YouTube Adpocalypse is No Surprise

YouTubers call it the adpocalypse.  It’s a word is used to describe the steady erosion of YouTube’s support for small and independent creators by demoting or demonetizing their channels in favor of more traditional, mainstream material.  Julia Alexander at the The Verge wrote in April of this year …

Between 2011 and 2015, YouTube was a haven for comedians, filmmakers, writers, and performers who were able to make the work they wanted and earn money in the process…. In 2016, personalities like Philip DeFranco, comedians like Jesse Ridgway, and dozens of other popular creators started noticing that their videos were being demonetized, a term popularized by the community to indicate when something had triggered YouTube’s system to remove advertisements from a video, depriving them of revenue.”

While not directly related to copyright, I would include the adpocalypse in a chapter about the broader copyright debate because one of the underlying premises of the “copyright is obsolete” narrative is that the new opportunities created by the internet could replace traditional licensing regimes with legacy “gatekeepers.”  With an evangelical zeal, some of the loudest copyright critics sermonized that the internet was replete with untapped sources of revenue for creators, and YouTube was their Zion—a place where creators could slough off tired notions of ownership, share their work with the world, and earn a living from Google’s advertising machine.  

The fact that people were making a business out of being YouTubers—ranging from profitable side-lines to multimillion-dollar payouts for a handful of stars—was sufficient anecdotal evidence to bolster the talking point that concepts like copyright were anachronistic and regressive.  The lecture at old creators was a general theme that they should stop “whining” about lost sales, piracy, devaluation and embrace the unprecedented prospects before them.  

This theme was even reiterated in Steven Johnson’s too-ebullient 2015 New York Times Magazine Feature, The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.  More sober than most, Johnson still cited the YouTube opportunity as evidence that the post-Napster market is rosy for creators, despite what they may be saying.  In my long rebuttal to that article, I stated that Johnson “… can only see the short-term empowerment of some creators via these new technologies, but not the long-term, predatory nature of a brand new group of extraordinarily powerful, corporate masters.”  

That was a theme my fellow luddites kept reiterating—that YouTube will “empower” new creators until it is no longer in its business interest to do so, at which point the company will change the rules without warning or transparency.  That was the underlying absurdity of the entire line of argument against creators’ rights—the illusion that a company like YouTube was liberating new creators, even making them feel a sense of ownership in the platform itself and that this apparent symbiosis would last indefinitely.  “The golden age of YouTube — the YouTube of a million different creators all making enough money to support themselves by creating videos about doing what they love — is over,” writes Alexander.

Perhaps.  But I wouldn’t think of it as the party is over so much as a party to which most YouTubers were never going to be invited in the first place.  The promise of millions becoming YouTube entrepreneurs was never attainable, or at least sustainable.  “96.5 percent of all of those trying to become YouTubers won’t make enough money off of advertising to crack the U.S. poverty line,” stated a 2018 article at YouTube was always a casino, and Google is the House.  Yet, this did not stop the pundits and tech-utopians from insisting that it is restraints like copyright the “stifle” the potential growth of YouTube—or even more naively, imaginary platforms that might one day compete with the Google-owned giant. 

More than a few of my fellow luddites have mentioned that YouTube’s monetization in not about creators, and never has been.  As composer Kerry Muzzy describes in a sit-down interview with Neil Turkewitz, “So far I have identified 97 million views of videos with my music in them, representing 303 million minutes of watch time. Those 97 million views happened before Content ID located my music in them and under YouTube’s policies, I can’t monetize them retroactively — so YouTube and the uploader made a small fortune in ad sales on those videos, but I got nothing.”

This post is not a gloat.  I legitimately empathize with most creative people, and YouTubers are no exception; but one thing the “old” creator can tell the “new” is that very few favorable tides last a lifetime, which is one reason owning copyrights in successful works can be so critical for so many creators.  Like the aging jazz musician whose royalties in a pre-1972 sound recording just might be her medical bills for the year.  

With that in mind, the comment I found most striking in Alexander’s article was not really about revenue so much as it was how YouTube’s opaque policies for demoting or demonetizing was making YouTubers feel.  “These perceived, secretive changes instilled creators with a distrust of the platform. It also led to questions about their own self-worth and whether the energy they were spending on creating and editing videos — sometimes north of 80 hours a week — was worth it.”

Self-worth connected to the labor of creative expression and the value placed on that labor.  Sound familiar?  To the cynics who say that copyright is merely a mechanism of commerce, Alexander’s observation above may be one of the most on-point rebuttals I have read to date.  And perhaps the new creators (if not the pundits) might begin to understand how it feels to have work uploaded and monetized by a giant tech platform without permission and to have the value of that work diminished as a result.  

When YouTube was bought by Google in 2007, the platform had grown to scale on a very large volume of piracy.  In 2012, when Viacom v. YouTube was reviewed at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, 60% of the material on the platform was copyrighted work, of which 10% was licensed.  In 2017, Canadian singer/songwriter Miranda Mulholland delivered a speech reporting the 82% of YouTube users access the platform for music, a large volume of which continued to be uploaded without license.  So, the “old” creators know how the “new” creators feel, especially because YouTube’s capacity to monetize the “new” was built on the backs of the “old” without permission or compensation.

Yes, money is a very big piece of the puzzle for anyone—we all have to eat—but as Alexander describes, having one’s work devalued is personal and ontological in any context.  This is precisely why, throughout copyright’s history, and despite many disputes over its mechanisms, the foundation of its existence remains a matter of first principle—that what one creates is one’s property.  And the way the YouTubers are apparently being made to feel about the adpocalypse suggests that this principle is no more obsolete in the digital age than in any previous era.   

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