Friday, May 2, 2014

Exploitation on YouTube: Mending the Rift Between Creator and Corporation

I know, this doesn't belong on this blog. Shh, it's okay. This is an essay about YouTube that I wrote for my Media Policy class, and I find it to be a super fascinating topic so I'm publishing it here in case anyone is interested. 
Exploitation on YouTube: Mending the Rift Between Creator and Corporation
After being purchased by Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion, YouTube’s popularity as a video-sharing website has risen exponentially (Gillespie 347). This is great news for its viewers: there are 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, meaning users have a wide range of content to enjoy (“Statistics”). However, the ramifications of YouTube’s uphill rise far exceed audience satisfaction. The well being of content creators, who are the very contributors to YouTube’s increased success, is being compromised due to the company’s swelling desire to prosper financially. The following essay will explore the ways in which content creators are treated unfairly, and will suggest how YouTube could mend the dwindling relationship it has with its partners.
As Tarleton Gillespie states in “Politics of Platforms”, YouTube is constantly “facing questions about their responsibilities to their users, to key constituencies who depend on the public discourse they host, and to broader notions of public interest” (Gillespie 347). The reason for YouTube’s increasing need to revise their mandate is due of the fluctuating state of Web 2.0, which refers to websites that thrive on user-generated content, or UGC (Richardson 1). The very nature of YouTube as a website is in a perpetual state of change (such is the reality for most websites), and as such, it is crucial for them to amend legislation surrounding its use on a frequent basis.
Along with YouTube’s increased popularity came the rise of the “YouTuber”. A YouTuber is a person who contributes content to the website on a regular basis, has amassed a decent following (normally in terms of their subscriber count), and is officially a YouTube partner. Being a partner simply means that YouTube acknowledges you as a content creator—there is a form to fill out and approval is required before you can officially call yourself a partner. A perk to becoming a partner is that you acquire the eligibility to join a multi-channel network (MCN), which is an entity that “affiliates with multiple YouTube channels, often to offer assistance in areas such as product, programming, funding, cross-promotion, partner management, digital rights management, monetization/sales, and/or audience development” (“Multi-Channel Networks 101”). Although MCNs do not fall under the direct jurisdiction of YouTube or Google, they are an ever-present component of the website, considering a large portion of the website’s top content creators are backed by various MCNs.
The trouble with MCNs is that there have been so many instances of network abuse and unstable relationships between networks and creators. Take, for example, the case of Grace Helbig. Helbig recently parted ways with My Damn Channel, the MCN that was essentially sponsoring her YouTube career. The channel had been in existence for five or so years, and she had amassed over a million subscribers. She had catchphrases, themed videos for every day of the week, and even the "Graceface" - an iconic gesture of hers. She created everything. In terminating her contract with My Damn Channel, she forfeited her entire career as Daily Grace, including the channel, the subscribers, even the slogans. The channel was built on her ideas entirely, and yet, those very ideas were not owned by her. Daily Grace was not Grace Helbig after all, but rather a corporate entity—as her brother, Tim Helbig, so aptly tweeted (Helbig). Naturally, Grace began a new channel entitled ItsGrace, but My Damn Channel forbade her from so much as mentioning the move on DailyGrace.
Some say that Helbig never should have agreed to the contract to begin with, but in signing with My Damn Channel five years ago, she could not have predicted the success of DailyGrace. I wish to highlight, in this case, the ineffectiveness of her contract, particularly in that it was unfair of My Damn Channel to subject Helbig to the terms of the agreement, given the major changes YouTube underwent during her time with My Damn Channel.
Other cases of dispute between MCNs and content creators deal with intellectual property ownership and ad revenue. Ray William Johnson, a well-known YouTube creator, felt like he had been exploited by Maker Studios, the multi-channel network he was signed with, in December 2012 (Johnson). Essentially, Johnson claimed that Maker was holding his Google AdSense account hostage until he would fork over the rights to content he was working on, as well as give them a larger cut from his ad revenues (Johnson). The entire ordeal resulted in a very public Internet quarrel between Ray William Johnson and Danny Zappin, CEO of Maker Studios. Maker Studios, with a push from YouTube, should have handled this issue in a more diplomatic and sensitive manner, in order to maintain the best interest of the content creator, which seems to constantly fall by the wayside.
It seems as though content creators don’t have the legal support necessary in order to make informed decisions regarding the contracts they sign. Tessa Stuart, author of “Rage Against the Machinima” likens the multi-channel network system to the exploitative entertainment industry of the 1930s and 40s (Stuart 1). She explains, “they use the lure of cash and fame to convince naïve talent to sign contracts that leave them at a disadvantage” (1). She particularly notes the case of Ben Vacas, a popular “gamer” on YouTube who, in 2007, signed a contract with Machinima (a MCN that focuses on videogaming) that contained a perpetuity clause (Stuart 1). This clause basically bound Vacas to Machinima for the rest of his life, “throughout the universe, in all forms of media now known or hereafter devised” (Stuart 1). He eventually broke his contract, made a video about it that went viral on Reddit, and sparked a chain of other creators signed with Machinima to publicly voice their issues with the network (Stuart). As a result, many of them left the network and joined “Union for Gamers”, spearheaded by Donovan Duncan, who advocated basic rights such as “same pay rate with a raise every year”, non-binding contracts, and the right to leave (Stuart 4).
A related issue that continues to plague YouTube’s content creators is the constant acquisitions and mergers of multi-channel networks. For instance, The Walt Disney Co. recently acquired Maker Studios for a sum of $500 million, with the potential of it becoming a $900 million deal (The Associated Press). The reason why these acquisitions are so problematic is because the content creators of the channels in question have absolutely no say in how they are dealt with in light of these huge changes. In acquiring a subsidiary of YouTube such as Maker Studios, Disney is “buying context data produced by users and communities, transforming users into commodities that can be sold on the market” (Petersen 6). In effect, huge corporations manage to “piggyback on user-generated content” whether the creator consents or not (Petersen 6). Maker Studios represents approximately 55,000 channels and it is unlikely that they checked with each and every one of them to have the merger approved (The Associated Press). According to an article by Variety, Maker Studios has “about 350 employees” but what about the 55,000 content creators they’re partnered with (Spangler)? It seems like they should be given a voice as well. Given these acquisitions, it is clear more than ever that “the Internet operates within the confinements of capitalism” (Petersen 3).
The fact that YouTube and its related businesses have found a way to maximize profitability to such a high degree seems to degrade the role of the content creator. It reduces them down to a commodity to be sold and traded, rather than as a person who deserves prosperity and success in his/her own right. It exploits their ideas and their creativity for the benefit of the multi-billion dollar stakeholders that precede them, and belittles the hard work and artistry they put into their videos. The irony of this entire situation is that YouTube heralds itself as democratic platform, wherein seemingly everyone is given the equal opportunity to flourish. In fact, this is proven given YouTube’s deliberate choice of the word “platform” to describe itself.
The term “platform” suggests an “open, neutral, egalitarian and progressive support for activity” (Gillespie 352). The term is compelling because it sets YouTube aside from mass media; they don’t filter and restrict content in the way a traditional media outlet would, but rather, they offer their support to anyone who wants to let their opinion heard—note their slogan “Broadcast Yourself” (Gillespie 352). As such, YouTube does not “play the role of the gate keeper or curator, it is a mere facilitator, supporter, or host” (Gillespie 353). By defining itself as a platform, YouTube can avoid liability from misuse, thereby “empowering all by choosing none” (Gillespie 357). YouTube has positioned themselves in such a way that they will never bare the brunt of the blame for issues that occur around their platform. They have further secured themselves by implementing their Content ID service, which is a program that easily allows corporations to sift through content and identify sources of copyright infringement (359). This liberates YouTube from being bound to any copyright infraction.
The website has taken many precautions to render itself untouchable and unaccountable for problems under the umbrella of copyright, but where it seems to fall short is in its inability to maintain a healthy relationship with its content creators. By focusing on their economic prosperity, they continue to alienate the ones who contribute content to their website. It has become increasingly clear that YouTube’s main focus is in commercialization. In fact, this commercialization “intensifies YouTube’s identity as an ad-friendly mediascape” (Kim 62). For YouTube, user-generated content is not as valuable as professional media content from major companies, because advertisers are less likely to approve having their ads on amateur video (Kim 64). Therefore, YouTube’s main concern is in creating a “media milieu where content and advertisement flow smoothly” (Kim 63).
Yet, YouTube executives know that UGC is popular, so their solution is to help creators generate content with higher production value, rendering them more appealing to advertisers. They opened a “YouTube Space” in Los Angeles and in London where YouTubers can use better quality equipment and pre-made sets in order to generate nicer-looking videos. These YouTube Spaces are touted as a fantastic resource for creators, but the intention behind them is entirely for moneymaking purposes on YouTube’s end. This is also where MCNs come in. MCNs offer creators technical support, thereby improving their video quality, and YouTube reaps the benefits by having a larger pool of professional-grade content to offer to their advertisers. And we mustn’t forget that MCNs also act as a “liability buffer, taking responsibility for potential copyright and other legal problems so that YouTube doesn’t have to worry about it” (Green). As Hank Green, one of YouTube’s most prolific content creators, says, “I think YouTube loves MCNs” (Green).
YouTube may love MCNs, but what happens when creators lose faith in the MCN they’re signed with? If YouTube does not put the measures in place to stop creators from leaving their network and perhaps even leaving YouTube, the website would take a major hit, so it seems to be in their best interest to offer better incentives to their content creators. As Jason Calacanis, former YouTube partner and entrepreneur notes, if YouTube fails to take the proper precautions in bettering their relationship with their partners it could lead to the website’s demise (Calacanis, “YouTube Creators’ Bill of Rights”). In fact, if competitors take note of the ways YouTube is failing, they could potentially create a new video-sharing website that could rival YouTube in a big way (Calacanis, “YouTube Creators’ Bill of Rights”). As Calacanis puts it: “One product’s weakness if frequently another startup’s starting point” (Calacanis, “YouTube Creators’ Bill of Rights”).
All that being said, where should YouTube begin if they wish to mend the rift between themselves and their creators? I have created a “Bill of Rights for YouTubers” in order to best outline our suggestions.
i)              The Right to Communicate With their Audiences
A major issue for content creators is that YouTube’s functionality is optimized for economic gain on the website’s part, instead of it being a creator-friendly way for users to interact (Calacanis, “I Ain’t Gonna”). Analytics, view-counts and statistics are helpful, but content creators cannot reach out to their subscribers unless they have a Google+ account, which is a huge setback because Google+ sucks so not many people use it. Creators need to have the option to develop personal relationships with their audience. It’s this extra step that allows YouTubers to set themselves apart from traditional media like television. The interactive element is crucial. Many creators are strengthening their presence on other social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram because YouTube is simply insufficient when it comes to non-video based interaction (Calacanis, “I Ain’t Gonna”).
It also doesn’t help that YouTube changes the layout and design of its page on a regular basis without notice. Changing the entire infrastructure of the platform without a proper trial period creates trust issues between YouTube and its creators, and could potentially drive YouTubers to part ways with the website (Calacanis, “YouTube Creators’ Bill of Rights”).
ii)            The Right to Fair Advertising Split & Controlled Ads
Although no source can outright confirm the advertising split that YouTube offers its partners, Calacanis suggest that 45% of revenues go to YouTube and 55% go to the creator (Calacanis, “I Ain’t Gonna”). This is an outrageous amount and would be a terrible business deal anywhere outside of YouTube. As such, the advertising split is completely unfair for its partners who have the opportunity to make livable wages on their videos, but have no chance of breaking even due to this 45% YouTube tax (Calacanis, “I Ain’t Gonna”). Partners are forced to take opportunities that arise outside of YouTube, like Grace Helbig becoming the face of Lowe’s, or by selling merchandise, wherein the creator reaps 100% of the profit (Calacanis, “I Ain’t Gonna”).
On another note, it is also important for YouTubers to be able to know exactly which advertisers fund them (Calacanis, “YouTube Creators’ Bill of Rights”). Correspondingly, they should have the right to accept or reject funding from any given advertiser for whatever reason—be it if they disagree with the ad for personal reasons, or if they simply do not want to be associated with a certain company. Advertisers have the ability to choose which videos their ads get placed on, and creators should be afforded the same privilege.
iii)          Right to Legal Consultation & Non-Binding Contracts
Since many content creators face legal issues, be it in terms of copyright, intellectual property, technology law, media policy, etc., they should be afforded legal consultation provided on YouTube’s behalf. If YouTube would like to keep reaping the benefits of MCNs, then content creators need to know that they have access to the necessary legal resources if they feel like they’re being exploited. Too many cases of network abuse (such as the ones aforementioned) have occurred.
Similarly, contracts with MCNs should be non-binding, allowing the creator the right to leave if they so choose to (Stuart 4). If not, contracts should not be implemented for more than 2-3 years at a time, given the ever-changing landscape of the Internet nowadays. The “unstable character” of Web 2.0 needs to be accounted for and since it evolves at such a rapid pace, contracts put in place more than 2-3 years ago could be rendered insufficient and outdated (Petersen 2). 
            All things considered, it is clear more than ever that YouTube needs to somehow resolve the hegemonic tension between individual-driven, user-generated content, and professional-led, institution-driven content (Kim 54). It is in their best interest, as well as in the best interest of the content creators. YouTube simply cannot continue to operate within such a capitalistic framework if it wishes to keep its content creators satisfied. Slowly but surely, YouTube partners are becoming unhappy with the services the website provides. Upload times are slower than ever, and creators are starting to take note of other performance issues, like the fact that they cannot respond to commenters unless they’re hooked up to Google+. YouTuber Allison Andersen tweets her annoyance: “So frustrating! I want to reply to a comment and now I feel bad for having to ‘ignore’ it!” (Andersen).
It’s clear that YouTube’s current methods and services require amendment in order to keep up with the times, and it seems like the right way forward should be to support user-generated content. The best way to proceed is to give content creators more entitlements, such as the right to communicate with their audience, the right to fair advertising split and controlled ads, and the right to legal consultation and non-binding contracts. These would be great stepping-stones for YouTube to fortify their relationship with one of their most important constituents: the content creators. If its partners feel like nothing more than a commodity exploited for economic purposes they will have no inclination to stick around, and YouTube will see that as a huge problem in the years to come.

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