A Weird Time for YouTube

I like to consider YouTube like an old friend. Reliable and constant, I have always been able to fall back on YouTube at any time of the day for a few minutes away. The site holds a special place in my little millennial heart, because I grew up having YouTube in my life. I recall inviting my friends over for sleepovers only to spend all night long watching random video after random video. Perhaps it was the diverse content that just seemed to go on for forever, but YouTube was my first impressionable look into the fully digital age– and I ate it up. The way I could lay back and type anything I wanted into the search bar to obtain a laugh, a tip or an escape. It delighted me. It was this whole new entertainment medium outside of television, books and movies that was at the creative mercy of the people around us. Often unedited and completely off the cuff, there weren’t any gimmicks with YouTube.

While my love for YouTube is as strong as ever, a lot has changed since then. It’s important to recognize that the rise of YouTube began with kids just like me. People were flocking to the site by the millions to watch videos of someone singing off key, dancing terribly or screaming into a shaky handheld camera. YouTube abolished niche and invented the term viral. Suddenly, everyone was seeing the same whacky content. It was a place where the weird could flourish.

And very rapidly, YouTube was a place where the weird could become successful. Fortunately for creators, no good idea stays free for long. Trending YouTubers began being compensated for the traffic to their videos by AdSense, which essentially makes each video an advertising space. And this, in my opinion, was the downfall of YouTube.

I’m not mad that content creators are being compensated. Monetization of videos rewards content creators who passionately upload to their channel. YouTube has launched the careers of aspiring musical artists, filmmakers, actors, radio personalities and even gaming experts. While YouTube has provided an excellent outlet for the creatively inclined, AdSense has also taken the integrity completely out of the hobby. It would be naïve of me to think that the business of YouTube hasn’t changed motivation for creation.

This is not to say that the quality of the content is poor. Quite the opposite. YouTubers are now capable of buying filming equipment comparable to major movie studios to film makeup tutorials. On top of that, YouTubers are cashing checks comparable to major movie stars. Their extreme popularity opens up the opportunity for expensive filming locations and celebrity appearances. YouTube video production quality is so high that these things are merely common place. Content creators are celebrities in their own right.

And none of this would bother me if it didn’t compromise the meat and potatoes of the videos. YouTube’s professional model has become bogged down with formula. We now have to sit through unnecessary introductions of videos, basically telling us what we’re about to watch for three minutes. Then we have to weave through the sponsorships and brand deals YouTubers make. I have no qualms with people who partner skillfully with companies, but it’s becoming painstakingly clear that creators do not care about the content that represents them. Videos have become commission rather than passion.

On top of that, the celebrity status of popular YouTubers has created a bizarre hyperawareness in videos. Often creators make videos addressing hate comments they receive or “scandals” within the YouTube community. There are literally channels on YouTube dedicated to reporting drama between YouTubers. YouTube has become its own   concentrated sect of Hollywood, affording regular people the pressures of A-list celebrities. Top YouTubers are poster children for the modern day Cinderella story; where a camera and an empty bedroom can turn into superstardom. This model, albeit life-changing and totally insane, is not exactly complicated anymore. Once the code was cracked, people figured out they could turn YouTube into a career on a post-and-earn basis. AdSense has pushed what was once a band of losers’ creative outlet into another social media where the popular kids thrive. The result is content that is progressively more reductive and uninteresting.

In a fateful turn of events, it turns out this business model has morphed into working against content creators. Originally, it seemed that YouTubers were able to reward advertisers with a steady amount of recognition. Videos that gained traction were supported by advertisers—companies depended on the creators. But the current self-awareness within the site calls for corporate control of YouTubers and their channels. AdSense has since strategized “ad-friendly” content, which extends advertising benefits to videos that follow strict guidelines. This means that YouTubers who produce content outside of these guidelines—which is anything beyond G-rated—are not rewarded for the traffic to their videos. These guidelines exclude videos with sexual content, any explicit language, or subject matter that is slightly to the left of appropriate. This means trouble for several YouTubers who make money off of candid and uncensored conversation with primarily younger audiences.

This has left plenty of YouTubers up in arms. I have scrolled through a dozen or more videos by YouTubers with subscriber counts well into the hundred-thousands that beg for viewers to begin donating for their content. Many plead that they simply cannot make a living off of their channel anymore. Granted, having your livelihood taken away is miserable in any circumstance. The principle of running your own business takes discipline and those rules apply for those who own YouTube channels. Because they are providing an entertainment service to us, the audience, their compensation only makes sense. But I can’t help but see this so-called “YouTube crisis” finally putting the website in check. YouTubers’ popularity have superseded themselves to the point where they are running a brand and not a channel of videos — a far cry from the simple desire to share your creative content with the world back in the early 2000’s. This kind of cut back in earnings asks the question: Would you do it without the money?

I remember being so inspired by YouTubers like Shane Dawson and Jenna Marbles as a middle schooler. The way they set up comedy sketches in their kitchens, drew on beards with eyeshadow and made corny, over edited jokes. The underproduction of it all resonated with my interest in amateur filmmaking. Just like them, I acted an idiot in front of a small camcorder over the weekends with my friends. Now, a persons’ online presence is expected. I think we know by now the impact of media sharing over the last few years, as basically everything we do is online somewhere. But those early years of YouTube stick out to me because they weren’t airbrushed, backlit or driven by revenue streams. YouTube was for us all.

The video that arguably put YouTube on the map is the undisputed “Leave Britney Alone” rant made by Chris Crocker in 2007. Everybody and Maury Povich found sick pleasure in watching a mascara-stained Crocker beg for mercy on behalf of his favorite popstar. Possibly the first meme ever, “Leave Britney Alone” is the crown jewel of YouTube videos. Everything about that video is quintessential internet humor, and the shock value of one person’s rage was sadistically delicious. Perhaps the newness of YouTube has worn off, but the novelty of such videos is almost obsolete now. We may never get a video like “Leave Britney Alone” again.

That is, of course, is you are not subscribed to Trisha Paytas. If you are unaware, Trish is a former stripper/escort turned professional YouTuber. Upwards of 2 millions subscribers, Trisha’s video repertoire includes eating shows, sex toy reviews, trolling videos, shopping hauls and ugly crying rants. She’s the only person on YouTube that can livestream her dramatic breakup and upload 13 minutes of eating mac and cheese in the same weekend. Covering everything from mental health to hookups, Trish documents quite literally every day of her life on YouTube.

And while I consider Trish the queen of YouTube, there’s no denying she’s batshit insane. The botched lip injections, drunken vlogs, cringe-worthy moments– but it’s all just right. Trisha’s YouTube channel harkens back to that Chris Crocker time on YouTube when videos were bizarre, tragic, awesome and just real. You can’t believe what you’re seeing and that’s what brought you to YouTube.

Personally, I know Trisha Paytas is problematic. She’s been racist and homophobic, trolled feminists and Catholics, pissed off Vegans and WWE fans (she name dropped a wrestler she slept with recently). Trish is offensive, loud-mouthed, sexual and emotional. She’s admitted to lying on her channel and has contradicted herself countless times. Plenty of people hate Trisha and consider her content to be just pointless. And in a sense, it is without direction. But at least I’m not bored.

When I leave a movie theater, I want to feel like I’ve seen the best movie of my life. When I go to a concert, I want to hear the best music I’ve ever heard. When I log onto YouTube, I want the best the internet has to offer. And in many cases, “best” can mean anything I want it to. The internet is this colorful orgasm of thoughts, images and ideas. But rather than staying a beautiful mess, YouTube has corroded this online experience. After watching the same “Get Ready With Me!” or “1000 degree knife!” or “Crazy Uber Driver!” video a dozen times, I feel like I’m going through the motions of being entertained. Where are the poorly-lit bathrooms? The personality? Where is the honest desire to just share your voice with the world?

The AdSense debacle will hardly effect some YouTubers. Because their brand deals and endorsements are so lucrative, the ad money from their videos is a mere added bonus for top content creators. Popular YouTubers are also selling merchandise, have brands of their own, making appearances and touring as other forms of income. The YouTuber brand has amounted to more than any of them could have imagined, I’m sure. YouTube itself has grown into this media supergiant. With ventures like YouTube Red producing successful films and series, the website has put the entertainment industry into expansion. As someone who prides herself in the triumphs of the digital age, I’m happy for YouTube. I feel like I’ve been on the same journey with YouTubers who have been making videos all this time. In a silly way, it’s like I’ve made friends with these people. I turned to them when I felt defeated, tired, in need of a chuckle.

I want to continue this type of attitude toward YouTube. I’m not hopeful about the direction the website is headed. And a lot of my disdain comes from the viewers as much as it does the content. Even with messages of love and acceptance everywhere you turn, comment sections of videos are ruthless. I can’t put my finger on why, but perhaps since YouTube isn’t just for weirdos anymore, the outside world has weaved its way in. What was once a safe haven of expression has turned into a global stage, where both love and hate exist.

Creators are mad about recent YouTube censorship, but the real censorship begins at the record button. Every day YouTubers apologize for misspeaking or offending their audiences. They have to watch what they say like any public figure would. Increasingly, fame erases the voice of the YouTuber. To me, that goes against everything YouTube was originally created for. YouTube was for the irreverent kids, just like you and me, with a random message and a camera. Those videos are still out there, mind you. You just have to dig a little.