Max Marcello | Staff Writer
Being born in the early years of Generation Z provided me with a front-row seat to the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. As digital natives, we joined the online world shortly after acquiring literacy and consciousness. And in that time, we witnessed YouTube’s rise to power, and, shortly, its possible decline as well.
In the beginning, creator-centric culture and the freedom of YouTube allowed fragmented groups of people to coalesce around unique hobbies and personalities, beginning the special relationship between creator and viewer. This culture embodied YouTube’s motto, “Broadcast Yourself.” It created a near infinite buffet of content and inaugurated what was possibly YouTube’s golden age.
Quietly assisting this rapid growth was the hesitancy of corporate YouTube to intervene on its creators. Early YouTube did not provide an Ellis Island for new arrivals, allowing creators to navigate the video-making process through their own effort and style.
However, it would be inaccurate to say YouTube was anarchic. Creators were expected to adhere to longstanding internet precedents, i.e. no pornography or promotion of terrorism. Aside from these basic boundaries, creators had virtually no limit imposed on them.
The site allowed for content that would have been dead on arrival if presented to traditional media to gain new life. This led to significant success for diverse and unconventional YouTubers, many of whom eventually achieved mainstream success.
In hindsight, this rapid growth proved to be a double-edged sword. By the mid-2010s, YouTube had attracted the attention of powerful entities seeking significant modifications or even the dissolution of the platform. Media companies demanded a more robust copyright system, while politicians raised concerns about YouTube’s approach to child welfare as well as its policies on content moderation.
While some reforms were long overdue, YouTube’s overreaction to these suggestions signaled a change and marked the beginning of YouTube’s devolution into its modern incarnation. Starting in 2017, the platform aggressively began to intervene against creators for a myriad of seemingly arbitrary reasons. The first issue arose from copyright concerns. While some content was clearly a violation of copyright law, others were not so clear cut.
YouTube began removing content even if it fell within the bounds of legally-protected fair use. New monetization policies followed suit, which began to alter what creators were allowed to explore. Furthermore, content that was once suitable and even popular were subjected to these ex post facto guidelines. These rapid changes in addition to new monetization policies brought about a purge of existing content and forced those remaining to accept the new, less free normal.
By 2018, the rapidly deteriorating situation of YouTube finally became visible. In an effort to appease advertisers and deliver expected profits, YouTube began playing favorites. As time progressed, several problematic high profile creators such as Logan Paul went through scandal with their YouTube channels miraculously unaffected. Today, creators like Paul with protective status continue to produce problematic content unabated — content that is often marketed towards children with no consequences from YouTube.
On the other hand, certain creators, like history education channels that produce documentaries, often face frequent demonetization. Their content, despite being educational and apolitical, can include references to sensitive historical events like World War II and the war in Afghanistan, leading to penalties for violating YouTube’s terms of service.
YouTube’s actions show not just disregard for certain aspects of history that advertisers might object to, but a broader inclination towards erasing historical context. Though, to be fair, YouTube also shows enthusiasm toward erasing their own history too.
Unfortunately for YouTube, I and millions of others remember what the site was like. Yesterday’s YouTube was a laboratory of creation, while today’s YouTube prioritizes short-term relevance.
There is perhaps no better manifestation of this new direction than with YouTube’s introduction and aggressive promotion of YouTube Shorts. Shorts were born in 2020 as a response to Covid-19 and, more importantly, the growth of TikTok.
To expedite the growth of Shorts, YouTube has recalibrated its algorithms to favor videos using this feature. In doing this, YouTube is punishing long-form content creators and, moving forward, YouTube will have an even greater say in what creators can produce.
As of now, Shorts is quickly occupying a greater spot on the homepage and has a preeminent position on the app, replacing traditional avenues of content.
YouTube was engineered from the ground up to offer an alternative to the corporate media structure. Giving users the freedom to pursue their creativity and rewarding them is what turned a humble idea into the second most visited website on Earth.
YouTube has authored its conversion into a network television channel that replaced content with commercials. This decline in quality is no fault of the creators, who have attempted to get YouTube to reconsider the direction the site is moving toward, as their voices are often stifled.
YouTube has no one else to blame but themselves for the erosion of their platform. Their policies to appease the roaring industry that is short form content at the expense of creators brings a tragic reversal of what spearheaded their meteoric rise. YouTube, who once handed creators a blank canvas, is now placing restrictions on what they can paint.