YouTube, Digital Work, and the Future of Art

Media giants are utilising sophisticated algorithms to generate more user-friendly content, and in the process profoundly changing culture.

Traditionally, art has been best produced from the bottom up. Great artists are able to formulate expressions from a perspective outside of the prevailing norms, unbridled by the rigid status quo of contemporary society. There then comes a point when these artworks are valued enough — either culturally or monetarily — that they are appropriated for the purposes of accumulating capital. Managers of capital are best at reproducing and mass marketing trends originating from critical artists, but are unable to generate the creativity themselves.

These managers of capital, especially through film studios and television networks, have dictated much of the direction of popular culture over the past century. The scope of political and ethical views are all narrowed to reflect what these actors believe the prevailing opinions of society are or ought to be. But times are changing. Increasingly, it is not through polls, focus groups and screen testings that social temperatures are taken; but through computational software that collect billions of data points to automatically generate an image of what both individual and collectively, users enjoy.

One of the companies that has been at the forefront of this technology has been YouTube, which has over the past decade and a half become an online entertainment juggernaut. Behind Facebook, YouTube is the most popular social networking platform in the world. The website boasts over two billion user visits each month, and through pioneering algorithms is able to keep its users consuming a staggering one billion hours of video each day in a market where attention is currency.

This has translated into US$20 billion in revenue in 2019, with the company valued at US$160 billion (higher than IBM or Disney), galaxies away from the US$1.65 billion Google paid to acquire the company in 2005. YouTube’s evolution and the techniques used to propel its meteoric rise tell us a story about the new age of consumption, production, socialisation and culture.

Idealistic Beginnings

Much like early Internet utopianism, YouTube was first conceived of and viewed as an emancipatory tool. It allowed freedom of expression and the empowering of online communities. A platform to harness the power of mass media but for amateur content creators in an emerging ‘participatory culture’. This, it was hoped, would lead to the fragmentation of media oligopolies, democratising and decentralising media content in the process.

From small beginnings as a tech start-up formed by ex-PayPal employees, YouTube was acquired by Google in 2005, from which point the platform quickly became a target for media conglomerates chasing copyright royalties and revenue shares. The following few years would see a backlash from YouTube’s early adopters and organic community who opposed the creeping control of big media companies and corporate interests. 

“In participatory culture, media businesses’ capacity to produce value relies on the support of co-creative users … platform providers like YouTube are no longer only in the ‘media’ business; they are also in the social network business.”

(Burgess and Green, 2018: 14)

YouTube’s structure has been reluctant to develop features which enhance community-oriented features. It has instead developed towards the priorities of scaling and mass-consumerism, which has alienated early users from the community-spirited ethos characteristic it once had. This signalled a shift from ‘user-generated content’ to ‘professionally generated content’, which was driven increasingly towards attracting corporate sponsorship and maximising ad-space value. This shift went some way to resolving the tension since Google’s acquisition between YouTube as a broadcaster and YouTube as a social space. This has created ‘prosumers’ — those who both produce and consume content — who participate in the market of the attention economy. For YouTube, the key metric in this market is viewing duration and the platform must adequately incentivise the production of desirable content.

User-generated labor — both the content uploaded to the website as well as the data which users generate through consumption — is at the core of YouTube’s business model. In this way, YouTube has become a tool of capital domination and exploitative innovation for labour practices.

“…a short history of YouTube repeats the history of the internet. YouTube has evolved from personal to public to commercial.”

(Kim, 2012: 65)

The theme of emancipation present at YouTube’s inception is still invoked, but now to highlight the lucrative financial opportunities available through production on the website. YouTube ‘creators’ have access to comprehensive analytics to boost their viewership and engagement, a Creator Academy‘ complete with online courses for subjects such as ‘content strategy’ and ‘channel optimization’; as well as a Partner Program which allows eligible channels to monetise their videos. This offers amateur producers the opportunity to build an income stream and career through developing skills designed to enhance the quality of their content.

As with gig economy platforms like Uber, Deliveroo and Fiverr, the centralisation and connectivity between consumer and producer is incredibly lucrative. It also shifts liability almost entirely onto the individual under the pretence of entrepreneurialism and flexible work.

Capital accumulation and micro-celebrity managers

YouTube works by ‘capitalising on cultural consumption’ in a ‘social factory’ which sells screen time to advertisers. The enjoyment of entertainment has become ‘digital work’ and fused activities of production and recreation.

Sharing in YouTube’s growing income and global reach, successful YouTube creators have been catapulted into wealth, with top stars earning an estimated $20 to $30 million in 2020 alone. Some have even transitioned into mainstream celebrities — names like Jake and Logan Paul, KSI, and PewDiePie. Along with ‘reaction videos’ and video game gameplay, ‘vlogging’ (video blogging) has become a widely adopted format to transform a subscriber base into consistent income. The technique and styles used aim to present an authentic and personal relationship with the audience, in contrast to conventional celebrity culture.

Vlogging creates ‘micro-celebrities’ who produce specialised content centred around their personality. These techniques, when coupled with attractive personalities, have also been successful in attracting viewers to reactionary and extremist content. Social anxiety has been found to be a predictor of ‘parasocial’ (asymmetrical and non-reciprocal) relationships with YouTubers and YouTube addiction. This power dynamic is in part why channel owners can be viewed as managers who transform their viewer base into earnings, adopting a range of strategies to maintain and increase viewership and audience engagement (Postigo, 2018: 13-4).

A battleground for capital, visibility and cultural reproduction

It appears that YouTube, despite all of its emancipatory rhetoric, is simply replacing traditional media formats of television and film with an online alternative. And much like these formats, YouTube’s power to suspend, demonatise or permanently ban channels it deems inappropriate is absolute. Content deemed to be violating its Partner Program guidelines is censored and controlled. This reproduces the editorial power of television networks to cancel programs or limit funding to shape the kind of content produced.

In addition to these formal controls, there are informal forces of the YouTube sub-culture influencing content. Controversy, hostility and drama between content creators is so common that a profitable industry of commentary channels have attracted audiences in the millions. ‘DramaAlert‘ and ‘Phillip DeFranco‘, who boast a combined eleven million subscribers, are typical of the genre. They mix entertainment news with opinion and social commentary to mimic the style of gossip magazines. Much of this industry has evolved into a kind of interactive tabloid magazine where content, relationships and the behaviour of celebrities are endlessly dissected with exclusive interviews, breaking news, and tell-alls. Again, this mirrors the development of television programs and confirms the power of advertising to direct art forms into standardised formats.

Many of these stars, emerging in the last half-decade or so, were able to convert their personal brands into large income streams. In early 2017 however, YouTube creators were harshly reminded of their role as effectively independent workers for YouTube. In response to reports that advertisements were enabling the monetisation of extremist content, hundreds of large advertisers threatened to boycott YouTube. To reassure advertisers, YouTube responded emphatically. Temporary measures — which were later institutionalised as permanent policies — restricted eligibility for content monetisation, expanded content moderation, and extended control for advertisers over what categories of content they could select as suitable. Because of the broad and loosely defined categories used to target potentially non ad-friendly content, many YouTube channels which spoke about, commentated on, or referred to controversial content were also negatively impacted by the policy changes.

These sweeping changes, known popularly as the ‘Adpocalypse’, were partly triggered by backlash from a video where PewDiePie — one of YouTuber’s biggest creators — used the website Fiverr to hire men to display controversial messages to the camera. This incident, on top of previous reports that terrorist groups were using YouTube to promote terrorism, was the breaking point for advertisers already concerned with the compatibility of loosely moderated content and global brands.

All hail the mighty algorithm

More importantly though, the Adpocalypse and the effects of advertising selectivity on YouTube reflects the power of algorithmic moderation on the labour of YouTube creators. YouTube’s algorithmic selection also has a strong influence over the kind of content that is produced. For advertisers, YouTube offers the option to automatically select suitable content based on its own categorising system.

The algorithm rewards channels which establish themselves with one type of content and do not deviate from it, especially personality driven channels. Because of this, stereotypes and societal roles are reinforced by Youtube’s algorithm. ‘Self-optimization’, which is necessary for creators to succeed, involves perpetuating conventional conceptions of gender, identity and societal dynamics.. Although there is a potential for content creators to challenge dominant societal stereotypes and roles, radical voices are constrained by the necessity of crating ad-friendly content to gain views and earn revenue..

This demonstrates the power of algorithms to govern and shape individual’s behaviour, both the interaction with social media platforms and interactions with one another. For example, the ‘threat of invisibility’ of Facebook’s algorithm incentivises and rewardscertain behaviours and interactions. A reality is presented in which other users are abiding by this ruleset, which generates levels of desirable content. Those who are ‘selected by the algorithm’ are those who most conform to the characteristics determined by the algorithm as desirable, crushing the capacity for authentic, original, or radical content to emerge.

More tangible than Facebook and YouTube’s invisible algorithms, Netflix’s entry into the film and television market as a financial backer is ominous. It presents the possibility that culture — through the production of art and expression — is generated and shaped by non-human creators. ‘Algorithmic culture’ is produced by algorithms analysing user-data and predicting elements required for successful ventures. Because the algorithms implemented by social networking companies are somewhat removed from human intervention, their role in classifying and ranking interactions and content is worrying.

Up until very recently in human history culture has been a mixture of mother nature, feelings, interactions, beliefs, languages, events, history, and randomness. This messy mixing bowl is what most of us hold as valuable in life. It determines our emotional and aesthetic experience, our relationships and our commonality. 

But this human condition is becoming an algorithmic condition which less and less of us are involved in. When we are detached from pre-capitalist culture we become more effective consumers, conditioned and calculated to boost online entertainment revenue. The shared experiences become media developed by investment funds and algorithms. Value in life becomes synonymous with economic value. The capacity for human inspiration is diluted, restricted by the oppressive fusion of marketisation and technology. And our common references and interpersonal interactions are mediated by a culture entirely shaped by the power of capital.


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