Put into place to foster a safe environment viewers and advertisers alike, YouTube has occasionally taken heat from creators who believe their community guidelines too strict or violates their first amendment rights.
Of course, YouTube certainly benefits from allowing creators with a wide range of views to express themselves. Still, they are within their rights to restrict the content published to their platform, and, for the most part, creators enjoy the fruits of YouTube’s efforts to keep the platform clean and safe.
Without a doubt, the system is imperfect, but YouTube is one of a very small number of platforms that share advertising revenue with creators. So they must be given the benefit of the doubt that they’re acting in the platform’s best interest. For better or worse, the ad-supported business model is the primary way most YouTubers can earn revenue from their work. So if you want to find the motivation for any decision YouTube makes, all you have to do is follow the money. For YouTube, every road leads to advertisers. Thus, everything YouTube does — from the algorithm to the monetization rules, to the community guidelines, to the user interface itself — supports advertisers.
Think about it. The algorithm’s objective is to maximize watch time. It tends to recommend videos very similar to those you’ve watched before, videos that are long enough to feature more than one mid-roll ad and videos with a high average completion rate. The result is more minutes of video watched and more ad impressions per user.
The user interface itself is designed to keep users engaged. This design sounds like a user-first design, but even this road ultimately leads to advertisers. Why does YouTube want to keep users happy if not to keep them on the platform longer and satisfy advertisers’ appetite for cheap impressions?
Through this lens, we can make sense of what drives YouTube’s decisions about community guidelines. YouTube doesn’t want its users to leave the platform because other users are harassing them. They want people to feel comfortable on YouTube and have as few reasons as possible to leave. That means not showing users content that will offend them and keeping toxic users and creators at bay.
They apply the same approach to advertisers. YouTube’s goal is to give advertisers precisely what they want, none of what they don’t and give them as much of it as they can possibly handle.
But advertisers don’t just want as many impressions as they can get their hands on. They want to look as good as possible wherever they appear. While appearing next to highly respected content creators adds value to an advertiser’s brand, appearing next to harmful or offensive content sullies value. Advertisers have repeatedly told YouTube that they don’t want their ads anywhere near hate speech, violence or pornography.
Creators benefit from this system, as wealthy advertisers like Geico, Ford and Samsung spend far more to reach viewers than fly-by-night advertisers, and creators take 55% of that spend.
So what would happen if YouTube dismantled their community guidelines? They may first attract the praise of free-speech advocates across liberal societies, but they’d also become the world’s most popular porn site almost immediately. Viewership might soar, but the wealthiest advertisers would abandon ship and move to whatever platform offered them the most impressions with protection from extreme content. The amount remaining advertisers are willing to spend per impression would fall through the floor, and creators trying to earn a living would feel it in their wallets.
Every time a creator is banned for violating community guidelines — assuming the ban is legitimate — creators should remind themselves that the ban is in service of creating an environment where advertisers are happy to spend money and support independent creators.