YouTube’s Chilling Effect On Its Own Talent

When I first watched Mad Max: Fury Road one particular line stood out at me, and I don’t think it was by accident: “Everyone in the old world had a show.”

We live in a brand new era of user created content and YouTube has been one of the flagship websites to enable it. With a $20 webcam – or hell, using the one built into your laptop – you have the potential to gain millions of subscribers on YouTube. This is something I’ve been asked about by everyone from clients looking to instructional videos through ad money, to ten year old kids of those clients looking to be the next PewDiePie.

Unfortunately, lately I find myself telling many of them what I’m about to say here: Embarking on a career as a professional YouTuber, or otherwise someone reliant on YouTube itself to make a living, is a very bad idea at this point in time. At the very least, you should not consider relying on YouTube as your sole source of content distribution, or rely on ad-based revenue to make a living (it’s getting harder and harder to make a living based on ad-revenue, but that’s a conversation for another time).

No, I’m not saying it because I’m one of those smarmy asses who thinks YouTube isn’t a “real job” so there’s no need to take aim at me over that. Instead, I believe the risks of making videos on YouTube, many caused by YouTube itself, have not made it a viable platform for attracting the long term, professional talent it wants.

There are multiple reasons for this, which could all warrant their own blog posts, but let’s focus on one of the major ones. You’re completely at the mercy of YouTube, which has the ability to destroy your entire channel in an instant and wipe out thousands of hours of hard work, potentially destroying your livelihood, often on very weak grounds. Even if you’re the exceptionlly rare YouTuber who’s able to make a modest full time living off of your channel, let alone a six figure income.

YouTube’s many entanglements with copyright holders need no introduction, but in order to be compliant with copyright law and avoid multiple destructive lawsuits, YouTube has enabled a system that disfavors and discourages innovation and new channels and even continued effort from large channels not necessarily reliant on YouTube itself. Videos can be taken down for any reason and channels can be nuked without the copyright holders having to prove anything.

It’s been a persisting issue for many years but it’s come to a head over the past year as even massive channels have been subject to this. Back in February of 2016 the Internet was in an uproar when Team Fourstar, a channel with two million subscribers, was taken down without warning or explanation. Team Fourstar, which publishes hugely popular parody dubs of Dragonball Z that fall quite clearly within fair use and satire parody, had to waste time and money getting its channel back. Thankfully Team Fourstar relies on Patreon to generate revenue and had its videos available on its website, but no longer having your videos available for viewing on the most widely viewed video website on the planet is more than a nuisance.

I Hate Everything, a channel with 1.2 million subscribers whose content should be fairly obvious, similarly had its channel taken down that January following questionable copyright violation claims from movie makers upset at their work being criticized. Even when your channel isn’t nuked you could find yourself in the position of media production company Channel Awesome, whose channel was flagged for violations and subsequently had its ability to upload videos and subsequently make a living effectively restricted.

If this happens to larger channels who at least have large enough audiences to raise enough of an uproar to get their channels back, you can bet it happens to smaller, burgeoning channels all the time who don’t have any recourse at all. Back in 2014, Elgintensity, a satirical channel mocking snake oil and bad practices in the fitness industry which had about 30,000 subscribers at the time, was shut down after multiple copyright claims by CrossFit. CrossFit happens to be a favorite target of channel proprietor Elgin Mones (with good reason, I might add) and is notorious for aggressively protecting its copyright and has a reputation for not responding well to critics.

Elgin does YouTube on the side and isn’t entirely reliant on YouTube for money, but others are. ReviewTechUSA, also in late 2014, nearly had its channel nuked after a company made multiple third party copyright violation claims on extremely sketchy grounds. Rich Mascucci actually does make videos on YouTube full time and has about 500,000 subscribers, and it should be skin crawling to consider that someone apparently with a grudge against his channel was able to nearly get it taken offline with almost no warning.

There was far less publicity for Elgintensity and ReviewTechUSA because they’re not massive channels, and you can bet that this also happens to channels with a few hundred or thousand subscribers regularly that we never hear about and certainly have no recourse, let alone the time and money to spend fighting claims. How many of these channels would have gone on to, if not becoming the next Markiplier,  become reasonably popular channels with their own dedicated followings? How many of them could have made some nice pocket change for the content creators, done a service by providing YouTube with quality content and generally enriched the lives of everyone involved – creator, audience, YouTube? That’s how this is supposed to work on paper.

Instead, YouTube’s unwillingness to alienate its corporate media partners by denying them near-total control over their copyrighted content on YouTube – fair use be damned – is creating a chilling effect on artists and content creators.

YouTube has been upfront in its desire to court video creators but thus far Google seems unwilling to offer basic protections to ensure video makers’ livelihoods and ability to earn a living be killed without any warning and possibly any recourse. About a year ago it introduced the YouTube Fair Use Protection Plan, which was designed to crack down on videos being unfairly removed by inaccurate or bogus copyright strikes.

This was celebrated as a step in the right direction but we’ve heard nary a peep about it from YouTube since its inception. Moreover, in 2016 YouTube became more aggressive and less communicative than ever, taking channels with millions of subscribers – some of YouTube’s biggest cash cows, no less – down without blinking.

I still believe YouTube is sincere in its desire to protect video makers, but the company as a whole stops short of standing up for its content creators if it puts Google’s relationship with big media and copyright partners at stake. The YouTube Fair Use Protection Plan may have helped ReviewTechUA against a shady company, for example, but I expect Elgintensity would have gotten the silent treatment against a company like CrossFit.

The message Google and YouTube are sending are clear: Fair use is fair game unless established copyright holders are concerned. Copyright holders, especially media holding companies, are the de facto judges of YouTube, deciding what channels live and die, and only channels with a large enough presence can fight this as Team Fourstar and I Hate Everything have done.

I can only speak anecdotally at this point, but a number of friends and people I follow on Twitter have either expressed reluctance to make YouTube video creation more of a centerpiece of their careers or just foregone it entirely for these reasons. At this point, it’s difficult to see how anyone can blame them. Imagine knowing, constantly, that your career could end just because you happened to piss off a company whose movie or products you criticized. YouTube isn’t going anywhere and it’s still where all roads lead for anybody interested in video making, but I wonder how many people are in these situations as a result of the many horror stories of YouTube content creators.

This brings me back to my earlier point. I disagree wholly that being a YouTube content creator isn’t a “real job.” People often refute that idea by pointing out that if you’re employed full time you’re technically putting your livelihood in your employer’s hands the way YouTube creators put their livelihood in YouTube’s hands, but that’s not a fair comparison. Yes, when it comes to full time jobs layoffs happen. Departments get merged. Yet at least full time jobs generally provide a stable, reliable income and there are often warning signs if you’re about to lose a job. YouTube content creation doesn’t have that luxury when copyright holders start swinging the axe.

Am I saying you shouldn’t create videos on YouTube at all? Of course not; what I’m saying is to not put all of your eggs in one basket, simply because you can’t trust Google to have your back at this point in time as a content creator. That may change and it may not, but that’s the state of play should you set out to be the next big YouTuber. Upload videos to your own website as Team Fourstar did. Consider Patreon, donations, or other avenues so your money itself isn’t entirely reliant on YouTube. YouTube won’t go fully to bat for you; there’s no reason to give them that same courtesy, even though you will need YouTube to succeed with videos.

Also, stop doing retro video game reviews; the Angry Video Game Nerd’s been a thing for over a decade and the copycats have done to death at this point.