YouTube has long been a haven for independent content creators to showcase their work and, if they are popular enough, profit off of it. Advertisers pay YouTube to place advertisements before videos. YouTube splits the ad earnings with the video creators. Everybody wins. Right?
Late last month, YouTube users noticed the natural order to which they were accustomed had been broken. Some of their videos had simply stopped earning them ad money. And to their surprise, this wasn’t a new development; it had been happening since 2012.
The reason can be found in YouTube’s “advertiser-friendly content guidelines.” According to YouTube, a video can be automatically “demonetized” if it contains any material that meets these criteria:
- Sexually suggestive content, including partial nudity and sexual humor
- Violence, including display of serious injury and events related to violent extremism
- Inappropriate language, including harassment, profanity and vulgar language
- Promotion of drugs and regulated substances, including selling, use and abuse of such items
- Controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown
In other words, many advertisers don’t want to be associated with the type of material above, so including it in a video can strip a YouTube video of its monetization. The process is automated, and uses algorithms to search for videos with tags and content that are not “advertiser-friendly.”
In the video most responsible for bringing attention to this issue, YouTuber Philip DeFranco shares his worries that he won’t be able to keep posting the type of content he often does.
“Many times on my show I’ve talked about things that aren’t great – just horrible things. By taking monetization it is a form of censorship,” DeFranco says.
DeFranco acknowledges that YouTube, as a private company, has the right to monetize whichever videos it wants. But that doesn’t detract from his or other YouTubers’ concerns. To them, the guidelines have a chilling effect: fear of demonetization can lead people to post less sensitive, and perhaps less interesting content.
The sudden attention to these guidelines sparked the hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty and led many YouTubers to share their concerns in their own videos.
Mike Figuerido, who hosts the Humanist Report on YouTube, first heard about demonetization from DeFranco’s video.
“I was legitimately terrified and immediately rushed to check my channel to see how many of my videos were demonetized,” Figueredo said in an email to MediaFile.
Figueredo learned that twelve of his videos had been demonetized by YouTube. The Humanist Report is a podcast and video series in which Figueredo analyzes news and politics. With that premise, he inevitably has to discuss political issues, which falls under YouTube’s list of “inappropriate” content. Through YouTube’s manual review process, Figueredo appealed all of the videos that were flagged and eventually regained monetization for most of them.
“For one video in particular, where I discuss facts about the Syrian refugee crisis… YouTube declined to allow me to monetize it again. They confirmed that it wasn’t advertiser friendly,” he said.
A point of frustration for many on YouTube is that this has been happening for four years and people are only learning about it now.
YouTube has sent the same statement to all news outlets asking about this issue: “While our policy of demonetizing videos due to advertiser-friendly concerns hasn’t changed, we’ve recently improved the notification and appeal process to ensure better communication to our creators.”
Many on YouTube have had alternative revenue streams to begin with. In addition to having ads play natively through YouTube, creators can get sponsored by companies looking to be promoted within their videos. But native ads tend to earn creators more money. Figueredo estimates that 80 to 90 percent of his revenue comes from YouTube ads. The rest comes from his own membership and patronage programs, as well as affiliate or sponsorship programs with companies like Amazon, HostGator and Lootcrate.
In light of this issue, it’s hard not to draw a comparison between YouTube and television. Media companies are subject to Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission restrictions, and have to self-regulate in order to attract and maintain ad partners, which begs the question of why YouTubers shouldn’t follow the same rules.
While media giants do have a presence on YouTube, it’s also a forum for more independent content creators who might not think it’s fair to be bound by the rules of media giants.
“One could also make the case that a YouTube video is similar to Facebook posts, where we simply share our opinions.” Figueredo said. “If YouTube can monitor our content, should Facebook monitor what people post in order to attract more people to the website?”
It is important not to pigeonhole all YouTubers into one category of people who are frustrated with YouTube. Many creators, including DeFranco and Figueredo, acknowledge that YouTube, as a private company has the right to define “advertiser-friendly” any way that they want. Others have gone a step further by defending YouTube.
GradeAUnderA, a channel that posts rants and tirades about practically any topic of interest, published one such rant (NSFW for language) about YouTube demonetization. The video calls out YouTubers complaining that their videos, some of which include disturbing content, have been demonetized.
“People have videos with tags like ‘ISIS,’ ‘rape’ and ‘suicide,’ and they’re complaining about the lack of corporate advertisements their video’s got,” the video says.
Philip DeFranco and GradeAUnderA did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
As of now, YouTube is still alive and well. But its content creators were certainly shaken by the revelation of these guidelines. They have found themselves facing the same dilemma that players in traditional media face: if you want to put out interesting content and make money while doing it, you have to balance the interests of the people paying you.