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YouTube’s new monetization rules are controversial, painful and necessary

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This was both needed and inevitable

AmazingPhil team
Daniel Howell and Phil Lester of AmazingPhil, a channel with more than 4.2 million subscribers.
Susan Wojcicki/YouTube

YouTube has been the subject of unrelenting backlash from lesser-known creators following the company’s decision to change how monetization works on the platform, but it’s important to note that these changes were inevitable and necessary.

YouTube’s new monetization rules will affect smaller creators the most. The updated rules state that in order for creators to be eligible for the Partner Program, a collective whose channels can be monetized through Google AdSense, they must have a total watch time of 4,000 hours in the past 12 months and a minimum of 1,000 subscribers.

This is a major departure from the program’s previous policy, which only required channels to have 10,000 lifetime views. In a blog post, YouTube executives acknowledged that life would change for a significant number of channels under the new setup. The company attempted to defend its decision by noting that “99 percent of those affected were making less than $100 per year in the last year, with 90 percent earning less than $2.50 in the last month.”

The backlash from smaller YouTubers was instant and unforgiving. The criticism varied among creators: While some were worried about their channel’s revenue drying up, others felt like they were being excommunicated from the greater YouTube community. A cursory glance at Reddit, Twitter and, of course, YouTube will demonstrate just how upset people are with YouTube’s overhaul of the Partner Program.

While I empathize with those smaller creators trying to find their way on the platform, and their valid criticism, I also understand why YouTube has to make such drastic changes.

YouTube has suffered critical blows for months

YouTube has been struggling to swim to the surface and breathe for more than a year.

The controversies have come month after month after month, with criticisms flying at the company from every angle. By the end of 2017, it seemed like advertisers couldn’t trust YouTube to properly filter which creators were receiving ads on their videos; creators couldn’t trust YouTube to fix monetization issues in a timely manner; and media outlets were having a field day with misdeeds by some of the company’s most notorious faces.

I called YouTube the biggest disappointment of 2017 earlier this month:

... if YouTube doesn’t want to teeter off the edge into a despairing hell in 2018, the company needs to put us, its viewers and its best creators, first again. Working to fix everything that’s broken may seem like an impossible task, but it’s the only way to continue.

While the company’s recent actions may appear to be doing the opposite of that, it’s the smartest move the company could make to protect both itself and the platform. Advertisers are at the top of the ecosystem, not creators. YouTube relies on ad revenue to pay creators, help YouTube Red projects (along with paid subscriptions), and pay the engineers and coders who run the platform itself. YouTube isn’t a video service; it’s an advertising platform. It’s much easier to find more content creators than it is to woo new advertisers.

And advertisers will eventually stop spending money on YouTube if they feel they can’t trust the platform. Top creators who use YouTube as a primary source of income would then be forced to leave the platform for competitors with a stronger advertising presence, or drastically lower their output. With no top creators — which also means no brand affiliation, and no advertising coming in — YouTube becomes a platform and archive of video content that people can use, but no one can build a career on.

The term “professional YouTuber,” a person who is known by their status on the platform and their associated channel, effectively dies in this scenario. YouTube as we know it would look radically different. It might even resemble a simpler time, when YouTube first launched and the focus was on the videos on the site, not the personalities who created those videos.

Everything in moderation

YouTube is trying to do what it has needed to do for years: moderate. Although the company won’t be able to check every single video uploaded to the platform, it’s going to start introducing strong moderation tools that will help advertisers feel safer about where their ads lie.

Any video that goes through Google Preferred, a classification that pairs top-tier ads with major creators’ videos, will now be watched by a human before advertising is approved. This screening process should prevent objectionable content, like Logan Paul’s controversial video containing footage of a dead body, from being monetized.

By cutting off the sea of channels that YouTube may not have been able to keep a human eye on, the company will also ensure that it can try to gauge what content is receiving placement for advertisers. This move is just triage; it won’t solve the problem forever, but it will patch just enough injuries to keep the body alive while the company investigates a better solution.

YouTube is also giving advertisers more control over which channels get certain ads placed. This allows the company to work with both creators in the Partner Program and advertisers to keep a better eye on content before it gets promoted.

The company is patching holes as quickly and effectively as it can, trying to save as many creators as possible while working on fixing the bigger picture overall: safety. YouTube isn’t safe for advertisers and even some users. Introducing some moderation to the platform, plus an increased vetting process, is the only viable move right now. It’s bad news for a lot of content creators, but YouTube has to look after the advertisers if it wants to survive and turn a profit.

But that’s not where things end.

YouTube needs to worry about its viewers

This is the most important part of the equation: viewers. YouTube has billions of viewers around the world tuning in daily to watch an assortment of videos — billions of hours’ worth every day.

In the past year, YouTube had to contend with bad press resulting from terrorism videos plaguing the site, disturbing content targeted at children, and violent and sometimes lethal prank videos gone wrong. These videos made headlines, but not before they were seen by millions of people, including children. Everything came to a head in early January after one of YouTube’s most popular creators, Logan Paul, uploaded a video that included footage of a man who appeared to have recently taken his own life.

After all of the measures that YouTube pledged to implement — after all its promises in late 2017 to advertisers, parental watchdog groups, reporters and a wave of critics — here was the company’s golden boy promoting insensitive, unsettling and repulsive content.

It seemed like, once again, YouTube was all talk. The company was letting its platform dissolve into an unhealthy, unhinged, anything-goes place. More importantly, it was becoming an unhealthy, unhinged place where bad actors were receiving payment for their work.

But these new rules will give YouTube room to clear up what it offers to viewers. With a moderation team of 10,000 people, more control over the videos that are being promoted and more human oversight over top creators’ videos, it’s almost like YouTube is beginning to cater toward its broadest audience. While niche channels will still rely on searches and recommended algorithms, the trending page and front page of YouTube may appear a little cleaner than they’ve been in recent months.

Stopping the implosion

YouTube’s recent decisions regarding monetization are extremely tough, and they’re going to affect many creators. Some longtime YouTubers, creators who have been uploading videos for a decade, aren’t sympathetic to their plight. They’re noting that they weren’t paid at all for the first few years they were on the platform. Other critics have pointed out that YouTube was never supposed to be a viable career option for people, that it only became one in recent years.

All those points are valid, but they miss the core concern among newer creators who are worried they will no longer be a part of the YouTube community they felt they belonged to. YouTube is also aware of this. The company is working on ways to allow new creators to link out to external projects or websites in end slates on videos. There’s no reason to believe YouTube won’t adjust how monetization works in the future, either, once things settle down and teams have a better grasp on fixing their very broken platform. This will be especially true for animators and other creators who upload fewer videos because they’re more complex, and don’t meet YouTube’s demand for watch time.

Small YouTubers who create content on a constant basis should be paid for their work, and shouldn’t have to worry about what trend (watch time, for example) YouTube is currently focusing on. But I also support YouTube’s decision to step back and say, We are in a state of crisis and we need to think about how we’re going to work with advertisers and creators, so we’re closing the doors for a while.

YouTube has been on the edge of imploding for months, trying to figure out how to work with the faces of the platform — or distance itself from those people, if necessary — and with advertisers, who help to keep YouTube and its community afloat. There isn’t any more time for experimentation. Advertisers won’t stand for it and critics won’t stand for it, and even top creators are going to eventually look into other venues.

YouTube is being absolutely, undoubtedly selfish by protecting its advertisers, trying to clean up its content and prevent another monstrous screw-up by one of its creators from making global headlines. Right now, YouTube needs to be selfish.

YouTube needs to not only survive, but thrive in this growing market of competitive, emerging services that are circling YouTube’s bleeding wounds like hungry sharks. The company is in self-heal mode, and we should let it take some time to figure everything out — for the betterment of YouTube as a company, as a platform and as a place creators want to be.