YouTube is failing its creators

YouTube is failing its creators

September 21, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan

For the last few years, YouTube has been suffering a burnout epidemic. Top YouTubers feel compelled to make nonstop videos for an ever-hungry audience, afraid to take breaks for fear of losing momentum, or worse, being reprimanded by the algorithm that decides what videos people see. While the company claims to want to alleviate burnout on the platform, most of its “help” has amounted to empty PR and unhelpful data.

In short, the platform’s lifeblood is suffering, and YouTube’s response to the crisis has been terrible.

Making a living as a YouTuber isn’t easy: videos are a time-consuming endeavor, and many creators like to handle every aspect of production by themselves. And because the product isn’t simply footage, but a personality, as well, it is not enough to simply create a compelling video. YouTubers have to create a sense of upbeat intimacy that makes viewers feel like their friends, and the emotional labor of always having to be “on” makes creators feel like they have to flatten their humanity to make it on the platform. Once a video is up, creators are expected to continue to engage viewers via comments, social media, live streams, and more — only to start the process all over again the next day, and the next day, and the next.

Beyond the taxing nature of producing content, YouTubers are at the mercy of a platform they do not fully understand. Sometimes, videos will explode on the platform, but more often than not, they’ll be demonetized, or won’t be surfaced to the subscribers who want to see them, meaning that a YouTuber might go through a lot of painstaking work just to end up dead on arrival. All the while, YouTubers often feel like they have little room to complain about a system that has made them well-compensated micro-celebrities: after all, shouldn’t they feel lucky to have an opportunity others would kill for? No wonder, then, that everyone from PewDiePie to H3H3 Productions have publicly fallen prey to, or are on the brink of, burnout.

YouTube is well aware this is a problem — it seems to come up every month as more creators are affected by the issue. As the company sees it, though, much of this problem comes down to misconception. Creators feel that they can’t take a break because they believe the platform favors steady, ongoing uploads, but YouTube itself disputes that this is the case. In a video uploaded last week to Creator Insider, a channel hosted by YouTube’s tech team that provides a weekly insight into all matters YouTube, the video giant attempted to dispel the inability to take a break as a myth.

“There’s tons of channels on YouTube that don’t publish daily, or even every week,” says a YouTube product manager who is referenced only as “Todd” in the video. “We’ve talked about Lucas the Spider, one of our favorites — usually publishes, like, once a month, gets 10 million views on videos that are like 30 seconds long. It’s like a triple myth-buster — short videos, not frequently uploaded.”

Todd goes on to say that a channel like Lucas the Spider’s proves that there’s “no single pattern” that leads to success on YouTube, so creators should stop thinking in those terms.

“It really comes down to the content and whether you’re engaging the audience,” he continues. “Some formats work well if you’re checking in every day and the audience checks in every day — but that’s certainly not a requirement. And we don’t have any rules in our system that say, ‘oh well, let’s look at how often this channel is uploading and give it a boost,’ or anything like that. Upload what makes sense for your audience, and don’t worry about the rest.”

Apparently, YouTube surveyed hundreds of channels that took a two-week break and found that most of them came back to more views in their return week than in the week they left. All of this is used as evidence that audiences will continue to be there if they care about the content creator, and that YouTube does not punish anyone for taking a break.

It’s hard to imagine YouTube would lie about this, but at the same time, there are so many unknowns here that don’t really address the root of YouTubers’ worries. Can a channel that uploads only once a month actually make a living off of that? Are the higher views on a returning week from vacation significant enough to make up for taking a break — and if not, how much of a hit should one expect to take?

Creator Insider is a small channel that doesn’t get very many views, making YouTube’s attempt to set the record straight fall short. Why relegate such important information to a place where hardly anyone will see it? This might explain why YouTube’s Robert Kyncl went on the record a week later with Caspar, a YouTuber with 7.1 million subscribers, about the platform’s ongoing burnout debacle (among other things). In the interview, Kyncl reiterates that YouTube is aware of what’s going on, and that even YouTube employees feel a lot of the same pressure that YouTubers do — but that, ultimately, creators shouldn’t feel like they can’t take a break.

“We as a company focus on [burnout] quite a lot,” Kyncl says. “We spend a lot of time on that topic. It’s actually great when creators talk about it. If there’s no awareness, nobody is gonna feel okay to take a break or recharge. I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions around, If I take a break, then the algorithm punishes me, and I’m forever lost on YouTube. Well, if that was true, how could the new guy get up so fast? You do have greater power, and if you know how to find your audience — which you have found once — then you will find it again, even if you take a break for a month, three months, six months.”

Kyncl’s assertion that new channels find massive success in short periods of time is true, we’ve seen it happen firsthand with creators like the Paul brothers. And yet, much of the mental health onus is put on the creators to “raise awareness” for their audiences, a task that is difficult in and of itself. Admitting that you’re human, you have limits, and need a break takes a lot of courage, let alone admitting that you need help with your mental health. Most creators who show that kind of vulnerability often have to be pushed to their breaking point, where they have no choice but to talk about the thing eating them alive.

YouTube, as a platform, is doing virtually nothing to create a culture that makes creators feel safe enough to take a break, or to create audiences who don’t expect a constant stream of content. After all, when you finish a video, the platform automatically starts loading a new one. YouTube can’t say that it cares about its creators’ wellness while also treating consumption as king. There’s a reason that tech companies like Apple and Facebook are devoting attention to concepts like “time well spent.”

When YouTubers’ videos fail, having access to hyper-specific metrics like when and where people stop watching makes it easy for them to obsess over numbers that have virtually no context. The data does little more than make YouTube feel like a system that could be gamified if you just knew the right combination of factors. There’s a reason why, at many media publications, editors don’t let their writers see how their articles perform: it makes people focus on the wrong things, rather than producing the best possible work.

Earlier this week, YouTube’s director of gaming content and partnerships Ryan Wyatt told Polygon that YouTube should be a “thought leader” in this space, and that his team spends a lot of time talking about the issue. YouTube takes burnout “very seriously,” Wyatt says, but there are also some steps that creators can take to help alleviate the problem.

“If they get bigger, can they have editors help support them and as they scale, look at themselves as more of a business than an individual contributor?” he suggests. He also points to YouTube’s community tab as a tool that creators can use to engage with fans without uploading new content every day.

But the problem isn’t uploading — not really. The problem is that YouTubers can’t take a break, and any engagement with their audiences, in any form, exacerbates the problem. Wyatt does say that YouTube is interested in being more transparent about things like monetization to help audiences understand how the platform works, but it’s galling that YouTube still appears to be in the brainstorming stage with all of this. PewDiePie expressed issues with burnout back in 2016 — YouTube’s biggest creator broke down as he explained that he needed to take a break from daily uploads, because it was too much at the time. Two years ago. How are we still having this conversation?

Pewdiepie in 2016, tearing up as he explains why he has to stop daily uploads during a stressful period in his life.
Photo: Pewdiepie

While YouTube routinely encourages people to take a vacation, just telling people they can take a break whenever doesn’t really work — traditional employers have found that offering vague unlimited time off for employees backfires. People don’t know how much time is okay to take off, or they’re afraid of seeming like they’re taking advantage of the policy.

It’s also worth remembering that YouTubers are all freelancers, so unlike workers, they don’t have health benefits or the security of paid time off. YouTubers literally have nothing and no one to help gauge their decision on when to take a break, let alone how much time; in the end, no one at YouTube is going to be affected one way or the other. More specifically, they operate under the same gig economy as Uber and Postmates, where much of the cost is offloaded to the worker — except in this case, the wear and tear of the job doesn’t fall on a vehicle, it falls on an actual human being. If a creator is making a decent amount of their income from YouTube, whatever time they do take off directly impacts their bottom line.

The combined pressures of financial and emotional obligation, lack of institutional clarity, and obsession-friendly metrics make it nearly impossible for YouTubers to extricate themselves from the content-production cycle. Streaming and vlogging careers on YouTube and Twitch are new enough that we can’t yet see how sustainable they truly are in the long term, but right now, prospects look grim.

Much of this comes down to mental health, and that’s something that YouTube is poorly equipped to tackle. Standard workplaces can offer human resources that can guide people toward prospective therapists, counselors, and psychiatrists, and if you’re lucky, you might have bosses who look out for you to make sure you have a good work environment and practices, such as getting offline when you’re not actually slated to work. If you work for a particularly swanky yet high-stress place, your work might even provide its own in-house psychiatrist.

YouTube’s equivalent of this appears to be a series of videos on their Creators channel in which licensed therapist Kati Morton discusses burnout. Morton outlines the kinds of signs to look out for, and gives some advice regarding how to take take breaks and set boundaries to recharge. It’s a neat idea, but the videos come off as 101 forays into complex subjects — and therapy works best when it’s a personalized back and forth. Moreover, if you’re in the middle of burnout, it can take a long time to wade out of it as you work through the specific behaviors and choices that got you into that spot in the first place. Short introductory videos can’t fulfill the function that creators actually need to combat burnout — and if they could, they’re being relegated to a channel where the videos are hardly being watched by anyone.

If YouTube says that YouTubers are a major part of the brand, then arguably YouTube hold some responsibility for the health and well-being of its biggest ambassadors. Given that some of its most visible creators continue to burn out, it’s clear that YouTube isn’t doing enough to combat this problem. Asking YouTube to do more almost seems like too much to ask in our gig-based world, where everyone is left to fend for themselves, but at some point, the needs of human beings have to come before the profits of corporations, especially if those human beings are creating the value in the first place.

Part of what makes this so thorny is that YouTube has to tackle something much bigger than videos, social media, or even tech. Culturally, we are ingrained with the sense that we are only worth as much as we work and produce, and that reality hits creative fields particularly hard. When you can constantly see your peers producing work, and when the news cycle moves at blazing speed, everyone feels pressure to make more, and as fast as possible — this is true whether you’re a YouTuber, an artist, or a journalist. (I’m not a YouTuber, but even I feel the pressure to make daily popular content.) I have no doubt that YouTube could fundamentally change the way its platform works, and creators would still struggle with the idea that they need to be making things every day to feel relevant. How do you change such a pervasive culture?

Fixing burnout is no easy task, and YouTube can’t be expected to solve it with a snap of a finger. But if the company is already willing to provide tangible resources for creators, such as physical studios where creators can record, then YouTube should also do more to provide tangible resources to make sure its creators stay healthy. Web pages, short videos, and sound bites alone aren’t cutting it.

Unfortunately, as much as YouTube might say that burnout worries them, as a company, it has little incentive to fix the problem — which is why we’re still talking about this years after PewDiePie’s first cry for help. Sure, it’s bad PR, but at the end of the day, YouTube is not starving for new talent. There’s always another hungry young creator who will find a way to pull in millions of views; there’s always another personality who hasn’t been eaten alive by the system yet. But human beings are not disposable, and it’s time YouTube started acting like it.

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