With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

In “Update on 2018 Priorities”, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki indicated that YouTube’s #1 priority was “Transparency and communications,” referencing the word “power” three times, but only in the context of the power YouTube has given to the community and its creators. In her 2019 post, she focused on responsibility & addressing creator feedback.

Last year I wrote and privately shared with YouTube PR an “open letter to Susan” but ultimately decided not to publish it. This year I’ve started to grow more vocal, publishing Counter Strike (exposing rights holders who abuse ContentID), Class Warfare (estimating the amounts they may be unlawfully claiming from channels). In the third instalment, … And Justice for All, we will highlight possible solutions and fixes to CID which will also solve the majority of Google’s headaches with YouTube.

But when reading Wojcicki’s two posts, it’s clear that YouTube views much of the problems as “other” people’s problems: creators who abuse their power, which has led to the recent mantra on “responsible growth,” even though a recent NY Times article highlighting that YouTube executives’ search for growth has been anything but healthy or responsible.

What Are You Doing?

Google’s original “Do no evil” motto evolved into “Do the right thing.” But looking at the platform’s policies, I wonder: “Do you know what you’re doing?”

I think Google and YouTube employees are great people. I’ve spent 13 years growing WatchMojo — one of the largest channels & brands on the platform with 20 million subscribers and a global reach of 100 million viewers — and overall it’s given me a lot of satisfaction to manage my team and interact with YouTube employees.

It’s clear that the founders at Facebook and Twitter are in over their heads. That shouldn’t be surprising: young individuals with a knack to code given capital by growth-at-any-costs venture capitalists who insisted on little meaningful oversight, now being hampered by their relative lack of experience. Amazon is a different beast. Google is too. But YouTube executives are showing little capacity to foresee the issues, risks and challenges around the corner, and the rank and file are powerless to resolve anything, bearing the brunt of ill-planned policies by those leading the charge (to be clear: no one could foresee all of the issues on such a dynamic platform like YouTube; I think Susan is a fine choice for CEO of YouTube; and I remain confident in her leadership).

My point is: YouTube needs help but doesn’t seem to want to admit it has a problem that starts from the inside, and its sporadic communiqués and memos seem to always deflect blame on others.

YouTube’s issues stem from the unique dynamic it faces. At a micro level, it needs to constantly balance its own business interests with the community’s wants, as well as marketers’ needs, who ultimately underwrite the platform. But at a macro level, YouTube belongs to Google, whose founders’ dual share structure gives them all the power in the world. They don’t need to listen to Wall Street. But their business is fundamentally an ad-supported one, so they do have to listen to Madison Ave. Per that NY Times article: it’s impressive how quickly YouTube moves when a marketer asks for something.

It’s YouTube’s World, We Just Stream It

YouTube is indeed replacing television as the leading consumption platform. The brands it is spawning, like Rooster Teeth, Smosh, WatchMojo and many more, will go on to become the ESPN and MTV of this generation, which views YouTube as their favored brand (Google is second). The personalities on the platform have become this generation’s celebrities. Critics will say YouTube risks turning into MySpace, but that won’t happen: YouTube has all of the content and it has the audience (2 billion users, even with a ban in China, so it basically has all video viewers on the world). So to be clear, this isn’t a Mad Men-esque “Why I’m Quitting YouTube” rant. We don’t really have a choice: not being on YouTube means not existing.

Parent First, CEO Second

I have two daughters, ages 11 and 8. I’m fascinated by their use of and interaction with web platforms like YouTube, as well as Snapchat and TikTok. Occasionally, during the summer months, we’ve let them appear in videos on our JrMojo channel. But my wife (a co-founder at WatchMojo) and I are pretty adamant about not leveraging our channel’s reach to turn them into “YouTubers.” Sure, it’s tempting to turn into Richard Williams and morph my daughters into stars in their field, but I’ll pass – not because I don’t trust my girls, but because I don’t trust YouTube executives to wield the power they command properly.

By virtue of being a user-generated content (UGC) platform, YouTube is a going concern so long as others upload content to the platform. Thus, by encouraging people to gain their livelihoods and achieve stardom on the platform, it should tread carefully when inconsistent policies and opaque decisions cause people to lose their means of income, with some potentially reacting in harmful ways. YouTube creator burnout has been widely covered.

Stakes Getting High IRL

Last year, a distraught YouTube creator attacked YouTube’s San Bruno offices, shooting and injuring four employees, before taking her own life. It was a stark reminder that while YouTube has ushered a generation of aspiring celebrities, that comes with unintended real-life consequences. Nothing ever justifies violence, but I know that as CEO of a company, if that happened on my watch at my company, I’d ask myself if there was anything I did or could have done, or avoided doing, that would have contributed to such an event. YouTube’s policies — and the constant erratic changes thereof  — are going to lead to a tidal wave of tragedy.

Social Media, the New Schoolyard

Back when I wrote for TechCrunch and MediaPost, I would state that YouTube’s dominance in video was more established and entrenched than its parent Google’s dominance was in search — and that’s saying something, since “to Google” has literally grown to mean “to search.”

That’s even truer today: kids don’t want to grow up to be Internet stars, they want to become YouTubers. But both Facebook and YouTube’s greatest risk is a self-inflicted wound. On any given day, YouTube faces a playlist of scandals and problems, including but not limited to:

Then there’s what I deem to be YouTube’s Achilles heel, which is ContentID, a tool that is abused, weaponized and frankly, the platform’s Death Star (for reasons why, watch our videos on how rights holders abuse ContentID (CID) and where we estimate the amounts they may be unlawfully claiming from channels. If you’re interested in our solutions for CID, subscribe to our new channel Context which covers business through the lens of entrepreneurship, where we’ll be publishing Part 3: … And Justice for All.

The Good With the Bad

I’ve described WatchMojo as “the house that YouTube built.” We’re indebted to the platform’s awesome reach, but partly because we rely so much on it, we want to ensure its success.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, but sometimes it feels like an abusive one. But our silence may have been ill-advised. We find ourselves constantly having to justify harmful policies that don’t make sense.

YouTube’s Role in Fighting Depression, Suicide & Gun Violence

When 75% of high school kids dream of becoming video stars – and 35% YouTube stars in particular, YouTube is effectively wielding tremendous power. Troubled youth will invariably turn to YouTube for self-expression, or worse. We saw live murder in New Zealand. What’s next? It’s already happening, but not mainstream. When reckless and haphazard changes wreak havoc on their well-being, will we be surprised if one turns to YouTube to take their own life, live, for all to see, to make their point”?

At this year’s VidCon (which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary) I’ll be giving a keynote on the history of web video and evolution of YouTube, and will touch on this subject briefly, but it would be nice if conferences address these issues, instead of more talk about CPMs, fill rates, CTRs and demonetization. We make a big deal about mental health but that means actually doing something about i, and bringing up thorny issues, like the ones I am raising here.

YouTube over-reacted to the scandal in its Kids initiative by disabling comments altogether. The first time a disillusioned YouTuber takes his or her own life, I can’t fathom what – if anything – YouTube’s reaction will be. YouTube has proven to cast blame on others, will it do that then as well?

I don’t think that, as a society, Facebook et al. are where tobacco companies were – but if you listen to the one and only Kara Swisher, in the Valley, it seems like we’re at a tipping point.

Storm Clouds Gathering

Much like Amazon and Facebook, Google and YouTube are at risk of government intervention to reduce some of its monopolistic powers. Standard Oil, AT&T and Microsoft all came under fire because of market dominance, vertical and horizontal integration and harm caused to consumers. The first two of those are easy to spot, while the third one has always been more subjective and iffy. But given the myriad of policy changes that have caused demonstrable harm, YouTube may want to become less erratic and more thoughtful about its policies, most of which make no sense. YouTube implements policies that harm, and then its systems bug out when trying to make sense of them, let alone counteract (that YouTube’s error page usually shows “monkeys” also supports my argument that its rank and file are disrespected and not empowered enough).

Ultimately, if size is YouTube’s excuse for poor policies that end up harming businesses and individuals, then it may indeed be time to consider breaking up the large platforms. Separating YouTube from Google may be the first, most obvious step, since having the #1 and #2 search engines in the world under one roof is definitely not good for competition —  especially as YouTube continues to supplant television while its parent unilaterally decides how to best “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”