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YouTube’s Hunger for Engagement May Have Been Its Downfall, Says Bloomberg

Tech

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For months, YouTube has been rocked by numerous scandals. Bloomberg’s investigation reveals that these consequences have been years in the making.

Engagement is a metric that, for a time, many of us were willing to chase in pursuit of success. We wanted eyes on our articles, and lusted after the likes, favorites, and comments that would inevitably follow. But as a scathing Bloomberg report has revealed, this chase on the part of YouTube could lead to its downfall.

The Blind Dash to One Billion

Citing a 2012 decision to institute an objective of one billion hours of viewing a day on the platform, the expose explores how the site effectively rewrote its recommendation engine toward reaching that goal – at the expense of viewer safety, and despite the warnings of several YouTube and Google employees. The result? In some of its darkest corners, it ignored growing conspiratorial tendencies, allowing them to proliferate in dangerous ways. Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen put it ominously as he wrote:

The conundrum isn’t just that videos questioning the moon landing or the efficacy of vaccines are on YouTube. The massive “library,” generated by users with little editorial oversight, is bound to have untrue nonsense. Instead, YouTube’s problem is that it allows the nonsense to flourish. And, in some cases, through its powerful artificial intelligence system, it even provides the fuel that lets it spread.

Crushing Its Creator Community

In allowing this content—be it false or incendiary—to spread, it didn’t just hurt the platform’s users, who could easily be drawn into rabbit holes of questionable content. It also had an impact on its creator community, who had long been touted as the backbone of the platform. But the rise of this sort of spurious content happened to coincide with the demonetization and periodic hiding of high-profile creators’ products. And when these two streams of content intersected on occasion, as with PewDiePie’s since-removed anti-Semitic content or Logan Paul’s highly controversial “suicide forest video,” it did even more damage to their cache of creators.

Even as the platform (rightfully) de-emphasized the role these bad actors played in their overall strategy, many mid-level creators felt abandoned as a result. Said lifestyle vlogger Carrie Crista to The Verge last year, “YouTube seems to have forgotten who made the platform what it is.” As their unique, user-generated appeal started to cause problems, she said the site “[pushed] content creators away instead of inviting them to a social platform that encourages them to be creative in a way that other platforms can’t.”

Historically, YouTube’s strategy has been to pass the buck when faced with backlash; if its creators courted controversy, they’d highlight vetted and more secure bets (like late night content, musicians, or its marquee original programming). But at this stage, there may simply be too much to overcome without an overt pivot in strategy. Their attempted push into prestige programming has been walked back twice now; YouTube Red has pivoted from an original programming arm to a premium music service, and what was to be subscription-supported programming will now be supported by ads. A site that once rocketed to stratospheric viewership, runs a risk of cratering under the weight of its own scandals.

What Will it Take to Rebound?

The challenges that YouTube faces are multi-faceted: there is a clear need to repair its reputation with advertisers who see ample reasons to flee, to rebuild relationships with their creator community, and to minimize its role (perceived and actual) in the spread of misinformation.

In some ways, they are making clear progress. When faced with overwhelming evidence of their role in incubating child pornography rings, the site promised “blunt action” to prevent the monetization and recommendation of this content.

As Ars Technica has reported, “the company has changed many of its rules and regulations around the types of content that can be monetized on the platform, who can get paid from YouTube, and what content is explicitly banned from the site.” And once-overlooked suggestions like creating a tier of videos that, while technically within the Terms of Service, should not be amplified, have since been implemented, there remains a great deal of work to be done. But their communication with and treatment of their creator community still needs to be addressed. And in a larger sense, the company’s understanding of what’s important to their survival needs to be drastically reassessed.

A particularly prickly piece of Bloomberg’s testimony notes that when scores of YouTube and Google employees previously spoke up about the cutthroat strategy to growth, they were told “don’t rock the boat.” In these increasingly stormy seas, those times have passed. Now, drastic rerouting will need to take place to keep said boat afloat.

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