YouTube’s thirteenth year has proved just as confusing, mercurial, and pimply as any human teenager's. But unlike the usual adolescent, YouTube isn’t actually a hormone-addled child, it’s the most popular social media platform in the United States. Its problems reflect and contribute to our culture like a big, scandalous, Tide Pod-and-condom-slurping ouroboros.
So it’s fitting that YouTube’s most persistent bugaboos this year have been America’s: out-of-control celebrities and our cultural addiction to them, racism and conspiracy theories, and policies that disproportionately impact vulnerable groups like the LGBTQ community.
But as much as 2018 was a year beset by scandal and frenzied backpedaling, it was also a year in which YouTube started trying in earnest to reckon with its own problems. That means taking itself a bit more seriously. YouTube isn’t just just 30-second videos of cats falling off tables anymore. It’s big business: The platform’s highest-grossing star , Ryan ToysReview, made a whopping $22 million this year. (Note: Ryan is a 7-year-old child. Chew on that a moment.)
Its problems reflect and contribute to our culture like a big, scandalous, Tide Pod-and-condom-slurping ouroboros.
The platform’s cultural footprint is large and deep, and YouTube knows it. So 2018, for all its pustules and body odor, has been the year YouTube realized it needed to grow up. The platform has begun shifting away from being a social network for niche, sometimes morally reprehensible, low-production-value videos to a digital television studio for the influencer age. But that shift hasn’t been smooth. YouTube is deciding what it wants to be, while scrambling to contend with what it already is—an adolescent reckoning that’s happening on a global stage.
It’s impossible to talk about what YouTube is in 2018 without talking about one of its most successful stars, Logan Paul, who in January traveled to Japan’s Aokigahara forest (sometimes called the Suicide Forest by sensationalists), filmed a dead body, and posted the video on YouTube. It was awful, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that Paul’s audience is tweenaged or younger, adding to growing concern that YouTube is shirking its responsibilities to the very young. (We’re a long way from Mr. Rogers.)
But Paul’s gaffe speaks to the kind of behavior (and people) that YouTube rewards: When your industry is driven by the need to generate ever-more-shocking videos to stand out on an ever-more-crowded platform, at some point regular people will lose out to the Logan Pauls—or find themselves recreating Paul’s antics. As a result, YouTube creator burnout has become an epidemic .
There’s really no question that the platform did reward Paul’s behavior—even his apology video was monetized (and reportedly made him $12,000). YouTube responded by making money-making harder for everyone: Soon after, the platform announced it would screen every video uploaded by its most popular creators so advertisers wouldn’t find themselves running alongside controversial content. It also said that in order to make money from ads, YouTubers needed to reach a much higher benchmark of subscribers and watch hours. Many small creators feel the policy shifts demonstrate YouTube’s intent to move away from the platform’s diverse array of niche channels towards a few superstars with massive audiences.
Want more? Read all of WIRED’s year-end coverage
They’re not wrong. YouTube wants to be something like a digital-age television studio. It is now incentivizing creators to post longer and longer videos, so it can squeeze in as many ads as possible, and is providing them with studio-type tools to promote upcoming videos and sell merchandise directly from their channels. The platform has gone from a hodgepodge of wacky late-night posts to something dependable and regimented—something audiences can tune into consistently. The YouTuber-advertiser relationship is beginning to formalize as well: Brands now require the influencers to sign Hollywood-style morality clauses, and a whole emerging industry of agents and analysts work to connect the right influencer with the right brands, often cutting deals in the low six figures.
But YouTube is going to find that shift toward increasing professionalism nearly impossible unless it solves its persistent content-moderation problem. The country’s standards on racism, sexism, and violent speech have evolved over the past year, and YouTube needs to keep pace with that change in order to lure big-name advertisers. Just this year, the platform unduly censored LGBTQ content but allowed largely unchecked floods of Parkland school-shooting conspiracy theories, Tom Hanks pedophilia accusations, and other forms of frequently racist fake news.
While the platform’s stars may have to contend with a few lost brand deals after spouting racial slurs, dealing in “politically incorrect” humor is still an easy and acceptable way to make a buck. Mainstream advertising mores aren’t necessarily shared by YouTube’s audience, leaving YouTube to negotiate the fact that its most popular and financially successful creators are its most problematic.
For all it’s joyful coming-out videos and fascinating borderless memes and it’s new push to reward diverse creators, YouTube is still a massive American corporation. It lives within and recreates the same systems of privilege and prejudice that trouble our entire culture and country. YouTube is trying to grow up, but it’s also trying to give us what we want. And in 2018 America, nobody knows what “we” want: It’s somewhere between ending racism and allowing anyone to say whatever they want, between enjoying shocking content and wanting to ban it on moral grounds, between wanting to celebrate the LGBTQ community and other minority communities and wanting to hide their existence from our children. YouTube needs to do better, but it’s growing pains are also America’s—and no simple fix is going to make it right.
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