YouTube imagines itself as a retro MTV.
The platform is defined by Vevo music videos and Will Smith’s face, according to executives who spoke at the company’s 2018 upfront, a conference meant to sell advertisers on the platform, not by some of the most popular creators like PewDiePie, KSI or Liza Koshy. The stance is logical; the company can’t sell against creators who routinely make controversial jokes or go to war with other YouTubers.
So creators are left to fend for their own. PewDiePie, YouTube’s biggest creator, says he barely makes enough money from advertising on YouTube. In a recent video, he referred to himself as a “hat salesman,” poking fun at that fact that merchandise was his new, main source of income. Major problems that can spring up out of nowhere — problems like Logan Paul — prevent YouTube from selling against it’s enormous, unwieldy platform. Paul is another creator who profits from merchandise and controversy, a strategy that, like PewDiePie’s, contributes to the current demonetization fiasco.
YouTube can’t promise brand safety with volatile creators on the platform — advertisers don’t want to be caught in a firestorm. The only move is to pivot, and YouTube is ready. Hollywood names like Will Smith and Demi Lovato are safe bets. Same with music videos already vetted by major record labels. Clips from late night shows are another safe bet.
That’s the utopian version of YouTube the company wants to sell to advertisers.
It’s just not the YouTube that we know.
Us vs Them
Think of YouTube as a hardware store fronting for a speakeasy in the back.
The store clerk stands behind the counter, mechanical smile in place, waiting to show you the best products available to purchase. Everything is shiny and clean — not a screw out of place. The average onlooker wouldn’t think to poke around the store to see what may hide behind a curtain or door.
But in the backroom, the establishment comes to life. Fascinating people line the walls, ready to entertain. The speakeasy isn’t as polished as the main store out front, but as word spreads about the tantalizing bar in the back, the hardware shop becomes a walkthrough. People aren’t lining up to buy hammers; they’re waiting to pour cocktails down their throats. This speakeasy is what attracts people to the establishment, but on the front of the bullding will always hang a sign for the dependable hardware store.
This isn’t the first time that YouTube has turned away from the majority of its creators, the people who independently populate the platform with content, in an attempt to appeal to advertisers. A few were promoted at the upfront: Tyler Oakley, an incredibly popular YouTuber, and Anna Akana, another popular YouTuber who has appeared in movies like Ant-Man, were paraded out on stage. While it was important for YouTube to bring them on stage, their accolades — appearing in Ant-Man or teaming up with Ellen Degeneres for a project — push them closer to typical Hollywood culture than YouTube. Some of today’s biggest creators, however, who dominate YouTube culture never came up.
It all comes back to demonetization. YouTube’s first major demonetization changes hit the community in late 2016. After advertisers pushed for brand safety, YouTube stopped putting ads on certain top creators’ videos.
The advertising shift caused major problems for creators like Philip DeFranco, who has become the most sought out commentator on YouTube demonetization issues. DeFranco complained about the way YouTube treated creators, and was one of the first to really take a stance.
“They want to join this business, they want to play the game, but apparently everyone doesn’t have to play by the rules,” DeFranco said in a video from 2016.
2017 became one of YouTube’s most tumultuous years, ushering in the ”Adpocalypse” and demonetization’s worst period yet. Creators were frustrated, disappointed in YouTube’s inability to speak to or for their community, and left wondering about their financial stability on the platform going forward. In an effort to produce enough videos to stand out above the competition, many creators suffered breakdowns and burned out. Irrelevancy, and frustration over the financial instability, was, and continues to be, a fear.
YouTube faces a potentially insurmountable list of issues that only deprioritize creator needs. In 2017, the company dealt with disturbing children’s content, terrorism content, dangerous white supremacist organizations, an uptick in conspiracy theory videos, “fake news,” and problematic creators like Logan Paul and PewDiePie .
To combat these ongoing headaches, YouTube’s team took broad action. Demonetization went into effect, changing the core concept of what YouTube was to cater to advertisers. Clips from late night shows dominated the trending list (a popular collection of videos that YouTube essentially recommends for browsers), and YouTube started highlighting more music videos and artists on its homepage. An entire section dedicated to YouTube Red appeared.
Creators weren’t erased, but YouTube could no longer promise advertisers safety based on the DIY community that drew brands to the platform in the first place. Again, YouTube pivoted. They relied on a small group of creators almost guaranteed to keep advertisers happy, but put the spotlight on Hollywood stars’ YouTube series, like Kevin Hart and Demi Lovato; Ariana Grande videos on Vevo; and late night series like The Daily Show clips. These are all things that YouTube brought to its upfront this year to sell its version of YouTube — a music service with a few Hollywood stars popping up from time-to-time — but one name was curiously left out.
It’s the lack of recognition for one of the community’s most prolific creators that gets to the heart of the problem.
The Casey Neistat Paradox
Over YouTube’s three-hour upfront, no one uttered Casey Neistat’s name once.
Neistat isn’t the biggest creator on YouTube, but he is one of the most influential, a godfather of the medium who has invested in and built careers, and used his vlog to discuss the best and worst parts of being a creator. He’s also beloved by YouTube. Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s head of business, even sat down with Neistat for an interview after changes were made to demonetization. Neistat took time at YouTube’s upfront in 2017 to sell advertisers on creators like him, talking about what millions of creators have built. Neistat defined independent success on YouTube. Neistat was the polar opposite of PewDiePie and Logan Paul.
A clip from one of Neistat’s videos made it into this year’s presentation, but nothing else.
Neistat is someone YouTube’s clients should want to place ads beside. But if he, Philip DeFranco, Jesse Wellens or this year’s biggest celebrity, Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, can’t be brought up as worth spending money on, what does say about YouTube’s investment in creators? Simone Giertz, Sailor J, Elle Mills or Safiya Nygaard, who are all astonishingly popular, adored creators on YouTube, but their names never came up either.
Creators look at what’s trending, and get frustrated by YouTube’s obvious love for corporate content, leaving no wiggle room in the us-versus-them scenario. This division is only worsened by major demonetization issues affecting a large portion of the community. It’s easy for advertisers to fall for the late night show clips, Will Smith and Kevin Hart. These are people they already know, sitting on the cover of Variety.
But that’s not how a lot of people who watch hours of YouTube content see the community; that’s not what they believe YouTube really is. The creators who do belong to the community, who do represent the group of aspiring talent that YouTube was designed for, don’t feel heard. That’s why the community is angry, and that’s the exact message YouTube’s upfront sends.
“I am tired of trying to work with the alcoholic, negligent stepfather that is YouTube,” DeFranco said in a recent video, talking about not being able to keep his projects going because of demonetization issues. “At this point, it really doesn’t matter if you’re swerving this car into a tree on purpose, or you’re just asleep at the wheel and that’s what happened.”
YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcikci has addressed the silencing of creators in the past, but the controversial point didn’t come up once during the upfront. Instead, her message emphasized making monetization slightly more difficult as a way to ensure advertisers felt safe. Wojcicki quickly addressed a few problems facing YouTube, including scalability, before ushering in a night of traditional TV promises. As the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Along with better policing of content, YouTube also is trying to position itself as being more like television. That was reflected even in the choice of the Brandcast venue, Radio City Music Hall, which traditionally has been used by NBC for its annual presentation to advertisers.
Trying to become more traditional to promise brand safety is fine, and the upfront is the obvious venue to have the conversation, but trying to sweep the majority of creators under the rug in the process is why the community can’t trust YouTube execs to have their back.
YouTube forgot to talk about its community while boasting about what made the platform great. But without community, it’s just another boring network. The creators know that, its users know that and, over time, advertisers will know that to be true, too.
Update: A YouTube representative reached out to Polygon with a statement regarding the future of original content on the platform. It can be read below.
Well over two-thirds of Original subscription and ad-supported shows feature YouTube stars both in front of and behind the cameras. Based on their collective success, we’ll continue to invest in featuring YouTube creators in our Originals in the future.