The Advent of the Adpocalypse

By Izzy Davis (PO ’22)

In its burgeoning state, YouTube was characterized as the “wild-west” of online video, known for everything from anthropomorphized oranges to viral videos of people eating spoonfuls of cinnamon, with no shortage of controversial content. While a romanticized view of the democratic free-for-all that was once YouTube, the stark difference between the site in its infancy compared to now demonstrates its corporate shift to undemocratic values that lead to the 2017 monetization system upheaval—coined the “Adpocalypse.”

In the early days of YouTube, the monetization algorithm was straightforward— creators who garnered enough views and subscribers were eligible to become a “YouTube Partner” and gain an income through ad-rolls on their videos.  This system was not based on the content of the videos, rather their popularity and mass appeal, reinforcing a democratic system where the viewer-base decides what type of content is incentivized. 

In the spring of 2017, a massive advertiser boycott, later deemed the “YouTube Adpocalypse” hit the site. The impetus for the event was a wide-scale exposure of controversial content—videos featuring adult language, overtly sexual content, displays of violence—that had advertisements run, sometimes several times, before and during the videos. As companies had no control over the types of videos their ads were featured on, they left the site in droves after discovering that their brands were being associated with controversial content.

In a matter of days, influential companies like Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Verizon, who were the financial cornerstone of the site, backed out of their partnerships with YouTube.  Facing a massive decline in its revenue stream, YouTube leadership quickly responded by developing a new monetization system. Under this, YouTube creators who previously were able to qualify for monetization solely based on viewership would be assessed by the site. With YouTube stating that: “[creators] will be automatically re-evaluated under strict criteria to ensure they comply with our policies” and “every video submitted for Google Preferred ads must be approved as family-friendly content.”  

Under the new system, an algorithm flags videos for what YouTube deems unfriendly to advertisers, and will consequently demonetize the content. Though it is reasonable to remove ads from particularly graphic depictions of violence or videos spouting hate speech, the demonetization algorithm has impacted more moderate content, like news commentary or comedy channels. These videos are widely popular and well-received by the general viewership, yet their monetization status doesn’t reflect that. As a result, the structure of the monetization system transitioned to favoring the opinions of paying advertisers over content deemed popular by viewers. 

It could be argued, that this viewer centric perspective blinds individuals to alternate forms of YouTube’s user base—with advertisers able to “use” the site to further their brand. When their brand name is attached to a certain type of content, it is in concordance with democracy to allow them to have a say in what their company is associated with. After all, a democratic YouTube would incorporate the interests of every “user,” company or individual in their content.  

The popular vote algorithm used to determine monetization did not account for the views of the companies, and therefore only exhibited the value of democracy in regards to viewer opinion rather than all parties involved. The capitalist values that underlie YouTube’s decision to change the structure of the monetization algorithm are not fundamentally at odds with the democratic integrity of the site, but instead, bring in new voices that weren’t acknowledged by the previous system. 

The objector’s position would be reasonable if YouTube’s monetization algorithm represented the views of both advertisers and viewers equally, however, this is not the case. First, the structure of the monetization system favors the opinions of advertisers over content deemed popular by the viewer base, a clear imbalance in the system. They value the opinions of the advertisers above those of the viewers because one has a direct connection to their revenue stream. Thus, the monetization system is fundamentally unequal, afterall, it is not democracy if one vote counts more than another due to their financial relationship with the governing body. 

This inconsistency highlights the anti-democratic values implicit in YouTube’s changes to its monetization algorithm. The “Adpocalypse” created a system where the algorithm became the moral arbiter of the site, deeming content unworthy based on a nebulous set of “community guidelines,” rather than a democratic system that represents the opinions of both viewers and advertisers. Ultimately, due to the structure of the current algorithm, YouTube gets to decide what content is “advertiser friendly” and the creators, viewers and advertisers are subject to the whims of the platform. Implicit in the YouTube monetization algorithm is an unwarranted amount of control over what content should be incentivized, and because this does not always reflect the prevailing views of the populace, it can be considered anti-democratic. 

The changes in the YouTube monetization algorithm as a result of the Adpocalypse showcases the degradation of the democracy that once governed the platform. It is important to emphasize that the monetization algorithm is a black-box of sorts. From the perspective of a user, it is difficult to discern exactly how the system works, all we can know for certain is the end result of what content is deemed eligible and what content is demonetized. 

If the public had a deeper look into the function of the algorithm it would be easier to provide a more nuanced analysis beyond “democratic or anti-democratic.” Until YouTube becomes more transparent with their processes, that will all be speculation. The anti-democratic wave hitting YouTube is not endemic of the site, rather is indicative of a phenomenon impacting the internet at large. Across various social media platforms—from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter—we are seeing the transition from the “wild west” democratic free-for-all to a system governed by the priorities of advertisers, who are ultimately making us, the consumers, into products.

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