You probably don't know Jörg Sprave by name, but his YouTube videos have gone viral so many times you might have seen him before. He runs The Slingshot Channel, which is exactly what it sounds like. He creates weird slingshots in Germany and films himself putting them to the test. This video of him firing Ikea pencils from a makeshift pistol has more than 3 million views. Overall, his channel has almost 2 million subscribers and almost 300 million views.
YouTube is filled with political and controversial channels. The Slingshot Channel is neither of those things, but Sprave now finds himself in a political, controversial position. On March 2, after YouTube mistakenly took down and gave warnings to a number of channels that focus on real firearms and airsoft guns, he posted a video titled "Creators, Users… To Arms! Join the YouTubers Union."
A few days later, the so-called union has a Facebook group with almost 10,000 members and an active message board.
In the video, Sprave said that he's had enough of his current arrangement with YouTube, which he says doesn't communicate clearly with YouTube creators or care enough about their interests. Sprave said that by banding together, creators and users can pressure YouTube to meet their demands. At the moment, these demands include a complete end to the demonetization of videos, opening up direct communication between creators and YouTube's content moderators, and better guidelines on what is and isn't allowed on the platform.
"We creators are doing our job, every day," Sprave said in a direct message to YouTube, which you can read here. "Now you do yours as well! Do it now. Focus on your simple tasks in our partnership, and keep your hands off everything else. Don’t mess with our content. Don’t prefer some partners over others. Don’t go political. That isn’t for you. Understood? Come on, it ain’t that hard."
Sprave's call for the union comes after YouTube pulled down videos and channels that focus on guns and gun ownership, but don't violate any of YouTube's content guidelines. YouTube also removed "airsoft" gun channels, which look like real guns but fire small plastic pellets and are used in a paintball-like sport. YouTube has since told Bloomberg that it removed those channels along with some right-wing channels by mistake, and has reinstated videos and channels that were taken down.
Sprave's videos have been demonetized in the past, which means YouTube doesn't remove the video from its platform but stops serving ads on a video, which prevents the YouTuber from making money.
Some of Sprave's videos that have been demonetized in the past include "Killing Tom Jones With Lace Panties," "Candies for the Butt," and "Joerg's YouTube Terrorism School." In the latter, Sprave sarcastically makes fun of the way the British publication The Daily Mail crudely covers acts of terrorism and for calling his videos "horrific."
"I hate to see the direction YouTube is going," Sprave told me in an email. "It went from great to bad within a year."
Sprave said that he posted the call for a union after trying and failing to get YouTube's attention by talking to his partner manager and writing the moderation team. YouTube Partner Managers are YouTube employees that work with notable channels to give them more access to the company and help them succeed.
"Then, earlier this week, I was invited to a YouTube 'Hangout on air' seminar about monetization, where they basically told us: Just no more 'controversial' content. No more such videos, no more tags, even the title of a video should not contain any word that may look suspicious, because 'the bots are not that smart,'" Sprave told me. "That was enough. I decided to do something."
The removals Sprave is talking about seem arbitrary from his perspective, but they come at a time when YouTube is under increasing pressure to moderate its platform for objectionable content. In November 2017, a viral Medium post highlighted the fact that some of the videos YouTube was algorithmically offering up to kids were unsettling. In December, the popular YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video that showed the dead body of a man who took his own life, and included an image of him in a thumbnail in that video, which became the number one trending video on YouTube. In February, a video suggesting that one of the teenagers who was present at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting was a "crisis actor." The video became the number one trending video on YouTube as well.
"Even though these platforms say they're just offering a product, it is work. They are abandoning their responsibility."
Along the way, YouTube announced that it would hire 10,000 new human moderators to get a better handle on what’s posted and promoted on its platform. As conspiracy theorists and some pro-gun channels were banned or warned, right wing pundits like Alex Jones cried censorship.
It's a big mess that YouTube cooked up for itself, and while it's nice to see the company enforce its own policy on hate speech and remove neo-Nazi channels, Sprave is right when he says channels like his are wrongfully caught in the crossfire.
You may not like automatic rifles or 2nd Amendment maximalists, but there's nothing in YouTube's content guidelines that forbids a channel from posting reviews of AR-15 accessories, let alone homemade slingshots.
"YouTube needs to decide which videos they want to allow on their [platform], then release clear rules with plenty of examples," Sprave told me. "If a video plays by the rules, it should get a piece of the ad money 'cake.' Even if there are not that many ads on that video, because it deals with problematic issues, it brings traffic to the platform and people will eventually watch an ad on another video. I say stop giving all the money to the channels that deal with completely 'harmless' stuff. Without controversial videos, not nearly as many people would visit YouTube as a whole."
Sprave says he does understand that YouTube needs moderation. He just wants some clarity. Either videos comply with YouTube's guidelines and they can monetize, or they don't.
"Videos that are not in line with the rules need to be deleted, full stop," he said.
With so many members already talking on the YouTuber's Union Facebook group and forums, there's bound to be some in-fighting. For example, there's a thread on the new YouTubers Union forum where members are arguing about whether the Union is already being hijacked by the alt-right, given that many of the channels that YouTube has been banning are right wing.
"The alt-right want free speech and liberty, we want traditional values and the preservation of national culture," a user named maximgunn wrote. "This movement is fertile ground for us since it protects and promotes free speech and political discourse. The issue of a union is extra-national and our goals are aligned with yours. Personally speaking I'm be more than happy to work with ANY group to achieve this goal."
From what I've read on the forum and the Facebook group, the one thing all members seem to agree on is that YouTube has to do a better job of communicating with them.
Daniel Joseph, who researches digital platform and labor at the University of Toronto, told me in a Skype call that the "black box" nature of many internet platforms is often what frustrates users who rely on them for their income.
When Instagram, for example, stopped sorting its feed chronologically and instead sorted it with an algorithm users didn't understand, Instagram 'influencers' who get paid to promote products on their accounts didn't get as many views. They used rely on posts getting roughly the same number of views if they were posted a certain time of day. And then, they didn't know what to expect.
"What [Sprave] is suggesting is people getting together and talking about their shared concerns and talking about what they don't understand about their platforms and how they can get more out of it," Joseph told me. "That's what's frustrating people. It's a black box. It becomes inscrutable, and if you don't understand how that works it's hard to negotiate."
Sprave also realizes that the YouTuber's Union can't be a union in the traditional sense. I, for example, am a member of VICE's editorial union, which is officially recognized by VICE and operates under the Writers Guild of America East. Sprave can't issue membership cards and collect dues. There's no regional government body that can certify the YouTuber's Union like the National Labor Relations Board certifies unions in the United States because YouTubers are spread out across the world. Theoretically, YouTuber's could form separate unions in different country, but that would make much harder to organize. This, Joseph told me, is part of the problem with digital labor.
"Those of us who study this, we really stress the geographic dispersal of people is key, and prevents people from organizing in traditional ways," Joseph said. "They have to meet on Slack, and Discord. They can't meet at the watercooler to complain about the boss."
Sprave said that even without a traditional union that’s recognized by a government, YouTubers can organize collective actions.
"For me it is important that those who are not OK with YouTube's recent policies form a community instead of just a common frustration," Sprave said. "Not just me, but anyone who is in the group can suggest steps, and others may or may not follow. To give you an example, I may soon ask people to send an email to YouTube notifying them of their membership in the Union. Not every member will do that—but many will."
Most importantly, YouTubers are not Google employees. From Google's perspective, YouTube is a "product" that some creators use to make money.
This is not a problem that's unique to Sprave or YouTubers. Uber, for example, has argued to mixed results that its drivers are independent contractors, not employees. Florida agreed with Uber. The UK did not. In New York, Uber drivers are deemed employees for unemployment purposes. After settling a $100 million lawsuit in California in 2016, Uber agreed to recognize a "Driver Association," which allows drivers to elect leaders that can communicate with Uber management, but is not a union.
"We are just at the beginning of this. But I am firmly convinced that we have a chance to make a difference."
It's a complicated subject and the answers change depending on the platform and where the users live, but there's an important truth at the core of the YouTuber's Union, even if it fails to achieve anything. YouTube might not be an employer, and YouTubers might not be employees in the traditional sense, but they are performing labor that is generating billions of dollars-worth of value for Google. Even if they're not employees, the money many creators make on YouTube is their livelihood. This is true for Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, and anyone who's part of the "gig economy." Everyone is still doing labor, they just no longer have the same rights.
"I would make the case that working on these platforms is work," Joseph said. "They [YouTubers] bring in eyes and views. In the same way an ad agency creates videos, these people do the exact same kind of work, they just don't have the same kind of relationship. Even though these platforms say they're just offering a product, it is work. They are abandoning their responsibility."
YouTubers, it seems, are getting wise to this. When YouTube was first becoming popular, it was a disruptive force that allowed creators who would never have a chance to be on television to share and profit from their videos. They could post whatever they wanted, and if people watched it, they could make money. But now videos are demonetized for reasons they don't understand, and some content is outright banned for political reasons they disagree with. The gatekeepers are back.
"The jig is up. These platforms used to be easier to understand," Joseph said. "And now there's a push to make profit from stakeholders, and there's more data collection and demonetization, and it's beginning to look those old companies. People don't have nearly as much control as much as they thought they had."
Sprave thinks YouTubers have the power to change things. He told me that rather than "strike" or simply stop creating, if it comes to it, YouTubers could start posting teasers of their content to YouTube that link out to the full videos on Facebook, which would reduce YouTube's retention numbers and give them directly to a competitor.
"We are just at the beginning of this. But I am firmly convinced that we have a chance to make a difference," Sprave said.