It seems lately that YouTube has been envious of the chaos experienced by Twitter and secretly wanted in on the action. They certainly have it now.
There are a few moving parts in this mess but I assure you, it comes together in the end. But here at the beginning, let’s start with the Supreme Court.
A website like Popdose assumes a degree of editorial responsibility for the content that goes out through it, as do web magazines and newspaper portals. For the better part of their existence, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have enjoyed a nebulous status of being more like a grocery store community corkboard. Anyone can post their township ad, garage sale, and dog-walking bills upon it, and the grocery store bears no responsibility for the content that got tacked up there. The board was not a communication venue, just a communication conduit. This has long been the rationale social media upheld when bad actors posted racist, violent, and/or hate speech, and this has kept the platforms out of trouble and out from liability.
The Supreme Court case would test this and, if they decide in a specific way, all sites including social media sites would bear that responsibility of editorial oversight, and could be held liable for material that is deemed offensive and harmful. In a perfect world, these platforms would rely less on algorithms to make certain hate speech wasn’t proliferated on their products, but that would mean a massive staff increase to make it happen. That’s going to be expensive and a total non-starter. YouTube alone amasses thousands of hours of content on the site every day. You can’t support an army of “standards and practices” oversight to meet that deluge of videos.
More likely, mass exclusions will happen. If this does not drive social media as an institution straight into the grave, it will demand those who post to be treated more like staff, with the platform assuming a measure of responsibility for staff conduct. Terms of Service will be rewritten to be more like an employer/employee relationship. And because the Elons, Metas, and Alphabets of this world will look at where they can profit first, you will probably now have to pay to post your material versus the free content status we enjoy at the moment. Pay-to-Say, to be glib about it, because Zuckers are gonna Zuck.
Was it correlation or causation? That’s the question one asks when you learn that just a few weeks ago, Susan Wojcicki, the nine-year veteran CEO of YouTube, decided to step down. Either way, this Supreme Court decision could drastically change what that job entails, and Wojcicki’s decision to resign suggests she believes this case will not go the way Alphabet might hope.
But there’s still YouTube’s big-ads problem.
If you are familiar with the YouTube site, you may recall only a few years ago, you might see an ad before your video of choice. It was typically no longer than 30 seconds and was skip-able. You would be presented with another ad “mid-roll,” being approximately ten minutes into a video. This would also allow you to skip through it.
In the past two years, the ads before videos increased to two, as did the mid-roll commercials, and more often than not these were not skip-able. Ad length could from from 10 seconds to a potential 3 minutes. At times, YouTube has even run full infomercials of up to an hour as an advert. These could even precede the platform’s “Shorts,” YouTube’s 1-minute challenger to TikTok. Given the opportunity, YouTube has behaved embarrassingly, rutting like the cliched pigs at the trough when it comes to their ad breaks. Their proposed solution to this is that you should buy into their ad-free tier, and all these pesky, overlong commercials poking in from the edges magically go away. But, do they really?
YouTube content creators have increased their income by taking on paid sponsorships. Just like in the earliest days of television broadcasting, the video proper will stop dead in its tracks while the YouTuber promotes the benefits of RayCon earbuds, Manscaped testicle shavers, Squarespace websites, and NordVPN. Because these are built into the videos themselves and not cut away from – to get to the Google/YouTube ad buys – you get ads on the ad-free version of the platform. That makes these especially attractive to advertisers who want to get their products before you no matter what version you are using.
This is a deal that some are willing to make and, to be fair, subscribers know that they’ll probably still have to deal with some ad interference. But let’s look at a situation which occurred in the 4th quarter of 2022 where a company called Established Titles was dressed down by, intriguingly, journalist YouTubers themselves.
You may have heard of Established Titles. For a relatively small fee, the company purportedly sold you a micro-fractional piece of land in Scotland. For this, you could hold the title of “Lord” or “Lady” as a land owner. The problem is, no, you do not own the land and, no, that’s not how such titles are conferred upon people. The claim that the money from your purchase was earmarked to save forests in Scotland is, thus far, deemed spurious. In short, for however much you paid for your “established title,” you got nothing…and more nothing. The company, a sister to problematic Deal Dash company, claimed both innocence and ignorance in the matter. It claimed that, had purchasers done their homework, they’d have known this was a gag gift and the claims being fronted out loud were debunked by the quiet fine print.
YouTubers very often are not stringent when it comes to doing the due diligence to find out if a paid sponsorship is thoroughly credible. And to be fair to these creators, when presented with a decent sponsorship deal, few would pass it up. As you can imagine, the hundreds of YouTubers who took the sponsorship money from Established Titles earlier in the year were left pants-down when, after touting what a great gift this would be, the company’s shortcomings were exposed. Some did the right thing and chopped out the sponsorship portions of the videos. Many did not.
This brings us back to the Supreme Court decision-making and potential ruling. These ads are not easily chopped out like regular YouTube ads. They are intrinsic to the videos themselves. In the old way of operation, if an Established Titles was deemed to have fronted a product that could be considered fraudulent, that was on the YouTuber’s lack of judgment. Google/Alphabet could wash their hands of it with tsk-tsk’ing and demands of “Do better!” In the potential new way, the parent company could be considered equally at fault because, while the YouTuber screwed up, Google/Alphabet made that screw-up public and accessible.
This degree of liability is not as dramatic or tragic as the events which gave rise to Gonzales versus Google, the case now before the Supreme Court. In that, the plaintiffs claim that YouTube allowed jihadist propaganda to broadcast on the site, converting others to take violent actions that ended in deaths. This is far beyond the embarrassment and financial jerkery of a company selling the 21st century equivalent of X-Ray Specs from the back of a 1970s comic book. And still, if harm could be proven – that people were defrauded by a product that claimed you had land rights when you absolutely did not – there will be lawyers that would take that case. Big corporations don’t like court costs, win or lose.
Therefore, if companies like Netflix and Disney+ determine NordVPN is breaking rules when it promotes getting around region-locks with certain content – being content you can’t see in the U.S. but could see in the U.K., so you fudge your location to appear like you are in the U.K. to end-run around that rule – it’s no longer an influencer “whoopsie.” It’s an Alphabet “whoopsie.” If Manscaped products are found to have an adverse reaction to sperm motility or whatever, YouTube allowed those ads not by choice but by chance because it allowed that content creator’s sponsored video through. Regardless, the platform as the gatekeeper opened the gate and let the controversy through, not just on its ad-laden regular version, but its paid “ad-free” variant.
Once again, while we are using YouTube as the dominant illustration because of its egregious inclination to soak up every ad dollar it can, this goes for every Tweet, every Facebook post, and even down to the most polarizing “free speech” platforms. The owner companies will no longer be able to say they had no control over the owner of that post because they will now be considered a part-owner. This will affect YouTube harder because it is also considered an entertainment streaming service, and the entertainers contained within it enjoyed latitude that would have to disappear fast and retroactively. In other words, personalities that have achieved fame, prominence, and wealth over the past decade could faceplant on the asphalt dramatically because of the very same ads that funded their status, both now and in the future, but also every video in their readily-available archive which could be a quietly ticking time bomb.
After all, if Alphabet is asked to save an entity – Mr. Beast, Jacksepticeye, Pew Die Pie, Markiplier, Phillip DeFranco, or itself – which one do you think it will choose?