YouTube describes itself as “the world’s most popular online video community”. When it was first created in 2005, it lived up to its promise : offering a platform that encourages user-generated content, information sharing and active, constructive participation among users. When it got bought by Google at the price of 1.65 billion dollars, the essence of a “community” has eventually vanished.
After Google took over the site, the amount of ads integrated in the videos skyrocketed. I remember one day my boyfriend said: “If you’re using Chrome you’re making it extra easy for them to exploit you”. At that time I still naively believed that the site’s goal was still being the ideal destination to magnify creativity and sharing. There was no exploitation – people can now connect across the globe, share unbelievable footage of events I could never physically attend, upload unforgettable moments of life – what is so sinister about that?
Similar to my boyfriend, the authors of both readings “The Political Economy of Youtube” and “Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor” offer an unfavorable view on YouTube, mainly because of its capitalist practice including monetization and exploitation.
After such hefty price tag, Google’s main interest is to increase revenue to compensate its investment for a site that previously made no profit. Thus, it has developed many strategies for this aim, mainly focusing on advertisements. YouTube offers ads from banners to a key-word advertising system (advertisers bid on search terms and a sponsored video would appear). Andrejevic claims that the site has been transformed “from a community of video sharing into a revenue machine” (Andrejevic 411). It also sells another type of “user-generated content”: data generated by users’ behaviors, activities and preferences to advertisers for target marketing. Andrejevic refers to this type of user-generated content as “immaterial labor” (Andrejevic 416) provided by free labor from the audience. He asserts: “Consumers generate the raw material that is used by capital as a means of enhancing brand value and profits: capital appropriates forms of productive free creativity activity that nevertheless remain external to it” (Andrejevic 417). Wasko & Erickson also criticizes YouTube’s “commodification of labor” (Wasko & Erickson 383), considering how the site exploits audience’s data for profits. Thus, I think that YouTube is most interested in the 30 second ads embedded within the video rather in the content of the video itself. Product placements, spokespersons, and other forms of approaching the audience to increase brand values, are left to the advertisers themselves. In another word, YouTube cares about user-generated data, whereas brands are concerned about user-generated content.
YouTube still claims it is a “community”. Andrejevic asserts that “paradoxically, the community-oriented character of the site is seen by some analysts as reducing its commercial viability”. (Andrejevic 412). Commercial messages launched in this social space do not always generate positive responses. Study shows that “digital media is used by consumers to find specific things and they do not want to be encumbered by advertising” (Shoebridge, qtd. in Andrejevic). YouTube, in response to this, introduced the TrueView in-stream ads. Advertisers only have to pay when the viewer watches the entire ad; at the same time the viewers are given an option to skip the ad after 5 seconds if they are not interested. It seems to have given the advertisers “true” data and the viewers a “free” choice. However, I do not think it is as ideal as it seems to be. Many companies are taking advantage of the automated algorithms to benefit their ranking. Mike Shields quotes Rafi Fine: “That’s like stealing our popularity. They’re fake views passed off as having a fan base. It’s like having your show play as a commercial for American Idol, and counting all the people who saw the commercial as actual viewers for your show.” On another hand, the choice given to the viewers to skip the content is not really “free”. In fact, it is another layer of exploiting user-generated data. When a viewer skips an ad data is calculated at a another level to produce a new set of content including behaviors, responses and audiences for YouTube to monetize. The exploitation and commodification of this immaterial labor are thus magnified with the advent of TrueView ads.
Shields, Mike. “Are Views From YouTube’s TrueView Ads True Views? .” Adweek n.d., n. pag. Web. 29 Oct. 2013. <http://www.adweek.com/news/technology/are-views-youtube-s-trueview-ads-true-views-144442>
Andrejevic, Mark. “Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor.” The YouTube Reader. Ed. Pelle Snickards and Patricia Vonderau. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009. 406-423. Print.
Wakso & Erickson. “The Political Economy of YouTube.” The YouTube Reader. Ed. Pelle Snickards and Patricia Vondereau. Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, 2009. 372-385. Print