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Jake and Logan Paul

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YouTube was 2017’s biggest disappointment

Do better in 2018, YouTube

Jake (L) and Logan Paul
| YouTube

Polygon is kicking off its best of entertainment series, which will run through the end of December and beginning of January, coming to a close just before the 2017 Golden Globes. These personal essays will examine the best, most important and weirdest moments that occurred in television, film, streaming and YouTube/Twitch in 2017. Each will examine why the author believes that moment to be one of 2017’s most extraordinary. The series will end with Polygon’s Best of TV and Best of Movies pieces.

2017 was the year of YouTube, but it wasn’t YouTube’s year.

Pull back the curtain on the $127 million earned by YouTube’s top 10 creators in 2017 and the 1.5 billion users logging in every month, and it would reveal a battle with impending “adpocalypses” and struggle to appease critics. Toxicity loomed among creators, as old-school YouTubers dealt with the “Vine invasion,” trying to compete with new stars like Jake and Logan Paul. (Speaking of Logan Paul, the company began 2018 watching the world tear apart the personality for a video he uploaded showcasing the body of a man who committed suicide in Japan.)

YouTube’s problems weren’t just an inescapable story like Rick and Morty’s toxicity was; the platform gave birth to a yearlong string of embarrassing messes. YouTube was a cesspool of negativity: Creators fought against leaving the network as executives worked tirelessly to redeem the company’s image. It was impossible to not talk about YouTube in 2017, no matter how hard we tried.

It’s just unfortunate for the company that it wasn’t for positive reasons.

The talent is divided

Last year was a big deal for many of YouTube’s top creators, but two YouTubers stood out above the rest: Jake and Logan Paul.

The two former Vine stars made the big jump to YouTube in 2017, although Jake Paul, the younger of the two, has been active since May 2014. When Twitter shut down Vine in January 2017, the Paul brothers found a permanent home on YouTube, where they began to vlog daily about their lives in California, going on adventures and causing mayhem with their friends.

Within a matter of months, both brothers amassed large followings, gaining millions upon millions of subscribers. Their quick growth gained the attention of other YouTubers, who called out the Paul brothers for what they saw as annoying, childish antics. It also, however, helped Jake Paul create one of his most popular videos, for an original song called “It’s Everyday Bro.”

Paul famously sings that he’s gained five million followers in six months, which he says hasn’t ever been done before, before claiming that he’s going to take out the rest of the competition — including YouTube’s top creator, PewDiePie.

The Paul brothers were mostly harmless at first, but their sensationalized videos caused a disturbance in the creator community. Popular YouTube commentators like Phil DeFranco and Keemstar called out the Paul brothers for their fake drama with other YouTubers, such as RiceGum and Alissa Violet. These manipulated fights would result in over-the-top diss tracks, react videos from teenage YouTubers and fan wars on Twitter. The drama spilled onto other social media platforms — and once into real life, following a disastrous night out at a local bar in Cleveland, Ohio.

It’s not hard to see why drama became the most divisive form of entertainment on the platform. While older creators thought of the videos as a blemish on the community, newer ones saw it as entertainment that fans wanted, pointing to their hundreds of millions of views as evidence.

Keemstar, one of YouTube’s most controversial creators, became notorious in 2017 for hosting a show called “DramaAlert.” Keemstar is best described as the TMZ of YouTube gossip. The creator has scored major scoops and become the go-to source for creators to air their grievances. Keemstar has figured out a way to monetize his channel off of YouTube’s ongoing drama, without necessarily being the person in the middle of it.

So why does any of this matter? It represents the changing tides of the YouTube we know. Refer to it however you want — the invasion of Viners or influencers moving from Instagram to YouTube — but the YouTube I remember from years ago lost part of itself this year. Even though YouTube should be thought of a country, with different states that don’t really pay attention to what other states are doing, it’s impossible to ignore when waves of new creators figure out how to game the system and create content that feels like it was born out of greed for views than creative endeavor.

YouTube was great because it was weird, as this video points out, but the new YouTube feels like a exaggerated Instagram, and that downright sucks.

Beware the “adpocalypse”

Of course, we can’t talk about YouTube without discussing one of its most prominent creators. In February, the Wall Street Journal published a report detailing a video that PewDiePie (a.k.a. Felix Kjellberg), YouTube’s biggest personality, published in which children can be see holding a sign with an anti-Semitic message.

As a result, Disney’s Maker Studios cut ties with PewDiePie, and YouTube cancelled the creator’s YouTube Red series, Scare PewDiePie. Google also cut back on his premium advertisers to ensure that top companies wouldn’t pull their ads from the platform; but YouTube couldn’t stop the first wave of the “adpocalypse” from rolling in.

The term was coined by the creator community, referring to the limited ads YouTube gave creators. For a while, it seemed that every video was met with a disastrous yellow coin symbol, which meant the video wasn’t appropriate for advertisers.

Although YouTube would often fix the issue after creators submitted affected videos for manual review, the community argued that missing out on the first wave of advertising hurt their revenue. Full-time YouTubers began to fear that they would have to find new ways to supplement their income.

In October, YouTube announced a new algorithm that would help stabilize how the machine-learning algorithm worked, ensuring that fewer creators would be met with yellow coins, and continue to profit from their work.

“There will be a 30 percent reduction in the number of videos receiving limited ads as they move to being fully monetized,” a blog post from YouTube read. “In other words, millions more videos will become fully monetized.”

YouTube’s change to the algorithm came months after top creators Phil DeFranco, Casey Neistat, PewDiePie and others condemned the platform for how it treated its personalities. After I reported that YouTube works with premium-tier users (Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel) to keep those videos remain monetized, its most outspoken critics put out a call to action, demanding that YouTube be better. A series of videos from DeFranco and Neistat especially got the ball rolling on fixing the adpocalypse once and for all.

If Keemstar was YouTube’s TMZ in 2017, then Philip DeFranco was our sister site, Vox. Whereas Keem became the number one source for gossip within every sector of the YouTube community, DeFranco cast a light on bigger stories. He uploaded 15-minute videos deconstructing three or four big stories of the day, analyzing and commenting on trending topics.

What if you’re not a creator? It doesn’t matter. I hate seeing some of my favorite YouTubers talk about how they’ll have to find secondary jobs to support their families and remain active on YouTube. I hate watching them talk about how every yellow sign means they lose a extra dollars they really needed. If YouTubers can’t support themselves, than the YouTube we want to see can’t exist. YouTubers can only continue producing work at the rate they do if they’re compensated for it. Demonetization isn’t just something that affects creators; but it’s something that affects the billions of users who tune in daily.

The importance of demonetization is why DeFranco, many time, made those trending topics he wanted to discuss about YouTube itself. Many more times, those topics were demonetization on the platform. And just when things were looking up for creators, YouTube was hit with its most disturbing story of 2017, and a new adpocalypse loomed.

Bad actors take over YouTube

In early 2017, YouTube learned that terrorism groups and the alt-right were monetizing hateful messages on the platform and vowed to put an end to it. This should have been the year’s biggest controversy.

But it wasn’t.

Toward the end of the year, YouTube faced its biggest problem yet. After the New York Times published an investigation on disturbing videos targeted toward children, all hell broke loose. People discovered on a daily basis videos featuring adults in Spider-Man or Frozen’s Elsa costumes, sticking syringes into each other and participating in lewd and disturbing acts.

Although YouTube promised to crack down on the users uploading these videos, new ones kept arising. People posted pedophilic comments, while critics called out parents in the videos for putting their children in dangerous or inappropriate situations; those same critics pointed out YouTube monetized this content. As all of this was swirling around, advertisers threatened to pull out of YouTube, and YouTubers began preparing for another adpocalypse.

YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki published a blog post in December addressing the issues. Wojcicki said that it would take a new approach to advertising, as the company dealt with users game the algorithm for personal gain. Wojcicki also promised that YouTube would hire 10,000 human moderators in 2018 to ensure that more videos that were being flagged by users could be reviewed quicker and dealt with immediately.

As we begin 2018, it’s evident that YouTube has an uphill battle to conquer. Trying to keep the platform as clean as possible, working to make advertisers happy and ensuring the community doesn’t revolt is a task no one would want. YouTube needs to create a safe platform for its users; or as safe as it can be.

I don’t want to be faced with promoted videos presenting a hateful message; I don’t want to sit through videos that are emotionally draining because they’re chockfull of drama. I don’t want to watch my favorite creators threaten to stop because of demonetization. I don’t want to stop enjoying YouTube, but it’s getting harder with each passing day.

I’m not giving up on YouTube. It’s too important to me, probably to you, and to a bunch of aspiring creators begging their parents for a cheap camera and editing software. But 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.

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