YouTube and the LGBT+ Community: Demonitizing Pride

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On: October 24, 2019
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Yonathan Tesfai

Introduction

How many of us have a YouTube channel? How many of us have even created videos of our own? YouTube was founded by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim in 2005 as a simple video sharing platform, and has since grown to become one the largest and most important companies and cultural spaces of our time. Young or old, people all over the world use the platform to entertain, educate, shock or simply share. YouTube has gone from a place to watch home videos about pets and pranks, to a creator-focused creative space, to the media giant we know now, with its own media productions, conventions and power to rival mainstream media companies. With this shift however, YouTube’s relationship with its users and creators has changed as well. As the platform has allowed its creators to profit from their videos’ success, it has opened up to advertisers and their demands more and more.

In this post we will track the development of YouTube in the context of its (de)monetization policies, focusing primarily on its relationship with the vibrant LGBTQ+ community active on the platform.  We will first compile a short history of the ways the monetization policy and third-party advertising have developed on the platform, with the first and second so-called Adpocalypses as key points in this history. Afterwards we will go in depth and examine YouTube and the LGBTQ+ community in particular. We will end the post by presenting our own proposed intervention in this discussion; the YouTube Monetization Analyser, a tool for creators to make sure their scripts are monetization-friendly and help them get their voices out.

The demonetization of LGBTQ+ YouTube videos

‘Social media’s business models are a delicate harmonizing act between users’ trust and owners’ monetizing intentions’ (Van Dijck, 2013)

Before we wade into the unenviable task of trying to understand YouTube’s current economic and socio-cultural digital climate, it would be best to go right back to the start – the heady days of 2005. The now ubiquitous platform’s initial promotional tagline was: “YouTube: Your Digital Video Repository”[1]. Herein lies the communal and eminently non-hierarchical essence of the YouTube project in its most original form.

Moving beyond its first incarnation as a tool invented primarily for amateur digital filmmakers, in August 2006, YouTube’s first advertising concepts – Participatory Video Ads (PVA) and Brand Channels – were introduced. This signalled a desire on behalf of YouTube to begin a process of transferring from being the aforementioned ‘Video Repository’ to a modern, digital platform. Indeed, Google purchased YouTube on October 9, 2006.

By December 2007, YouTube had launched the ‘YouTube Partner Program’ – which meant that popular content channels could have their videos monetized by accepting a share of YouTube’s advertising profits. The precarious equilibrium between platform, creator and advertiser had begun. For a long time, however, the ecosystem was undisturbed. YouTube continued to expand, creators continued to enjoy their own creative freedom and advertisers found increasingly tailored ways to sell their products and services.

The 1st Adpocalypse

“We are deeply concerned that our ads may have appeared alongside YouTube content promoting terrorism and hate”

These words were delivered by a spokesman for AT&T, one of YouTube’s main advertisers. The words revealed a certain moral panic on behalf of corporate YouTube advertisers everywhere. Ads for companies like Verizon were being played next to videos released by Egyptian cleric Wagdi Ghoneim – a man banned from the US over extremism as well as the hate preacher Hanif Quershi. The chairman of the media and marketing publisher C squared noted that historically advertisers had been meticulous about the placement of their ads, however “The difference in the online world is that it’s all done by an algorithm. The human element is taken out of the equation, so there are problems”.

Resultingly, YouTube played host to an advertising exodus. Their hand, as a platform, was forced – and YouTube introduced a variety of new policies that attempted to make sure advertisers would only see their ads placed on suitable videos. Unfortunately, echoes of discontent on behalf of the actual content creators – who justifiably view themselves as the lifeblood of the platform – began ringing around. Increasingly, more and more videos from high profile content-makers became demonetised. These creators had to begin adjusting to the post-adpocalypse digital environment, and gradually pivoted to alternative streams of revenue income such as Patreon or Twitch. Problematically, smaller-scale creators began to feel the ripple of demonetization more fiercely. Creators with a small fanbase increasingly found their videos with no adverts at all, which in turn affected their position within the search algorithm. It is at this juncture, creators began to feel more than just puzzled by the sinister nature of YouTube’s highly secretive demonetization algorithm – but YouTube as a platform was thriving once again, reporting an actual influx of advertisers. ‘The concentration of capital and power’ described by Van Dijck (2013) was starting to weigh heavily in the favour of YouTube’s corporate interests.

The 2nd Adpocalpyse:

On December 4th, 2017, the CEO of YouTube – Susan Wojcicki – published a blog post in which she articulated the “steps necessary to protect our community and ensure that YouTube continues to be a place where creators, advertisers, and viewers can thrive”. This signalled the beginning of what became known as the second adpocalypse. After a slew of investigative reports from high-profile newspapers and magazines, several disturbing and predatory videos including young children were identified as ‘monetized’.

This, in tandem with the now infamous video of Logan Paul – one of YouTube’s most prized content creators – uploading a video of himself filming the body of a man who had recently committed suicide, meant that YouTube’s mystical algorithm was in desperate need of another fine-tune. YouTube announced that creators now needed more watch-time and more subscribers to qualify for monetization. This, of course, meant YouTube committing to its decision to leave small-time content creators in the lurch and favour videos made by more established channels.

More pressingly, in relation to this blog post, the algorithm began to run a set of coded numbers next to all videos that had been demonetized. The YouTube channel Nerd City exposed an analysis of over one million YouTube videos – and discovered that the algorithm was systematically demonetizing videos that included ‘sensitive social topics’[5]. This observation clearly indicates a new and distressing ethical component of the algorithm. Creators, more than feeling disillusioned for reasons that stem from YouTube’s original manifestation as something democratic and open, were beginning to feel disillusioned for overtly political reasons.

LGBTQ+ YouTubers found videos of theirs demonetized for incomprehensible reasons. A pattern began to emerge. Another Nerd City video deployed an assortment of data borrowed from other YouTubers, also interested in the new social logic underpinning the YouTube algorithms, and found that YouTube titles with words such as ‘Gay’, or ‘Homosexual’ were being fed into the algorithm and demonetised for no other reason than the fact that these words indicated some sort of ‘sensitive social issue’. From YouTube’s perspective, the war against vulnerable political minorities had evidently begun.

Marginalization and erasure

YouTube, as the platform for everyone, has long been an alternative for users and creators to the mainstream media. It has allowed users to find niches for just about anything, and has allowed marginalized communities to have a voice and come together. The same goes for the LGBT+ community, as A. Khaled points out in his Medium post: “The platform served as the initial battleground for LGBT+ individuals, couples, and collectives to voice their grievances about their disillusion with mainstream media, and their videos have made it far easier a prospect for a youthful generation of LGBT+ people to come out, regardless of culture, provenance, religion, ethnicity, race, or any other identity marker”.

Green et al come to similar conclusions, writing about how LGBT+ youth have use YouTube to create a sense of community and open up about their experiences: “Taking the principle of a shared interest, the LGBT community can be seen as a place, physically or online, for those who identify as non-heterosexual” (2). Kleitsch et al point out several examples of LGBTQ+ engagement on YouTube, like the “It Gets Better Project” started in 2010. The project “asked adult members of the LGBT community to make videos describing their experiences, with the goal of informing LGBT youth that life need not always be difficult” (4). They point to another example, pointing out the prevalence of “Coming Out” videos, wherein LGBT vloggers tell viewers how they came out to others.

However, as Khaled continues to write, the platform has morphed into a new kind of mainstream, a platform overrun by advertisers that need to appeased, advertisers that are increasingly dictating what can and can’t be monetized on the platform. In recent times, this demonetization has extended to seemingly targeting the LGBT-community, with videos connected to LGBT-causes and themes being demonetized in increasing numbers.

This all stands in stark contrast to YouTube’s public-facing character. As a company, YouTube has been openly accepting and inclusive of the LGBT+ community. The platform has celebrated Pride Month by brandishing the Pride Flag and highlighting prominent and less prominent LGBT+ creators, using the hashtag #ProudToCreate. But this promotion appears at odds with both previous and recent developments concerning YouTube and its LGBT+ creators.

This targeted censoring of LGBT+ voices has taken different forms over the last two years. YouTube’s Restricted Mode, is an optional setting that, when turned on, screens out potentially mature content. In 2017 however, multiple LGBT+ creators reported having their videos hidden on restricted mode, meaning their videos would not appear. As Elle Hunt writes for The Guardian, even some of the platform most popular creators, Tyler Oakley, had been hit by this restriction, prompting the hashtag #YouTubeIsOverParty.

In the summer of 2019 more news has come out, in the wake of previously mentioned YouTubers Nerdcity, Andrew and Sealow’s videos about the demonetization of LGBT+ videos. In their research the users created a list of words deemed to be demonetizable by the YouTube algorithm. The list, while obviously not exhaustive and still being updated to this day, contains words tested by the creators, and highlighted as three levels of “safe”, with words that are completely safe, sometimes safe, and not safe. As the researchers point out, some words are context-sensitive, and may be fine in one case while getting flagged in another. This has all come to a head as a group of LGBTQ+ YouTubers is suing YouTube for discrimination, alleging “unlawful content regulation, distribution and and monetization practices that stigmatize, restrict, block, demonetize, and financially harm the LGBT Plaintiffs and the greater LGBT Community”, as The Verge’s Julia Alexander reports.

This use of the language to marginalize and erase LGBTQ+ voices has a long history in the community. As written by Jessica King, this is often a history of oppression through language. The use of heteronormative language is therefore labelled as violence against the LGBT+ community. As she writes, “…sinister uses of language include directly doing violence to others, or indirectly supporting violent societal structures through the normalization of the marginalization of some groups.” (17). As stated by King, many Western cultural institutions are based on heteronormative assumptions, and the language is inherently heteronormative. Heteronormativity is defined as “the expectation that bodies are constructed into oppositionally situated categories…It assumes an a priori existence of sex, gender and sexuality that induces particular forms of expression (signs) that are interpreted as evidence of a subject’ sex, gender and sexuality (the signified)”. Heteronormativity assumes that everyone and everything is straight, simply put, and there is no space for anything outside of those norms. As language not only is shaped by, but also shapes culture itself, this has enormous effect on those who do not conform to this heteronormativity. For these people then, the language is insufficient to express themselves and their identity. This limitation of language can lead to marginalization and erasure of these groups, in this case referring to the LGBT+ community. As such, with their censoring and demonetizing of videos featuring and discussing LGBT+ issues and topics using LGBT+ vocabularies, YouTube can be seen as further aiding in this erasure and marginalization.

Combining what is effectively marginalization and silencing of LGBT+ voices, with the blatant self-promotion of YouTube’s Pride celebration makes the platform an increasingly unfriendly and cold space for LGBT+ creators. With YouTube denying the problem on one hand, and vowing to improve on the other, what can marginalized creators do to be heard? We propose the YouTube Monetization Analyzer.

The YouTube Monetization Analyser

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier, if before one would upload their videos, to be sure it would remain untouched and monetized? After all, most of the channels and creators hit by this recent wave of demonetizations in the LGBT-community are smaller creators without the backing of large audiences. To help these creators get their content out we have designed the YouTube Monetization Check. This is a browser app that would help the creator check their scripts for demonetizable words and help them rewrite these to monetize their videos without problems. Simply input your written script, select one of three settings to determine the targeted audience of your script (age groups 6, 12 or 16 and above), and let the tool do its work. The tool will return your script, highlighting the demonitizable words. The creator can then choose to go in and rework the script as they want, or let the tool rewrite it for them. The tool can replace the flagged words with synonyms, avoiding words known to be demonetizable, presenting the creator with a new, YouTube-friendly script to use for their content.

Conclusion

The internet is not a friendly place to navigate for members of marginalized groups and communities. When even YouTube, one of the largest and most important platforms on the World Wide Web, indirectly participates in LGBT+ marginalization and erasure, something needs to change. Until it does, however, we present the YouTube Monetization Tool. With this tool we allow LGBT+ creators to take bypass YouTube’s algorithms and help them intervene in this process of reclaiming their vocabularies and rework their scripts to appear on the platform. We aim to keep creators up to date with the state of the demonetization policy and the specific words that may or may not be save, and invite them to take this knowledge to create new vocabularies and empower the community to take their language back and let their voices be heard.

Bibliography

Alexander, Julia. ‘LGBTQ YouTubers Are Suing YouTube over Alleged Discrimination’. The Verge, 14 Aug. 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/8/14/20805283/lgbtq-youtuber-lawsuit-discrimination-alleged-video-recommendations-demonetization.

‘Demonetization Report’. Google Docs, https://docs.google.com/document/d/18B-X77K72PUCNIV3tGonzeNKNkegFLWuLxQ_evhF3AY/edit?usp=embed_facebook. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.

Dijck, Jose van. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. Oxford University Press, 2013. ‘Expanding Our Work against Abuse of Our Platform’. Official YouTube Blog, https://youtube.googleblog.com/2017/12/expanding-our-work-against-abuse-of-our.html. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.

Farokhmanesh, Megan. ‘YouTube Is Still Restricting and Demonetizing LGBT Videos — and Adding Anti-LGBT Ads to Some’. The Verge, 4 June 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/4/17424472/youtube-lgbt-demonetization-ads-algorithm.

Green, Michael, et al. ‘The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Online: Discussions of Bullying and Self-Disclosure in YouTube Videos’. Behaviour & Information Technology, Feb. 2015, pp. 1–9.

Hunt, Elle. ‘LGBT Community Anger over YouTube Restrictions Which Make Their Videos Invisible’. The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2017. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/20/lgbt-community-anger-over-youtube-restrictions-which-make-their-videos-invisible.

It Gets Better Project: Join the Global Movement. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1E1Bpgzbgk. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.

Khaled, A. ‘A History of YouTube Undermining Its LGBT+ Creators’. Medium, 19 July 2019, https://medium.com/swlh/youtube-lgbt-demonetization-db22f5c978f9.

King, Jessica. ‘The Violence of Heteronormative Language Towards the Queer Community’. Aisthesis: Honors Student Journal, vol. 7, 2016, pp. 17–22.

Kleitsch, David, et al. Community in a Virtual Environment: Can YouTube Build Community for LGBT Youth? p. 27.

Romano, Aja. ‘A Group of YouTubers Is Claiming the Site Systematically Demonetizes Queer Content’. Vox, 10 Oct. 2019, https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/10/10/20893258/youtube-lgbtq-censorship-demonetization-nerd-city-algorithm-report.

Solon, Olivia. ‘Google’s Bad Week: YouTube Loses Millions as Advertising Row Reaches US’. The Observer, 25 Mar. 2017. www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/25/google-youtube-advertising-extremist-content-att-verizon.

Stanford, Stephen. YouTube and the Adpocalypse: p. 60.

Youtube’s Biggest Lie. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ll8zGaWhofU. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.

Youtube’s Secret Codes REVEALED. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4NgO69RprE. Accessed 24 Oct. 2019.


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