YouTube considered family-friendly seemed like a hopeful attempt. Anything and everything was tried.
Two painful periods of demonetization — both following critical but necessary attention on the actions of popular creators Kjellberg and Logan Paul — fragmented the relationship between personalities and the company. Many live in constant fear of the next “adpocalypse,” as the time is often referred. There are videos from 2017 and 2018 declaring YouTube “over” for a myriad of reasons, but it all comes back to uncertainty around money.
YouTubers are working in turbulent times, and it’s only going to get harder heading into 2020. New guidelines imposed by the Federal Trade Commission, following a $160 million fine against YouTube for allegedly violating the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), could have a great effect on monetizing family-friendly content. At one time, family-friendly content was thought of as the safest thing for creators to make from a revenue perspective. Creators believed it was more often approved for ads and put in front of viewers, as edgier videos were suppressed, and their experience seemed to prove that out.
Everything’s become a balancing act for creators who have worked on YouTube for years — some even longer than a decade. YouTube’s changes have financial impacts on the creators who use it for work. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and it’s something people can watch progress online. Jokes that people made on Twitter in 2008 wouldn’t fly in 2019, as we’ve seen happen over the last few years. On YouTube, where the changes can dramatically alter the careers of some creators — or even when changes threaten to — some backlash makes sense.
“It seems like a lot of YouTube’s updates where the intention is good — I don’t think people should get attacked for their sexual identity — but it’s always like, ‘This is what we want to strike down’ and then it’s like all these other consequences are the result of it,” Kjellberg said. “It’s like COPPA wasn’t enough; there’s no kids content on YouTube and there’s no edgy content on YouTube.”
The bigger picture is that YouTube needs to enforce these changes. The site is only getting bigger, with more than 500 hours of content uploaded every minute and new creators joining every day. The company has a duty to protect its creators from harassment and cyberbullying. But in doing so, it has to acknowledge that creators have been shuffled around so frequently in the past few years that there’s little trust left for the company. Growing pains are painful and difficult to weather, but they are necessary.