Even if you're not an active YouTuber, you may have noticed some chatter this week about the site's latest drama. YouTube stars and their fans have been ranting online about the site apparently enforcing its Terms of Service more aggressively, and removing the revenue-building advertising options for videos the site deems "not advertiser-friendly." It's the reason why #YouTubeIsOverParty was trending on US Twitter.
But YouTube says that's not what's happened: it isn't taking the ads off more videos, it's just being more transparent about why it's doing it when it does. Over the last few weeks, YouTube has started rolling out a new notification system to let channels know when and why some videos have been stripped of their ads. But as YouTube creators started getting notices, it only served to highlight some of the vague reasons the site might chose to demonetize a video. These include "sexual humor," "inappropriate language" (which includes but isn't limited to swearing), and "controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown."
Even if YouTube is just being more clear about the terms and not actually more aggressive in enforcing them, it raises some major questions for YouTubers who earn most of their money through ad revenue. Is a built-in ad model the best bet when all of the control is in the hands of YouTube, not the person in front of the camera?
"I don't really have a whole lot of videos that have anything controversial," said Joe Redifer, one of the hosts of GameSack, a YouTube channel that reviews video games and has more than 157,000 subscribers. "But it's very subjective. Their guidelines say stuff like 'controversial subjects,' and don't define what that is. It leaves them open so basically they can attack anything."
Many YouTubers have expressed concern that they won't be able to swear, or make lewd jokes, or even talk about current events without having their ads stripped. Some have gone so far as to call it censorship, though not getting paid to say something is different than not being able to say that thing at all. And, again, one problem all YouTubers keep mentioning is the inconsistency of how YouTube enforces its guidelines. For example, game developer Brianna Wu said on Twitter that the line where YouTube deems content unsuitable for advertisers is unclear, and can still allow for monetization of videos that incite harassment.
"It's going to drive people to other platforms even more than they already are."
But the reality is that, when you sign up to use YouTube as your platform of choice, you're also signing up to play by its rules, no matter how arbitrary or subjective you might think they are. So if the enforcement starts impacting YouTube creators significantly, they might want to consider their options.
"The consistent way to make money back in the day was through Google's ads, and the reason I left it was the moment Google became a Big Brother—their arbitrary decisions on what would be considered 'vulgar,'" said Ryan Detert, the CEO of Influential, a company that connects advertisers with popular users on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube. "If people are afraid of or actually getting their videos demonetized, they're going to have to get their dollars elsewhere."
Detert's company specializes in advertisers looking for custom content, which he said can pay anywhere from $500 for a video to $10,000, depending on the YouTube channel taking the deal. But Detert said there's other ways YouTubers might be able to make some extra cash if branded content isn't their thing. They could turn to sites like Patreon, which lets fans contribute a monthly subscription to a channel or sell their own branded items like t-shirts and hats. Even experiences, like a chance to play a videogame against your favorite game reviewer, can be auctioned off to help support creators.
Or they might just turn to other platforms, he said.
"It's going to drive people to other platforms even more than they already are," Detert told me. "Influencers could very simply say, 'I can make more money on Instagram or Snapchat,' and spend their resources and time there. Then the content dries up and it affects the overall site."
Redifer told me GameSack won't be messing around with branded content, because he said it would hurt the show's brand. Instead, he's hoping their videos won't raise any red flags, but said he's watching carefully.
"It's just another one of YouTube's policy changes that's got everyone in an uproar, which they seem to do every two or three months," Redifer said. "It makes me wonder what's coming next."