'De-monetizing' YouTube: What does it mean you will see?

YouTube has informed content creators that they will no longer receive payments for videos it deems unfriendly for advertisers. What does this mean for audiences?

Change to algorithm that selects advertiser-friendly videos creates controversy

YouTube has informed content creators that they will no longer receive payments for videos it deems "unfriendly for advertisers." (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

YouTube has informed content creators that they will no longer receive payments for videos it deems "unfriendly for advertisers."

Unsurprisingly, the creators whose revenue comes largely from advertisements on their videos are upset. But what does it mean for audiences, and the kinds of content you'll be seeing on YouTube?

"De-monetization" means YouTube decides which videos can collect ad revenue, based on whether they are deemed advertiser-friendly.

The current internet controversy blew up when YouTube sent out a recent notification alerting creators to a change in the algorithm that identifies content on which it will not sell ads.

Despite all of the attention that de-monetization has been getting over the past week, it has actually been happening since 2012, when YouTube decided to become more ad-friendly with a broad algorithm that searches for flagged words and content that may be inappropriate for mainstream audiences.

Ironically, YouTube's attempt to improve the notification process when videos are de-monetized is what triggered the recent outrage. In essence, this whole controversy has just been a massive communications fail for the company, whose intent was to make their process more transparent.

It's understandable that YouTube creators would be upset, but they're not the only ones affected by de-monetization.

What makes YouTube a unique platform is that it's not a traditional media outlet. Driven by the ideals of the internet, YouTube has been a platform for creators and voices that are often under-represented in mainstream media.

In a statement, the Independent Web Series Creators of Canada (IWCC) reiterate this, stating that "a big reason why people loved YouTube was to get away from the grip of television's ad culture … creators wanted freedom without gatekeepers."

 'No real competition'

Dan Speerin, a longtime YouTuber and vice-president of IWCC, says, "At its core the controversy is a debate about what type of content creators can feel confident in making, while keeping a stable business on the platform. YouTube is so large and has no real competition in terms of monetized content, so they don't have a large financial incentive to bend to creators. It's much easier to bend to advertisers."

About 300 hours of content gets uploaded every minute on YouTube, so it's understandable that identifying which videos are advertiser-friendly isn't being done by humans. Because these decisions are being made by an algorithm, there are a lot of cases where a video gets de-monetized based on its keywords, without any awareness of context.

Videos of "Mentos Coke Explosions" — science experiments in which Coke bottles explode when someone puts a Mentos candy inside — have been de-monetized because they feature explosions, a topic that's been red-flagged.

While that example is seemingly innocuous, there is a legitimate concern over the transparency of the algorithm, and where the line is drawn for what is advertiser-friendly.

As Tubefilter noted, amidst the current debate, YouTube has been criticized for de-monetizing videos about suicide prevention. The algorithm has picked up on the word suicide, although the intent is to save lives.

The channels most affected by all of this deal with current events, politics or social issues. Megan Mackay is a Toronto-based feminist comedian whose videos touch on issues like sexual assault and social justice.

Hers is exactly the kind of content that you might think would be impacted by de-monetization. And yet, surprisingly only two of her videos have been deemed unfriendly to advertisers. One of them was called The Abortion Pill and Health Canada and the other was on the Syrian refugee crisis. She guesses the second one was flagged by the algorithm because it referenced ISIS.

Stale, traditional content?

There is a concern that if YouTube imposes financial pressure to deliver the kind of content that doesn't make advertisers nervous, the platform will turn into another outlet delivering the stale, traditional content that the early YouTubers were rebelling against.

But Mackay sees this shift an opportunity for brave advertisers.

"There are way, way more people cultivating niche, specialty channels. The audience is smaller but the communities around these channels tend to be very tight-knit and have higher rates of engagement," MacKay says.

"Pursuing these channels may require a slight mindset shift on the ad agency's side, but I think in the long run that's where content is headed."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.