In recent years, YouTube has changed quite a bit – everything from demonetization to algorithmic adjustments – and some YouTubers are not happy.
The word ‘YouTuber’ calls to mind a unique kind of fame and acclaim – one accessible to the people, normal-people antics far divorced from Hollywood glitz and glamour. YouTube’s rise marked an era of inclusivity, where everyone had an equal shot at making it big.
A long list of irresistible incentives lured many to start their own YouTube channels in hopes of becoming bonafide ‘YouTubers,’ such as sponsorships and book deals, shiny award shows, panels, and legions of screaming fans.
For many, breaking into show business no longer felt like a pipe dream, but a life that could be actualized. If done right, a glittering YouTube career could secure one’s financial status for life. But new YouTubers today face different obstacles to making a living on the platform, calling into question whether being a YouTuber is as lucrative as it once seemed.
In 2005, Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim – previously PayPal employees – created YouTube as a video-dating website. They soon adapted the site to accommodate all types of videos. Within a year, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. YouTube launched its Partnership Program in 2007, which allowed creators earn ad revenue for their videos through Google Adsense. Then in March 2013, YouTube reached another milestone: one billion monthly users.
The powerhouse platform attracted passionate young creators like Michelle Phan, Rosanna Pansino, and former comedy duo Anthony Padilla and Ian Hecox of Smosh, who shared their hobbies with the world from their bedrooms, producing comedic skits, makeup and DIY tutorials, creative recipes, and the like.
One Hong Kong-based YouTuber, J Lou, makes entertaining videos about her biracial identity and multilingual background on her channel. The half-Chinese, half-French creator’s channel has gained 366,000 subscribers and 30 million views, making Lou one of the most recognizable faces of Hong Kong’s YouTube scene.
Lou attributes her niche to her multicultural heritage, and says her videos speak to the community of pan-Asian, third-culture kids around the globe.
“It’s kind of like an identity crisis situation, but [there are] also a lot of relatable funny things that we all share in common with our Asian background,” Lou says in an interview with Jumpstart. When starting out, she wanted to share “relatable experiences” through comedy and, in doing so, “bring the [Asian] community together.”
Small communities sprung up quickly on the video-sharing site. YouTube’s largely free platform allowed everyone to become part of a community, and made content creators seem more accessible, framing them in an authentic, approachable light that discerned them from the far-removed exclusivity of Hollywood.
This relatable ‘boy/girl next door’ trope proved to be a hit with youngsters of the 2010s. It played into YouTube’s success as a business which, according to a Google report, was revealed to be worth $15 billion in 2019. What’s more, the virality of YouTube videos often helped to direct the masses to the site.
The potential of YouTube’s platform could not be ignored, particularly when it was simply a matter of adopting an idiosyncratic style and producing short videos. People quickly hopped on the YouTube bandwagon. In 2009, YouTube was receiving 1 billion daily views.
Storms brewing in digital paradise
Meteoric rise complete, things changed quickly for YouTubers. Although the platform had successfully resolved issues like piracy (by forming the music video platform Vevo with media conglomerate Vivendi in 2009), YouTubers began condemning the platform for demonetizing their videos in 2016, due to their content not being deemed ‘ad-friendly.’
2017 presented a tumultuous year of controversies: major corporations boycotted YouTube in March after discovering that their ads were being shown next to extremist content in videos, a move that analysts believed could cost Google $750 million. Abusive content found in supposedly family-friendly videos exacerbated the advertiser exodus.
In response, YouTube tightened its ad policies and raised eligibility standards in its Partner Program for channels seeking monetization. The effects of these policies and circumstantial changes spelled trouble for YouTubers’ ad revenue.
“If you’re a growing YouTuber trying to get a bigger audience, if you’re only just focusing on the monetization, then you’ll probably never make it because you’re just too focused on that side of things when it should be about your content and your message,” Lou says.
The second wave of major monetization policy changes further eroded YouTubers’ incomes. Previously, any channel with 10,000 views total could apply for monetization. The revamped YouTube Partner Program, however, considered only channels with 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours of watch time over 12 months, cutting out smaller content creators.
There were cracks in YouTuber culture as well. Beloved YouTube celebrities were no longer untouchable. A video by American YouTuber Logan Paul sparked widespread outrage in December 2017 for insensitive jokes about a man’s body found in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, an area infamous for suicides.
YouTube was criticized for its slow response to the video, which came in the form of an announcement ten days after the event. The controversial video remained on the platform until Paul himself took it down.
Following severe backlash from mainstream celebrities, YouTube removed Paul from the site’s top-tier ad program and temporarily halted several of Logan’s YouTube Red projects. YouTube also placed strict restrictions on its Partner Program once more, which significantly reduced the amount of videos that could earn ad revenue.
“This is the state of YouTube, guys,” YouTube creator Ethan Klein said of Paul’s video. “These people aren’t like, ‘How do I make good content?’ It’s more like, ‘How do I make dangerous, risky shit that’s so over the top that people have to click it?’”
However, not all YouTubers feel discouraged by YouTube’s demonetization policies. J Lou remains unconcerned by such guidelines for creators, because the way she sees it, “social media channels are always changing.”
“If you’re a growing YouTuber trying to get a bigger audience, if you’re only just focusing on the monetization, then you’ll probably never make it because you’re just too focused on that side of things when it should be about your content and your message, [which] will surely lead you to an audience,” Lou says.
Moreover, not all of YouTube’s policies had adverse effects. In fact, some were even positive. For instance: Lou noted that YouTube released a policy permitting mid-roll ads in videos with a minimum length of eight minutes instead of ten.
“I guess that does help, for example, if some of my videos sometimes don’t reach ten minutes. Now I can have an ad in the middle, so I think that would [also] help creators who […] rely heavily on their monetization,” Lou adds.
Is YouTube still a friendly place for creators?
The Logan Paul fiasco may have been a symptom of a larger problem: rolling changes to YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which creators struggled to keep up with. Clickbait titles and flashy thumbnails began populating YouTube’s recommendation page, as independent creators tried to continue growing their channel amid the mutating ad landscape.
‘Subscriber burn’ was one side effect – if YouTubers took a 2-3-week break from uploading, their subscribers would stop getting notified of new videos. Lou herself has experienced “subscriber burn,” noting that it also occasionally affects her.
“When I’ve got too much going on and I can’t keep up with the weekly uploads, I notice my new video has terrible views, but then it catches [up] when you continue uploading, and the views seem to come back up,” she says.
However, she adds that this disproportionately affects new creators, those just starting out, because they often work full-time jobs and don’t have the time or ability to post often enough. This “subscriber burn,” along with a fear of losing engagement, may also be linked to burnout among creators.
“I definitely do see new creators pop up on my homepage, but I guess businesses will always want to make more money,” Lou says.
The COPPA dilemma
In early 2019, huge companies like Disney, McDonald’s and Nestle pulled their ads from YouTube following revelations of a pedophile network that shared links and disturbing comments in comments under videos that featured children. This prompted YouTube to disable the comments section of “tens of millions of videos” featuring minors.
The platform had to radically adjust its policies once again after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined YouTube and Google $170 million in September 2019 for collecting children’s personal data without their parents’ consent to serve targeted advertising, which allegedly violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rule.
“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” FTC Chairman Joe Simons said in the FTC’s press release on the issue. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”
To resolve the issue, YouTube stopped placing personalized ads on channels considered to be entirely ‘Made for Kids’ in January 2020. The platform also deactivated the notifications, memberships, stories and community tabs of these channels. Thus, the earnings of ‘child-directed’ channels were in jeopardy, as channel owners would have to make do without the tools that had previously boosted their audience engagement.
Some remained blasé about the future of the children’s content space. “We will not have a crisis of audience,” said the Founder and CEO of digital children’s content studio Chris M. Williams, in an interview with Variety. “It’s not like kids will up and leave YouTube.”
Williams may well be right. An August 2020 study from Morning Consult found that 62% of parents considered YouTube to be their kids and teenagers’ go-to entertainment platform, whereas 55% chose Netflix.
Further, YouTube’s controversies did not inhibit its user growth: the platform’s monthly viewers exceeded two billion in 2019, watching 250 million hours, which doubled the platform’s one billion monthly users of 2013. Meanwhile, YouTube reported 250 million hours of watch time on TV screens daily.
J Lou also suggests that the lucrativity of YouTubing may depend on the niche. She raises the example of fitness YouTubers: “Their monetization would be incredible because their videos are rewatched […] It’s not like one person does one workout and that’s it. They rewatch the workout videos every day or every week, so [fitness YouTubers’] monetization is crazy.”
Certain niches may also benefit more from YouTube’s algorithm than others. A 2018 study found that videos in certain categories gained a greater amount of exposure than others, despite disparities in demand, consequently creating an “overwhelming dominance of very few channels over the rest of content on YouTube.”
The study’s researchers therefore concluded that channel category is a valuable “predictor of channel success,” with room for newcomers to grow fast in niches high in supply and demand.
Unlike videos in the fitness genre, comedy videos such as Lou’s generally attract one-time viewers. However, making a decent living from YouTube is still possible through indirect means. Lou herself has turned to brand deals and sponsorships as her primary source of income. Brands can benefit from knowing exactly who her audience is, and her engagement statistics, two factors which have contributed to the boom in influencer marketing.
“[It’s] a very good way to monetize, even if it’s a one-minute ad integration. You can receive a lot of money for that, so monetization almost becomes secondary when it comes to having brand deals and sponsorships,” Lou says.
Location is another component that can determine a channel owner’s revenues.
“I am very fortunate to be in Hong Kong, to have that kind of opportunity for sponsorship deals, because Hong Kong is quite small,” she says. “I don’t think I could say the same if I was in the States or somewhere bigger, because it’s so much more competition.”
To Lou’s mind, the bigger challenge is to distinguish oneself as an original creator in YouTube’s ever-growing community. To do so, she recommends practicing the key tasks of building a consistent image, and “being entertaining and having a different approach to things.”
Big businesses, big bucks
YouTube had worked with traditional TV networks before, for instance by investing over $100 million in partnerships with Hollywood celebrities in 2011 and relentlessly pushing content from late-night talk shows on its trending pages. The change was gradual, but a few years later, it became clear that this move was to the detriment of independent creators on the platform.
At YouTube’s 2018 upfront, a sales pitch for advertisers, YouTube showcased late-night shows and mainstream celebrities like Demi Lovato, instead of works from independent creators like PewDiePie, who currently has over 108 million subscribers. The pivot was presumably part of its demonetization strategy, to draw more advertisers and minimize the controversies caused by YouTubers such as Logan Paul and PewDiePie.
“I think there’s less new small creators that pop up on my homepage, but then again I can’t really remember if it was like that a few years back,” Lou says. “It’s almost like things just changed so gradually that I can’t even catch up on YouTube and I think everything that gets recommended to you is something that you’ve searched up before or looked at before…”
“I definitely do see new creators pop up on my homepage, but I guess businesses will always want to make more money,” she adds.
Lou suggests that YouTube could introduce a new section “like a ‘new creators spotlight’ where they give a platform or a spotlight to […] growing creators for people just to scroll past and maybe have a chance to click on them, and give a chance to people who are trying to build a channel.”
Ultimately, Lou encourages content creators to cement their online presence across a variety of platforms. In addition to YouTube, Lou posts on Facebook and Instagram to maximize audience reach. Her first viral hit, surprisingly, came from Facebook.
“I think as long as you don’t rely on one single platform, as a content creator, then it’ll be okay. There’s no way we can control what the channels do, and the channels give us a platform which we can just take advantage of and do what we have to do,” Lou says.
Following YouTube’s demonetization changes, some creators have indeed branched out to greener pastures. Social media giants such as Netflix, Instagram, Twitch and TikTok have been gaining in popularity in recent years.
However, Lou believes that YouTube will remain a big player because it’s made adjustments for children, who quickly become entranced by videos of children their own age making content.
In short, being a YouTuber is certainly not easy, nor does it instantly equate to making bank. A gamut of complex factors are at play. Taking niche and location into account, the question of whether being a YouTuber means being well paid becomes considerably more nuanced.
Building a strong fan base as a mainstream celebrity or popular influencer on another big platform may also boost one’s following on YouTube. In the meantime, YouTube will take the steps it feels necessary in the wake of future controversies, and YouTubers, as always, will need to find ways to re-acclimate.