YouTube: The economic logic behind “Broadcast Yourself”

YouTube is one of the biggest showcases of the “participatory ideology” that permeates dominant discourses on the internet: now anyone has the chance to become famous with just a camera, some talent, and a bit of luck. However, significant transformations in the last decade, including the elimination of “Broadcast Yourself” from YouTube’s logo, give us reasons to reflect on the logic of capital accumulation that is–and always has been–behind this and other online platforms.

In fact, YouTube has provided an essential service by allowing users to easily upload, share, and browse videos across the internet, as well as to create their own personal network. While this may signal that YouTube is a “neutral” outlet for content, or a culturally committed space, it is not the case. On the contrary, YouTube is a capitalist business in which economic interests may overcome any cultural concerns.

This is revealed by YouTube’s own process of creation as a classical start-up company in 2005. First, its founders (three early commerce pioneers of PayPal) identified an economic opportunity and attracted private funding from Sequoia Capital (which has also invested in Google, Apple, Oracle, etc.) to accelerate the company’s rapid growth. Then, one year later, after having reached the daily mark of 65,000 new subscribers and 100 million views, it was sold to Google for U$ 1.65 billion. “There is no evidence that YouTube was, at any point in its history, an underdetermined space without commercial purpose”, argues one of the reference scholars in YouTube studies, Patrick Vonderau. [1]

The document submitted by its developers to attract venture capital already included the commercial proposal and growth strategies based on advertising sales, access to paid content, and distribution of traditional media content. User-generated content was just the best strategy to begin the company. “Initially, YouTube will target home-grown (user-generated) video content, because in the short term that represents the fastest-growing type of video content, possessing the fastest-growing audience. This phase will enable YouTube to stablish itself as the dominant player for Internet video content. Once YouTube’s audience reach rivals of traditional media networks, it will then be positioned to syndicate traditional media content (news, entertainment, MTV, etc.) as well”, the founders describe in the document [2].

It was already expected that professional content creators and traditional media would want to enter this space to follow the audience, and to take advantage of a cheaper and easier way to distribute content. The problem nowadays is that YouTube seems to privilege corporate partners over users.

Towards advertiser-friendly content

Some scholars have understood such transition as a “content-professionalization” tendency aiming to increase advertiser-friendly content. Let me explain the reasons. Advertisement is the major YouTube’s revenue source. When a channel’s owner enables a video for monetization, YouTube retains 45 % of its advertising earnings. The point is that the ad is not attached to specific videos, but to the viewer’s profile—based on surveillance of users’ browsing behavior and personal data across the entire internet. For example, if you match a profile defined by a brand of shampoo, that company’s ad will be presented to you in any video you open on YouTube. But advertisers do not want to run the risk of their ad being attached to all kinds of amateur content. That is why YouTube has made efforts to increase content that pleases advertisers. One obvious path has been to satisfy corporate partners by distributing fairly traditional mainstream media content with a smooth transition between entertainment and advertising. But YouTube has also invested in the opposite: amateurish-looking, but professionally created videos.  To boost the increase in quality standard, and being aware that users want to profit from their activities on the platform, YouTube this year established that only channels with at least 10,000 public views can be part of the partnership program. To lend a hand in reaching these numbers, it offers a training program for users, a kind of career plan: the more viewers creators reach, the more learning resources are made available in their profile.

Audience’s protagonism: From content to data

Only a small part of the audience becomes important providers of YouTube’s content, content that is needed for attracting advertising. These users are especially those who receive professional assistance for creating content. Multi-Channel Networks (MCN) are examples of intermediate companies that offer help in the professionalization of channels, in exchange for a share of their revenues. Alongside YouTube’s tools, such networks are a powerful means to standardize production input and have organized the flow of the most-viewed and most-subscribed-to content on YouTube.  Who are the ones behind such companies? Warner, Disney, DreamWorks, AT&T, and so on—which means a clear renewal of control by large media corporations also on the internet. In general, this context can suggest that audience’s protagonism means less in the production of content (the one which made the platform grow), and much more in the production of data (based on surveillance). It is important to highlight that all users can be considered YouTube workers. By liking, commenting, sharing or posting new content, users are building YouTube’s environment and database. Then, holding this monopoly, YouTube can charge advertisers that want to have access to its highly targeted audience attention. Although YouTube has begun to produce its own content, it mostly remains an empty platform filled by creators taking the risk and costs of production. The logic of these new forms of capital accumulation on the internet is based on meeting interests between users (who look for tools to be part of the spectacle society and the online market) and media corporations (that enable participation in order to monetize it). If users’ social practices legitimize these capitalist platforms, it is possible to believe that they can also build a new alternative—one that is closer to the democratic idea of the internet that inhabits our common sense. In this sense, critically unravelling the current logic seems to be a necessary step toward change.

 

[1] “The video bubble: Multichannel network and the transformation of YouTube” (p. 363).

[2] “YouTube” company presentation IN: Viacom International vs. YouTube, Inc. Doc 194: Declaration of Roelof Botha (exhibit 1) https://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/new-york/nysdce/1:2007cv02103/302164/194.

Editorial assistance: Denise Rose Hansen


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