YouTube has plenty of problems to deal with, ranging from advertiser boycotts to a recommendation engine often blamed for encouraging conspiracies on the video-sharing network. But rarely does it score such a spectacular own goal as it did with its 2018 year-in-review video.
That production is normally a celebration of the YouTube video creators who upload free clips — sometimes wacky, sometimes personal, sometimes offensive — that the company sells advertising against. But for “Rewind 2018 ,” the company instead opted for a narrative approach that sidelined many prominent YouTubers in favour of mainstream celebrities and an inclusive, feel-good message: “Everyone Controls Rewind.”
The snubbed YouTubers and their fans quickly retaliated with a passive-aggressive but potent protest. Within a week, “Rewind 2018” was the most unpopular video on the service, now with more than 15 million dislikes. (It still holds that title.) So intense was this dissent in the downvotes that YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki sort-of apologised for the video in February and reached out directly to at least one neglected YouTuber.
Welcome to the latest tough lesson for Google-owned YouTube as it deals with navigating the tension between its video creators and the advertisers who fuel YouTube’s profits. Their interests are sometimes at odds, especially when it comes to controversial videos – ones that millions of people might watch, but that advertisers are also wary of associating with.
YouTube is an increasingly important business for parent company Google. Executives pointed to it as a big revenue driver in the company’s latest quarterly earnings call. YouTube ad revenues grew to an estimated $9.49 billion in 2018, up 22 percent from the year before, according to eMarketer. Google doesn’t break out YouTube revenue.
But as YouTube grows, it’s easier for YouTubers themselves to feel slighted by the company’s attentiveness to advertisers. Some saw “Rewind 2018” as an effort by YouTube to present a sanitised version of itself, said Luke Majoinen, who runs the entertainment YouTube channel Joinen, which has more than 200,000 subscribers. “It’s pretty much an ad for YouTube.”
In her quarterly blog post to YouTubers, Wojcicki acknowledged that her kids found the Rewind video “cringey.”
“We hear you that it didn’t accurately show the year’s key moments, nor did it reflect the YouTube you know,” she narrated in an accompanying video as thumbs-down icons popped up on the screen. “We’ll do better to tell our story in 2019.”
In particular, the Rewind video appeared to steer clear of some popular but controversial video creators. It featured more than a dozen celebrities that used YouTube to launch their fame, as well as mainstream celebs such as Will Smith and Trevor Noah.
But it left out one of the most-followed, and most contentious, YouTube stars, PewDiePie, who briefly lost favour with YouTube two years ago after making jokes construed as anti-Semitic . It also excluded YouTuber Logan Paul, who made an infamous video in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, sometimes called the “suicide forest,” which appeared to show a dead body hanging from a tree and Paul giggling and joking about it.
So of course many YouTubers posted disappointed reaction videos. Felix Kjellberg, the Swedish man behind PewDiePie, made his own version of Rewind, which heavily featured what many thought YouTube’s video was missing – himself. (That, and memes.) It garnered more than 7 million likes.
YouTube has long dealt with tension between advertisers and creators, said eMarketer principal analyst Paul Verna. Companies that advertise know that it can be risky, he said, but it also attracts an audience that can be otherwise hard to reach.
Advertisers flexed their muscles in early 2017 and began boycotting the site until it could prevent their ads from appearing next to extremist clips promoting hate and violence. The boycott was short lived, but the resulting changes in YouTube policies and automated enforcement created lingering distrust.
Smaller boycotts have popped up since, including one this week when AT&T, Nestle and Epic Games suspended ads on YouTube while the company worked to quell inappropriate comments that sexualised children on otherwise innocuous videos.
Creators now complain that YouTube’s countermeasures results in some of their videos being improperly “demonetised,” or classified as not suitable for ads — which means they don’t earn money. YouTube didn’t respond to a request for comment on demonetisation.
YouTube’s Wojcicki, however, did respond directly to a PewDiePie video on the subject via a comment, pointing creators to an official video explaining demonetisation and noting that YouTube still promotes demonetised videos via its recommendation engine. Her comment has more than 41,000 upvotes from YouTubers.
Majoiner and other creators say they’re standing behind YouTube.
“I’m optimistic they’ll continue to work on blind spots,” said Marques Brownlee, who appeared in the Rewind video and runs a tech review YouTube channel that has 7.8 million followers. His own reaction video to Rewind also noted its advertiser-friendliness.
YouTubers still need YouTube. Although there are other options – Snapchat, and an increasingly competitive Instagram – it’s still the first place viewers turn to watch videos. And it’s the most viable way to make money, Majoiner said.
YouTube needs its creators, too. It makes some of its own content, but the vast majority of its videos are contributed by YouTubers.
There is good news for one artist in all this – Justin Bieber no longer has the most disliked video, a title he previously held for the music video of his song “Baby.”