It’s no secret that YouTube has a creator problem; just ask any of the platform’s top talent.
When Logan Paul, one of YouTube’s most prolific creators with 15 million subscribers, uploaded a vlog during a visit to Japan’s Aokigahara forest depicting the body of someone who had hanged himself, he drew almost universal condemnation. Actors like Aaron Paul announced their disgust, tweeting about how abhorrent Paul’s video was. Some of YouTube’s top creators, including PewDiePie, drama reporter Keemstar and YouTube’s go-to news source Phil DeFranco, dug a little deeper. YouTube provided a statement to DeFranco, but didn’t condemn Paul’s video or the creator himself.
Almost everyone pointed out that prior to Paul’s video being removed, it was included in the “Trending section” on YouTube, even though it was sensationalized and graphic content.
PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, noted Paul’s video wasn’t monetized, which would allow him to get around certain content flags. DeFranco added that although Paul took down the video, he did so after half a million people saw it, giving it hundreds of thousands of likes. Popular gaming YouTuber Jacksepticeye noted that YouTube’s tepid response to the video was “to be expected considering how they've replied to many other topics in the past.” Paul’s video caught the attention of the mainstream media and people who aren’t tuned into YouTube culture — as did his numerous apologies — but it’s highlighted what other YouTubers have known all along.
YouTube has a culture problem. The company created a platform where the most troublesome creators are rewarded rewarded with views and attention, and never punished for bad behavior. Sensationalist drama is the surest path to fame. It’s now time for YouTube to take responsibility for its top creators.
This isn’t a new problem
In 2013, rising YouTube star PewDiePie published a video apologizing for using the word “rape” in his videos after another popular YouTube team, The Fine Bros., called him out. He wasn't even making a rape joke, a risky attempt at comedy that even professional comedians have a hard time pulling off. He was just yelling the word “rape.” Kjellberg said at the time that his words were taken out of context. Despite the controversy, Kjellberg made an estimated $4 million in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal.
YouTube never said anything; that same year, PewDiePie became the most subscribed channel on the platform.
Fast forward to January 2017. PewDiePie made $16 million in 2016, according to Forbes, and he’s still the reigning champion of YouTube with more than 50 million subscribers. Despite some of his behavior in the past, he’s practically untouchable. He’s the envy of all other YouTubers — including Jake Paul, Logan’s brother, who famously rapped about gunning for Kjellberg’s top spot in his diss track, “It’s Everyday Bro.”
But in February 2017, things begin to change for Kjellberg. Following a Wall Street Journal investigation that uncovered a series of anti-Semitic videos on PewDiePie’s channel, he seems to lose just about everything besides his diehard fans. Disney ends his deal with Maker Studios, YouTube ends his YouTube Red show, Scare PewDiePie, and he loses some advertisers in the process. For once, it seemed like a YouTube creator was being held accountable for his actions. But it didn’t last long.
By the end of 2017, Kjellberg was closing in on 60 million subscribers. His advertisers returned and he entered new sponsorship deals with Razer and Origin PC. Despite the anti-Semitic videos, an incident in which he used a racist term during a livestream, and a copyright strike filed against his channel from developer Campo Santo, Kjellberg ended 2017 feeling pretty good about what comes next for him. YouTube never once took a stand against the creator, who proved to be problematic over and over again.
Dave Raub, an executive producer for Smosh Games, told Polygon in October that Kjellberg was “one of those untouchable YouTubers ... he's at the top and he's kind of looking for something and things to do.”
When asked for comment on PewDiePie’s channel and its content, Polygon never got a response from YouTube.
PewDiePie is not alone.
Here’s the thing: Logan Paul isn’t going to face any kind of punitive action from YouTube. His AdSense, Google’s method of paying YouTubers through advertiser money, will remain intact. Even though Paul is being called out by just about everyone for this weekend’s video; even though Paul has caused ruckuses in Los Angeles communities because he posts his address online; even though Paul creates fake drama as a way to sensationalize his content, YouTube isn’t going to say anything.
Logan Paul is growing at an exponential rate and that translates to more money for YouTube.
Boogie2988, a popular and controversial YouTuber in his own right, gave this statistic:
Every single day, each of these two individual channels, they are getting anywhere between ten to 20 to 30 million views a day. Now, to give you a point of reference, I get about 12 million views a month. So they are doing twice what I do in a month every single day. They are murdering. They are killing it.
Now, Logan’s channel has gotten right around 300 million views in the last 30 days, while Jake’s channel has gotten closer to 500 [million], and between the two that’s about 800 million. If you give a very low estimate CPM [cost per thousand] here, that means they’re probably taking in $1 million to $2 million — a lot closer to $2 million — a month.
The way YouTube’s breakdown of revenue works, a creator keeps 60 percent of the AdSense revenue made from a video, while YouTube retains 40 percent. On a $2 million video, that’s $800,000. Even if YouTube disagreed with everything Jake and Logan Paul did on their channels, to try and alter how the Pauls conduct their channels would result in the loss of millions.
Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, told Fast Company in June 2017 that even with Kjellberg’s problems, YouTube was more worried about aggregation and quantity, despite its advertisers wanting quality. In the case of Logan Paul, even though he posted a video of a dead body, he makes too many videos and generates too much revenue for YouTube to ever do anything about his channel. Quality is sacrificed for quality and overall views. The video had more than 6 million views before it was taken down.
“These types of issues can challenge the underlying business model of a YouTube,” Kint told Fast Company. “Their scale is dependent on commoditization and aggregation, and what brands want is dependent on quality and curation.”
Curate, curate, curate
It’s the last word Kint said that needs to be paid close attention to: curation. It’s impossible for YouTube to curate its entire platform. There are billions of hours of video uploaded to the site and far too many users to keep track of. What YouTube can do, however, and should do is curate its top creators. Logan Paul, Jake Paul, PewDiePie, JonTron, Keemstar and other YouTubers are some of the top rated, most watched creators on the platform — but they’re not perfect.
YouTube hasn’t taken a stance against any of them. On Dec. 9, 2016, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki even tweeted a congratulatory message at Kjellberg for reaching 50 million subscribers.
Despite all the problems the Paul brothers have caused — the drama throughout the community, being evicted from their homes in Los Angeles, being called out for their treatment of exes — YouTube has stood behind them. The Paul brothers are an anomaly for YouTube; it’s rare that one YouTuber, let alone two, would grow as fast on the platform as they have.
After all, Jake and Logan Paul didn’t get to star in the biggest part of this year’s YouTube Rewind compilation just because they were a couple of random creators.
YouTube isn’t going to implode, but its creators are beginning to revolt. The rules don’t apply to everyone and, in the wake of 2017’s demonetization controversies, its creators are waiting to see if YouTube will ever take action for what occurs on its platforms.
In December, YouTube announced it was hiring 10,000 moderators to help flag offensive content and disturbing videos that could put many of its younger viewers at risk of watching traumatizing footage.
“In order to protect creators and advertisers alike, we're taking aggressive action using a combination of machine learning and people to take action on this content through age-gating, demonetization and even the removal of channels where necessary,” Wojcicki said, adding that additional manual curation will be applied.
Curating videos is one thing; curating the top creators who dominate the platform, and upholding or implementing stricter guidelines, is what YouTube needs to be doing now, before it’s too late.
YouTube is at a tipping point, and only its executives have the power to stop it from falling off the cliff into a sea of grotesque madness.