In April 2018, over 20 former contributors, employees, and associates of the popular video entertainment website Channel Awesome released a lengthy Google document entitled “Not So Awesome,” alleging numerous grievances brought on by the company’s CEO, Mike Michaud, and two of its co-founders and main talents, brothers Doug and Rob Walker.
“There are many different grievances that need to be shared,” the document began, “but the following points are what we feel are the most grievous and should be known by the public above all others.”
What followed were over 70 pages, sorted by individual contributors’ accounts, that included a plethora of workplace allegations against Channel Awesome: lack of financial compensation, lack of contractual agreements for work, NDAs forced upon employees, unprofessional and sometimes dangerous film sets, verbal intimidation and bullying (particularly towards women), sexual harassment and predation, and an overall environment of poor communication and mismanagement.
The “Not So Awesome” document arose from a now-commonplace online phenomenon: one former producer decided to speak out on Twitter; more began adding to the same thread; and before long, the contributors found that the best way to keep track of the rapidly-growing list of complaints was in a Google doc. For the particular corner of the internet that engages with movie reviews, video game playthroughs, and other genres that were Channel Awesome’s bread and butter, the allegations and stories came as a shock not only because of the site’s relatively long history as a online entertainment hub — it was founded in 2008 — but also because many of its former contributors have since gone on to attract large followings of their own on the most predominant video platforms, YouTube and Twitch — platforms that have endured their own fair share of public callouts when it comes to how they treat their contributors.
Kaylyn Saucedo, who produced videos for Channel Awesome under the name MarzGurl from 2008 until September 2017 and who now runs her own YouTube channel, wrote in the “Not So Awesome” document’s foreword:
“We believe that, whether you’re working with Channel Awesome or another similar entertainment entity, there will be people in this world who do not actually care about who you are and are more than willing to say whatever they need to say and do whatever it takes to use you for your gifts and your talents to boost themselves without giving you a second thought. We hope that other people considering partnering with an entertainment group will take our stories as a cautionary tale and use our stories to protect themselves as they join the vast world of content creation.”
(Mike Michaud and the Walkers did not respond to requests to comment for this story, but Channel Awesome tweeted a statement in response to the document on April 2, stating: “For the people who have spoken out about past instances they deemed hurtful, or unprofessional, we sincerely regret you felt that way.” The website then posted a more detailed response on April 11 that expanded upon management’s versions of the allegations.)
From a glance, it’s easy to look at the Channel Awesome fiasco as an unfortunate anomaly in its industry, a boutique company run by a handful of bad actors where every contributor knew and, in many cases, worked with each other on a personal level.
Yet as many former Channel Awesome contributors, including Saucedo, have found, even after leaving their former employer, they’ve encountered similar labor issues with YouTube — only now, their issues occur on a much larger scale. There’s no longer a name or face to point fingers at when something goes wrong. When a producer’s video gets demonetized — a hit to their income — the communication channels set in place by YouTube to address the issue fail many time and time again. When trolls and harassers spam the comments section, there’s no easy way to moderate those comments without disabling them altogether. YouTubers talk about these concerns privately amongst each other and, more and more, address them in public videos to their audience.
But the contributors speaking for this story believe that, as a tech giant owned by Google with a user base of millions, YouTube management has no incentive to listen to or address these grievances. After all, how good is a list of grievances against Google if that list is featured on a Google doc?
Channel Awesome’s history
A small site run by two brothers, Doug and Rob Walker, Channel Awesome was created at a time when YouTube’s copyright policies were much stricter; video producers and vloggers who specialized in criticism, often including clips of the movies and shows they were reviewing in their videos, risked having their content taken down or their YouTube channels suspended altogether. Doug Walker, a Chicago-based video producer who created a handful of movie-related series like 5 Second Movies and The Nostalgia Critic, had his own YouTube channel suspended for this reason; from there, he decided to found his own entertainment site with his brother and Michaud.
Channel Awesome ran its contributors’ videos on an independent hosting platform called Blip.tv, a video start-up with a unique trade-off: its copyright flagging was less strict than YouTube’s, and its revenue paid better, but its search engine was practically useless. Blip’s primary function was to be embedded onto other websites, not serve as its own centrally-located video platform. Thus, Channel Awesome was not just a space for content creators to safely upload their work; it also quickly transformed into an online entertainment hub, where fans of popular CA shows like The Nostalgia Critic and Atop the Fourth Wall could find similar content to the videos they liked, and producers could easily self-promote through collaboration. In the site’s first year, its Nostalgia Critic videos alone brought in 100,000 to 300,000 unique viewers a week and about one million page views per month. As Channel Awesome hired more and more contributors, it quickly and firmly established a unique identity with its content — namely, shows that followed the same critic-vlogger format as Walker’s, each one taking on a different facet of media or pop culture (movies, music, video games, comics), with a particular focus on nerd culture.
Ultimately, several of the major grievances listed in the document arised from this false sense of “community” amongst the site’s producers; for instance, Channel Awesome contributors were required to appear, for free, in “anniversary special” films directed by the Walkers under unprofessional and sometimes dangerous filming conditions (i.e. filming in the desert with limited access to water, filming without permits, one actor injuring her leg in a stunt and allegedly being forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement after the fact). While contributors were not employed by CA and received their revenue directly from Blip.tv, they were led to believe that they relied upon the “exposure” that the Channel Awesome website offered them, and many entries in the Google document detail an overarching atmosphere of exploitation. By the time Blip.tv folded in 2015, many Channel Awesome producers felt that YouTube, having resolved many of its earlier issues with copyright, was no longer an inhospitable place for their brand of content, and that they would be able to self-promote their own shows on the platform rather than put up with the mistreatment from CA management in exchange for promotion. Many CA contributors left the site that year. (A few, such as Saucedo, continued to partner with Channel Awesome by embedding their YouTube videos onto the site.)
Allison Pregler, a longtime CA video producer and one of the document’s authors, had been speaking up against the company since 2015, shortly after she severed professional ties with the Walkers and Michaud. But over the years, she says, fans had continued to assume that she was on good terms with the company, even referring to her as an “employee” when she, like the other CA producers, was never officially employed with them. (Holly Brown, the site’s former administrator and another author of the document, was CA’s only full-time hire.) It wasn’t until March 2018, when Pregler tweeted a response to a fan’s question about her relationship to Channel Awesome, that other past contributors began publicly sharing their own stories of mistreatment, using the hashtag #ChangeTheChannel.
“That was when it became clear to people that this wasn’t a case of sour grapes,” Pregler tells Polygon. “It was widespread exploitation over the span of a decade. It wasn’t just a smattering of people over time; it was all of us at once, and together we had more legitimacy.”
I'd ask him, but he was there when I was kicked off CA for speaking up and he did nothing, leeched $90k off of fans, and treated me like crap. Also his reviews are bad. https://t.co/xQNw6RODF4— Allison Pregler (@Obscurus_Lupa) March 13, 2018
Remember how we were supposed to have individual pages for each producer detailing who we were and what we did and had to submit the same information like 3-4 times and it never happened?— Linkara (@Linkara19) March 14, 2018
And I always felt like instead of really cultivating the talent they had on the site, the higher ups treated our being there as a favor to us. That talent could've enhanced the site, but it just never felt like that.— PushingUpRoses (@PushinUpRoses) March 15, 2018
As Pregler and others shared their stories in a public Twitter thread, they privately discussed in a group chat how best to archive and keep track of all the information that was coming out about the company. They eventually settled on a Google Doc, and reached out to all of the past CA producers and employees they still kept in touch with. Several contributors to the document had worked for the site since its early days in 2008 and 2009.
“All of us who were involved were much much younger,” says Saucedo. “This is 10 years ago now, and much like anybody else our age — I was 22 — we didn’t know anything about what we were doing. These were our hobbies that we wanted to turn into a bigger thing. And so it was really easy to take advantage of us in one way or another. I would hope that that does not happen to anybody else, either.”
But as would become apparent in the years that followed, young video producers being taken advantage of by their employers wasn’t a CA-specific issue. Vloggers and content creators in their 20s form the bulk of YouTube’s current viral stars and tastemakers, and are simultaneously the most reliant on the platform as a source of income; in the past few years, they’ve certainly been the most vocal in addressing problems on the platform, particularly issues with YouTube’s search algorithm that make it difficult for content creators to promote their work or keep a reasonable production schedule. But even more seasoned producers like the CA stars also feel that, once again, they’re getting screwed over.
YouTube’s labor problems
For all the efforts of Pregler, Saucedo, and others to leave Channel Awesome and forge their own paths independently of the site, they’ve found that numerous issues related to communication and financial compensation exist on YouTube, their new platform — creators just have no one to point a finger at when shit hits the fan. Lack of communication or transparency, sudden changes to the platform that affect creators’ livelihood, exploitation of free labor, widespread harassment and abuse of power, overworking that leads to burnout -- these are all problems that contributors have dealt with in one way or another, but that YouTube has failed to comprehensively solve.
Saucedo says that, even before the Not So Awesome document, she would regularly discuss both her CA experiences and her current issues with YouTube with fellow content creators. But in the case of the latter, many of them feel that the “YouTube community” is so vast, and the company’s bureaucracy so opaque, that it’s impossible to get one’s voice heard.
“That’s a sensation that YouTube has been giving us for a while — they give you a false sense that maybe you might be able to fix something by trying to reach out and communicate with someone,” says Saucedo, who now runs a YouTube channel with over 18,000 subscribers. “And in the end, everything you thought you could possibly [fix], that all gets shattered. There’s no fixing it.”
Daniel Joseph, a digital labor organizer and researcher at the University of Toronto, says that the impersonal nature of the big platforms is what ends up frustrating their paid contributors the most. “They’re managing not only popular content creators, but also the video feeds for massive national conglomerates, like CNN, MSNBC, etc.,” he says. “They don’t have time for just about anybody, because they’re trying to juggle so many different things.”
Another major factor is that, while not always the case, most YouTubers do not start uploading videos with the intention of turning it into a career. Many of them are hobbyists — makeup vloggers, amateur filmmakers, groups of friends with a fondness for extreme sports and GoPros — who are surprised and thrilled to see any money generated from their videos at all. Over time, if a YouTuber attracts enough of a following, their content may generate enough income through ad revenue, brand sponsorships, or monthly donations via sites like Patreon in order for content creation to feasibly be that person’s full-time job.
In the case of YouTube, if a producer manages to attract over 100,000 subscribers to their channel, the company will assign them to a Partner Manager, a full-time employee touted as a direct one-on-one line of communication with YouTube itself. Similarly, Twitch offers “Affiliate” and “Partner” levels for top contributors, allowing them to earn revenue as their streaming audience grows. And that’s nothing to say of the online and in-person fandoms for the most popular content creators; VidCon now draws in over 30,000 attendees a year, and songs recorded by celebrity YouTubers can land on the Billboard Hot 100. In some ways, with more and more workers entering the gig economy, content creators could be thought of as the most recognizable freelancers in the world.
But that tendency towards rapid ascent has led to a culture of amateurism on the platform, and not just in the sense of extreme cases like Logan Paul and his friends filming dead bodies. Even after they gain huge followings and sponsorship deals, YouTubers have a tendency to not see themselves as professional filmmakers; technically, all you need to make a YouTube video is a camera and a way to upload the file. Compared to the heavily unionized Hollywood film industry, where a single project almost always includes of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of contract workers in its production, YouTube relies on a vast swath of contributors who operate solo — the very concept and appeal of “vlogging” is predicated on this — or with a small group of friends. The result is less incentive to form a “collective” of workers as a union or a guild.
“It’s very ‘me me me,’ and kind of designed that way, especially with the very popular YouTubers, where it’s just like, ‘my channel and my life,’ says Lindsay Ellis, a former Channel Awesome contributor who first rose to prominence as the Nostalgia Chick, reviewing ‘80s and ‘90s media targeted towards girls. (Doug Walker hired her for the role as part of a contest, in search of a female “counterpart” to the Nostalgia Critic character.) Ellis now runs a film and media analysis YouTube channel under her real name with over 500,000 subscribers, three full-time employees and a Patreon account.
Ellis says she’s begun to see herself in the past year or so as a professional employer — one who now legally owns two corporations, including a shell corporation to pay her out-of-state employees. But she believes that that professionalized mindset isn’t so commonplace in the vlogging world, especially when compared to the long-standing, highly structured Hollywood guilds like SAG-AFTRA and the Producers’ Guild.
“I think [on YouTube] there’s more incentive to be looking after yourself, rather than looking after a community,” she says. “And I don’t know what to do about that, because I think part of the reason film is so unionized is because you cannot make a film alone. With YouTube, you can do everything by yourself.”
A side effect of this culture — feeling more like a lone individual instead of a community, happy and grateful to get paid at all — is a reluctance for even the most prominent YouTubers to “rock the boat” or cause any major disruption for fear of losing their platform. If a single channel is deactivated, or if a handful of YouTubers go on strike or pen an expose with their grievances, the platform will not suffer — the workers will. YouTubers can complain, even frequently so, about YouTube frustrations in their videos, but that’s about all they can do on their own. YouTube and Twitch each own a monopoly on their respective forms of video entertainment; meaningful alternatives don’t really exist anymore.
For creators with smaller channels like Pregler, who has around 45,000 subscribers, the lack of a YouTube Partner Manager means there’s no direct line of communication with their source of income, and thus no way of knowing if they’ll continue to have a source of income at all. “The possibility of losing our channels or our revenue at a moment’s notice with little to no explanation is always on our minds,” Pregler says. “It breeds paranoia and fear. Me personally, I’m actually scared to look at my email, because every day could be the message from YT that my livelihood is gone.” A mere tweak to the algorithm can hurt creators’ income or reveal unfair disparities in how the platform is run, all while company management avoids transparency. Coupled with relentless harassment campaigns targeting creators, particularly women, and the 60-hour work weeks that producers often put themselves through in order to keep on top of ever-changing search algorithms, mental health issues and burnout are now widespread crises in the industry.
Oddly enough, one of the few platforms that had a reputation for at least considering the wellbeing of its contributors was Blip.tv, the video hosting service used by nearly all the Channel Awesome producers to upload their content onto the site prior to 2015. Ellis notes that, while both Blip and YouTube were founded in 2005, Blip grew much more slowly. “And they had a model of, rather than having a channel, Blip was more like, ‘This is my show,’” she says. “And you had a different channel for every show.”
Additionally, because of Blip’s smaller growth and focus on “shows” with consistent uploads, rather than channels, it established more direct camaraderie with its contributors than YouTube ever had the chance to. The company frequently invited content creators to its New York headquarters for happy hours, where video producers could meet with Blip management and discuss how the service could be improved.
“For a long time we would collect all the tweets about Blip, good and bad, every morning and email them out to the entire staff so everyone had an idea of how our creators were feeling as well,” says Tom Reynolds, one of the earliest Blip hires and later the company’s director of producer relations. “If a creator was popular, or at the very least ambitious or doing [something] that we thought was new and interesting, it was pretty common for them to have someone from the company individually reach out. There were lots of creators who had the cell phone numbers of Blip employees.”
But inevitably, this did not last; Blip was a VC-backed startup that could not grow fast enough to compete with YouTube, nor could anything else. “Ultimately, the biggest problem facing producers in 2018 is that they’re almost completely at the whims of corporations that are just too large to care in a meaningful way,” says Reynolds.
Another potential “alt-YouTube” video hosting service was Vidme, founded in 2014 and intended as a hybrid between video sites like YouTube and topic-based forums such as Reddit. Saucedo says she briefly attempted to transition her platform over to Vidme, but in the platform didn’t pick up enough steam; Vidme announced its shutdown in December 2017.
“Vidme seemed like it was going to be a viable platform, but it just was not generating revenue for themselves, as it’s really hard to maintain all these servers with people constantly uploading more and more content,” she says.
More curated, “prestige” sites like Vimeo remain in use, but they act more as niche supplements to YouTube rather than replacements; Vimeo primarily serves filmmakers and photographers looking for an HD platform to save their portfolios, and its curated “Staff Picks” serve to emphasize that range of high-end clientele. Ironically, as was the case with Blip, these sites’ more personable reputations and specialized business models may have ultimately hurt their chances of becoming the dominant video platform.
“That’s a problem I don’t have, and that helps me, as an employer,” says Ellis. “If I want to pause, or if I’m like, ‘You know what, we don’t have to grow, we have the option not to grow this month, and that will benefit our company in the long run,’ we can do that. But platforms that want to compete with YouTube absolutely cannot have that. And I think in order to compete with YouTube, you do have to treat your creators as not humans. It has to be like Uber. You’re not a person; you’re a datapoint.”
What’s been tried, and what can be done?
There’s a common sense among former CA producers, and other YouTube creators invested in labor organizing, that certain tried-and-true tactics of collective action will never work on the platform in its current state. Several of the producers speaking for this story expressed feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of YouTube’s reach, making traditional methods of putting pressure on a company feel obsolete. There cannot be a mass exodus to another site or platform that treats its workers well while providing the same level of exposure, because that does not currently exist. There cannot be a widespread collective strike of the platform that does significant damage to the employer, due to its size as well as the established corporate clientele that now make a huge chunk of YouTube’s overall traffic pull.
“You have HBO putting up clips from [Last Week Tonight with John Oliver], and similarly with NBC and CBS putting up clips from their nightly talk shows onto YouTube also,” says Saucedo. “Those get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views, and those are major, old-media companies seeing YouTube as a viable place. People aren’t going to stop going to YouTube to watch that content.”
Likewise, an in-person sit-in at YouTube’s office headquarters, where vloggers and influencers camp out on a Silicon Valley campus until their demands are met, is unlikely to happen, although it’s not impossible. In 2016, a group of 20 popular Vine stars stormed the video platform’s headquarters in LA to demand compensation for their work; rather than pay its top entertainers, Vine opted instead to shut down for good.
Still, none of this has prevented some YouTubers from attempting old-school organizing tactics. Jörg Sprave, a German slingshot hobbyist with over two million YouTube subscribers, has been on the platform since 2008, and hadn’t faced much conflict with YouTube management until last spring, when YouTube began to demonetize videos using a similar bot technology that the company used to fight copyright issues in the late aughts. It flagged several of Sprave’s videos, and the videos of other creators that featured firearms, airsoft guns, and similar devices, as not suitable for monetization. In some cases, the platform took the videos down entirely, despite them not technically violating the company’s content guidelines.
“There are plenty of videos that are fine, not conflicting with any rules in the community guidelines, but they think it’s not proper for their advertisers,” Sprave says. (When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Creator Products Communications at YouTube stated to Polygon, “The specific type of content Jörg cites is tricky and we do our best to try and get it right. For example, some advertisers might find a weapon that fires a projectile with air objectionable.”)
In response to this sudden slew of demonetization, Sprave created a Facebook group and forum called the YouTubers Union this past March. According to Sprave, this was after he had tried and failed to speak directly to his Partner Manager about the incident. Then, as Sprave recounted to Motherboard earlier this year, he was invited to a “‘hangout on air’ seminar” where a YouTube employee explained the basic tenets of monetization to him over video chat.
“[They told me] even the title of a video should not contain any word that may look suspicious, because ‘the bots are not that smart,’” Sprave says. “That was enough. I decided to do something.”
Sprave’s YouTubers Union has since grown to over 16,000 members on Facebook, despite not actually being a union (YouTubers would have to be employees of YouTube) nor a guild or trade union (that would require members to pay dues, which they don’t). Sprave says that a recent initiative by the group included a “warning strike,” whereby the members refused to upload any full videos to the platform for two weeks; instead, they uploaded brief teaser videos with links to the full videos on other sites, such as Vimeo or DailyMotion, as a way to flex their power and raise public awareness of their grievances.
Discussions in the YouTubers Union forums center around issues of demonetization, censorship, and inconsistent communication with Partner Managers and other supposed “direct lines” between creators and YouTube itself.
“Right now, our first goal is to establish direct communication between us and YouTube management,” says Sprave. “Of course, the first fights, there’s a tendency for YouTube to sit this one out and not do anything. That’s the mode they’re in right now. But we’re not giving up, and we are consistent in our efforts, so they feel it whenever they upload new videos and they’re telling people lies, and telling them nonsense, we mobilize and place a lot of comments and a lot of dislikes in these videos and so on.”
In an interview for this story, Sprave initially measured much of his group’s success on these “mobilization” efforts: flooding the comments and spamming the “dislike” button on videos uploaded to YouTube’s official channel, including videos featuring company CEO Susan Wojcicki. When asked later, via email, if he was aware that these campaigns echoed the ones used by right-wing trolls against female YouTubers and Twitch streamers, Sprave replied back: “The Union is not promoting harassment of any kind….We don’t tell our members what to post in the comment sections. We only ask them to watch the video and leave a comment saying what they think about it.” When asked if the YouTubers Union had any concrete plans to combat harassment on the platform or demand an improved moderation system, Sprave said he didn’t believe harassment was a major issue “for any well managed channel”; he personally bans every troll that targets his video with hate speech, and has used YouTube’s blacklisting feature to filter out and ban certain words such as “Nazi,” “Hitler,” “Islamist,” and others from his comments.
But for women on the platform, harassment is a much more pressing issue than video demonetization. (This is especially true for Patreon users like Ellis and Pregler, who don’t have to rely solely on YouTube’s ad dollars for their revenue.) Creators like Anita Sarkeesian, who notoriously had to disable comments and likes on her channel after being subjected to an onslaught of Gamergate and Gamergate-style harassment, cannot spend every waking minute blacklisting words and banning commenters.
“The thing that really infuriates me is that I can’t hire moderators,” says Ellis. “And just for my own mental health, I basically don’t read comments anymore, except for the five or 10 that float to the top of the video. Because it’s just too overwhelming. My last video had 10,000 comments on it. Positive or negative, I can’t handle that. It’s too many human minds at me.”
And YouTube’s attempts at counteracting the issue have been largely unsuccessful: its short-lived YouTube Heroes program, launched in the fall of 2016, encouraged volunteers to sign up as content moderators for the platform, drawing widespread criticism from creators. For many YouTubers, or at least the most vocal ones during the controversy, the issue with the Heroes program was censorship. But underlying that grievance was another issue entirely: YouTube handing the responsibility of content moderation off to unpaid laborers, rather than cleaning up the mess itself.
The Internet Creators Guild
Another organizing group that exists for content creators is the Internet Creators Guild, or ICG. Founded by Hank Green and Laura Chernikoff in 2016 as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit, the ICG was created as a platform to, as stated on its website, “listen to creators and coordinate efforts to resolve their concerns.” Like other trade guilds, members pay dues (currently, their lowest tier is $10/month or $75/year), and the organization offers Medium guides and resources, for members and non-members alike, that provide tips for negotiating brand deals, creating standardized contracts, and fighting against demonetization.
“Generally, we work more directly with creators, and will ask them, ‘What types of challenges are you dealing with in your contracts?’” says Anthony D’Angelo, the ICG’s executive director. “We’ve had creators talk to us who don’t get paid on time — their clients will sometimes ask for innumerate rounds of revision because there was no stipulation for a limitation on notes in whatever contract they signed, so they’re getting dramatically underpaid. That is sort of the biggest issue, is that people are not paid fairly for the work that they’re doing, whether it’s on time or not.”
At this point in the guild’s existence, issues surrounding third-party contract negotiations — sponsorship deals, partnerships with multi-channel networks, etc. — take up the bulk of the ICG’s advocacy. Apart from aiding YouTubers in fighting back against demonetization, the guild in its current iteration is not organizing collective action against the structure of YouTube itself. Additionally, unlike in traditional trade unions and guilds, the ICG’s Board of Directors are appointed, not elected by its membership — something that a handful of YouTubers have voiced skepticism towards.
“One thing that liberal groups tend to forget a lot is accountability — being accountable to the people you’re trying to help,” Olly Lennard, aka Philosophy Tube, said in his video addressing the ICG. “Not just in the sense that they can write to you and give you feedback in a Slack group, but in the sense that you actually give them the power to direct the movement and say, ‘We’re going to use these tactics and do this.’”
Daniel Joseph says that historically, groups like the ICG tend to crop up in labor movements still in their infant stage, as a counterpoint to a more “antagonistic” method of collective organizing and issuing demands from an employer. “You’ll notice there’s a divergence of paths,” he says. “One path will be like, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re all friends here. The workers want a bit of a better share, but so do the business owners! They want their workers to flourish; we want to flourish. We’ll ask for stuff; we’ll create a friendly organization that will incorporate all voices.’”
Citing the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a similar group in the gaming industry where Joseph does much of his own organizing, he believes that this philosophy towards organizing is ultimately ineffective. “They built a lot of materials around unfair labor conditions in the industry, but at the same time, they never had anything to do with collective action. They had to do with asking businesses to politely treat their workers better.”
Ellis believes the founders of the ICG have good intent, but that what it needs the most going forward is specificity in terms of how they’re helping creators. “It’s easy to say, ‘We advocate for internet creators,’ but I think, in the case of the Internet Creators Guild, they discuss issues, perhaps they bring awareness,” she says. “Beyond that, without a very clear, specific goal to advocate for, there’s not much they can do.”
Sprave, meanwhile, says he’s “highly suspicious” of groups like the ICG and their motives. “I haven’t really seen much that they’ve done for their members [...] I don’t see any action from them, any activities or something,” he says. “I have a suspicion that these people are doing it for a nice salary, probably, than they’re doing it for the members. These days, on the internet, people are very skeptical if you haven’t come up with much at first.”
However, the ICG has recently made steps towards collective bargaining and other labor initiatives that would put YouTubers in direct negotiation with the platform. D’Angelo says that the guild’s board members have had “productive conversations” with YouTube, although he could not give more details as they were held under NDA. He also referenced a town hall-style meeting in which guild members visited YouTube Space in Los Angeles and aired their grievances in-person with members of YouTube management; he hopes that the ICG can hold similar meetings in the future.
“Our focus right now is building relationships with platforms like YouTube, opening up the conversation so that down the line, we can access them in more productive ways,” says D’Angelo. He told me the ICG is “still very much building the infrastructure” for membership voting and steering committees which members could be elected for and serve upon. And although Chernikoff previously stated the organization had no set plans for collective bargaining, D’Angelo repeatedly brings up “collective action” and suggested that priorities for the guild were shifting: “We want it to be truly a collective action movement where the members are at the helm.”
“I think the biggest problems facing producers in 2018 are sadly not that different than they were 10 years ago,” says Tom Reynolds, the former Blip employee. “Many producers are still almost entirely reliant on a single platform for their livelihood, which is inherently risky.”
In media coverage of video-hosting sites like YouTube, Twitch, and the now-defunct Vine, along with rising video platforms such as Instagram, there tends to be a focus on young, Gen Z producers who are green to the system and don’t yet know how to advocate for themselves on the platform, let alone organize as a collective. But for experienced producers like Jörg Sprave and the former Channel Awesome contributors, they’ve been airing these grievances for over a decade, and the industry’s problems haven’t gone away; the problems have followed these creators as they’ve migrated from platform to platform, and there is little to no institutionalized knowledge of how to combat them as a “community,” whatever that might mean. Even as YouTube and similar companies promise to connect millions of people across the world with their platforms, they sometimes fail at even basic levels of communication with the people who depend on them for their livelihood.
“It always boils down to that, with CA or with YT, with any mismanaged companies,” says Allison Pregler. “It’s incredibly simple to just be forward and plain with what is happening, but at the same time, make it a two-way street. Don’t just send out newsletters. Listen. People have great ideas and concerns that can improve not only their experience but the company as a whole.”
Dan Olson believes a concerted effort at in-person grassroots organizing, from a large portion of YouTube’s partners, is the only way to enact change. “Now, what that’ll look like, what that’ll turn into, will be different in every industry. It’ll be challenges that are unique, especially to this kind of work, but it’s totally possible that if you get enough people to talk to one another, and share stories, and share concerns about labor conditions — it creates a baseline for everyone to agree on something, and then you can agree on a goal that you want to work towards.”
In September 2018, Lindsay Ellis published a video essay to her channel titled “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!),” in which she outlines the gap between the increased production values and professionalism of YouTube shows and the continued expectation of “authenticity” from their fans — in other words, the phenomenon of YouTubers having to pretend that they’re doing this all for fun rather than as their job, in order to properly do their job and earn a sustainable following on the platform. While Ellis links this phenomenon to YouTuber burnout and mental health issues in her video, she says in an interview for this story that she sees it as relevant when thinking of organized labor on these platforms.
“There does tend to be a really broad antipathy towards creators who want to advocate for workers’ rights,” she says. “People do see this as, ‘You’re a high profile lobbyist. You’re just a big-name fan. And as such, if you want to be treated like a worker, you need to get a real job like the rest of us.’”
But being an online video producer is a full-time job, and that’s now been the case for over a decade. And content creators like those who worked at Channel Awesome, who have weathered multiple platforms and forms of labor exploitation, have been waiting for their profession to be recognized as such. This is an industry that both prioritizes individual needs and largely occurs remotely, in the online sphere — both conditions that don’t lend themselves well to labor organizing. But if any “YouTube community” exists outside of video producing and attending conventions, it appears to be one brought together by a wide variety of producers with common grievances, united towards a common goal.