Let’s talk about what YouTube is for a few minutes, because there seems to be some confusion about this online. That’s not surprising, because it’s unclear whether Google is sure about what YouTube is, or what Google would like it to become.
Here’s the question you want to ask yourself if you want a long and fruitful career on YouTube: How is what I’m doing benefiting Google?
But before we move on, let’s answer the biggest question:
What is YouTube?
YouTube is a pretty amazing service where anyone can upload a video, for free, and share it with anyone or everyone, and in some cases the platform may help them find an audience. What gets promoted and when is decided by an ever-shifting algorithm that you will never have direct control over, and ads that may or may not be placed on your content depending on whether YouTube believes you should be monetized.
It’s easy to forget how radically YouTube changed the way we think of the internet as a whole, but one of the biggest shifts that the platform enabled is that we now take video hosting for granted. That’s the bonkers part about what YouTube is and what it does: We have a place to put videos and share them as much as we’d like without any hosting costs.
We’re so used to this idea, and we take it for granted to such an extent, that we no longer see that as a service where we’re being given value. Instead, we want YouTube to pay us so they can host our videos ... because that makes sense now. It seems logical. Our perception of value has completely flipped, but the reality of the situation itself hasn’t moved to match it. We don’t think about the scale that needs to happen for our videos to bring money into YouTube rather than costing it money, much less get big enough that some of the money comes back to us.
YouTube is a very costly endeavor in terms of infrastructure, hardware, monetization, bandwidth and the teams of people who keep it all moving. YouTube isn’t free; we just like to pretend it is.
So let’s look at what YouTube is right now: YouTube is a video service, owned by Google, that is trying to bring in more money from advertising and subscriptions than it pays to keep itself running.
While some pundits want free speech be to an important pillar for YouTube, the reality is that speech will only be protected insofar as it’s profitable for YouTube. The company has to make money somehow, which is why making as much content palatable for advertisers as possible is way more of a priority than protecting the ability of all videos to be monetized.
Your assumptions about YouTube are wrong
You often read comments on Reddit and even below our own stories about what YouTube is doing, and what it does or doesn’t owe to the people publishing content on its platform. There is a group of people who seem to be indignant about YouTube making money from the work of creators while also setting basic minimums for channels to be monetized.
“Usually when someone makes something and someone else makes money off of it, the person who makes the product wants to get paid too,” one commenter wrote in defense of the smaller creators. “That’s not entitlement. That’s how the world works.”
The issue here is that their argument is based around the idea that YouTube itself is free to operate, so every video makes money for the platform. It also assumes that YouTube is somehow bound to not only serve every video on its platform free of charge, but to successfully sell advertising on every video that’s uploaded, no matter the content.
Launching a media business used to be a complicated thing that required teams of people, all handling different jobs. Suddenly YouTube could handle most of that for you: hosting the videos, selling the viewers to advertisers and cutting you in on the profits. There was a lot of talk about how YouTubers were the new face of independent media, a change from the traditional press. But very few people leading the charge realized that wasn’t quite true. Working on YouTube means working for Google, but without the benefits of a steady paycheck or a say in how things were run.
That’s what we’re seeing now. Google is beginning to run YouTube like it’s a proper video-based media outlet, complete with basic guidelines for what is and isn’t acceptable in monetized videos. The YouTube arm of the “independent media” learned the truth about how it got there, and it turned out that they were really just Uber drivers, not captains of industry.
So now if you want YouTube’s free video hosting and free ad sales and all the other free stuff that you used to have to pay teams to handle, you have to play by YouTube’s rules. And those rules are changing rapidly, even though you don’t have a lot of say in what they are or how they’re being applied. You could always leave and go to Twitch, because Lord knows there are millions of kids waiting behind you to try to become the next big thing on YouTube, and YouTube doesn’t have much in the way of direct competition. And keep in mind that Twitch is also a business where both you and your followers are considered the product. It’s just a matter of which company you want to work for.
In other words, YouTube doesn’t have much reason to care about you leaving or staying unless you’re already popular. And if you’re already popular, you’re likely smart enough to realize you have some leverage over YouTube — or you’ve diversified your income across a few places to lessen YouTube’s control over your career. These people are already successful, though, and they came up during a very different time in YouTube’s history. The rules, and level of scrutiny, have both changed dramatically since then.
The smaller content creators now have to realize that YouTube does not care about them, and we’re back to a time when you had to treat your YouTube channel as if you’re working directly for Google.
Because you are, whether you like it or not. If you don’t want to play by Google’s rules, you are always welcome to take your videos elsewhere. It won’t mind.
So how are YouTubers like Uber drivers?
If you’re a smaller creator, you need to stop looking at ridiculously popular YouTubers for tips on what to do when starting out — instead, start looking at Uber drivers. That’s where you are in the ecosystem, and that’s how replaceable you are to YouTube. You’re going to work very hard before you make a single dollar; it’s possible to work relentlessly and make a little bit of money on a regular basis; and you have a vanishingly small chance of getting rich and famous. Your world now is very different from the world that existed when Jake and Logan Paul were starting out. It’s also that potential to break through that separates becoming a YouTuber from being an Uber driver.
But if you want to think of it like a business, you have to realize that Google is your boss. You will only make money through the YouTube ad system if Google allows it, and the company doesn’t owe you anything. You are using Google’s platform to try to launch your own business, and you are largely at its mercy. The rules in place are there to benefit YouTube, not you. You can get loud about that if it bothers you, but those facts won’t change.
So what does YouTube want? How can you help Google? By creating videos that a lot of people want to watch, don’t infringe on anyone’s copyrights and don’t contain many controversial topics. That may not be what you want to do, and you may feel confined by YouTube’s shifting ecosystem. But you’re subject to its rules because, at least at the beginning, the platform is giving you a lot more in support than you’re giving it.
YouTube invests in you in the hopes that, at some point in the future, you’ll become profitable for the company. Once that happens, you may bring in some money for yourself, but YouTube is done giving away hosting and ad sales these days. You’re going to have to earn it. You’re basically signing up to become part of a media organization that will offer you rules you must follow if you want to make money — except the company isn’t going to offer you money until you get to a certain size, and there’s no level of this deal where you get benefits or health care.
Welcome to independence, I guess.
The difference between being a YouTuber and being an Uber driver is that Uber drivers have a limit on the money they can make, because driving a single car doesn’t really scale. YouTubers have no such upper limit, but there’s a tiny chance you may find the winning formula for growing a channel that’s ready for monetization. A small number of creators may get popular enough to make a living from YouTube using a combination of ads, Patreon support and other means.
It’s a job where you have to spend a lot of time and effort to make any money, but there remains at least a tiny hope of, at some point, making a lot of money. Those are the people we hear about, but we look less often at the people who burn out on their way up. This is a brutal business.
But that’s what YouTube is. It’s a business. It’s not concerned with free speech or helping tiny channels make money. It’s not here to set you free or shackle you with unjust rules. It’s a business that’s owned by Google and trying to figure out how to turn a profit. There’s opportunity in that struggle, if you work hard and get lucky. But there’s also every possibility that tomorrow, you’re going to find that YouTube decided it’s really another kind of business, and the rules have shifted again.
Just remember that Google does not owe you anything, and the system is set up for its benefit, not yours. YouTube is not a utility, and hosting your first few videos costs the company money. The question you need to ask yourself after that is how you plan on paying YouTube back ... and then making enough money for yourself. Good luck.