After Years of Band-Aid Solutions, YouTube Is Finally Making Extensive Changes

YouTube has made more than 50 policy changes in the last 24 months

Photo: Noam Galai/Stringer

FFifteen years ago, Jawed Karim, Chad Hurley, and Steve Chen registered the domain name YouTube.com. The premise of the platform, the co-founders explained at the time, was “giving you a glimpse into other people’s lives.” Like many nascent internet projects, the founders were pro-free speech and instilled a hands-off ethos about what users could upload to the site, according to an early employee who spoke to me on the basis of anonymity.

Today the platform is hugely different. YouTube is the second-most visited site on the entire internet, and a major media force of its own. It’s the hub of an entire industry, with managers, production companies, hangers-on, merchandise, and product developers all employed at keeping YouTube and its stars shining as bright as ever. Third-party data shows 560 channels have audiences of more than 10 million. Creators made more than $8 billion in ad revenue on the platform last year, according to parent company Alphabet’s financial returns published earlier this month.

As YouTube has grown, it has learned the hard way that the “hands-off” approach only works if everyone plays by the rules. And it’s hard to get 2 billion people to play by the rules.

But after three years of being run ragged by negative headlines and increased legislative scrutiny in response to problems like the radicalization of its users, the rising number of dangerous pranks in videos, and an increase in questionable images of children, it finally seems like YouTube is starting to get a handle on problems that have been festering for more than a decade. In an open letter published last week by Susan Wojcicki to coincide with YouTube’s 15th anniversary, YouTube’s chief executive officer noted that in the last 24 months, YouTube has made more than 50 policy changes, revealing the scale of the platform’s work to correct its mistakes.

The pace of this self-improvement — roughly one policy change every two weeks — was undoubtedly forced by increasing scrutiny.

In 2017, a discovery by U.K. journalists that adverts for washing-up powder had been served alongside videos on YouTube glorifying terrorism set off a press firestorm. Major advertisers pulled their money from the platform, and the platform began making changes, trying to catch up on more than a decade of inaction. YouTube won them back by implementing increasingly strict rules around content aimed at encouraging advertisers that it was a safe space for them to return.

As scrutiny increased, the company was forced to play more catch-up.

In the last year in particular, YouTube has made public statement after public statement that has recast the way the platform works — often to the chagrin of its creators. In March 2019, for instance, YouTube announced it was banning comments on videos featuring children, overnight knocking the knees out from underneath channels that relied on that type of interaction. Changes to rules around what type of video content could be monetized, including banning insults, left some creators scrambling.

The list of changes ranges from tweaks to how it promotes content to complete revamps of how the platform operates. A year ago, YouTube banned prank videos. It’s also made more than 30 changes to the computer code that recommends videos in the last year, changing its recommendation algorithm to reduce the amount of controversial content, like conspiracy theories, promoted by its systems. (YouTube declined to comment on what those changes mean.) The algorithm had previously been optimized for watch time, the length of time a viewer spends on YouTube watching videos. Videos that keep people’s attention tend to be more extreme: People prefer car crashes to paint drying, whether it’s verbal car crashes or physical. The new algorithm changed the whole game of getting attention on YouTube.

YouTube may have been further inspired to change its policies by the looming threat of regulation that would make the company legally liable for the mass of content posted to its platform — 500 hours every minute. The U.K. announced this week that it will be appointing a regulator to oversee social media platforms including YouTube, while in the U.S. politicians are still mulling over how to manage YouTube and the content posted there.

Wojcicki’s letter hints at the fights still to come with politicians. She clearly defines what YouTube is — and what it isn’t — saying it is “clearly a platform,” meaning it isn’t a publisher, and therefore liable for any content hosted on it.

But something about the letter still seems different than previous missives. In part, that’s due to the anniversary — this is a time for celebration, rather than consternation — but the letter is less vituperative, and less defensive than previous letters. While in the past, the CEO’s letters have included strident defences of YouTube’s policy — one letter included Wojcicki almost chiding politicians and press, explaining “a commitment to openness is not easy” — now Wojicki says YouTube is “working to offer more transparency and certainty to creators with more guidance on our advertiser-friendly guidelines and an expansion of our creator self-certification program.”

The self-certification program puts the onus on the uploader to say whether their content is acceptable to advertisers, and is designed to assure brands of the quality and lack of controversy of content posted on the platform, while keeping mountains of paperwork and processing off staffers’ desks.

After years of desperately trying to stick a Band-Aid on its issues, YouTube finally seems to be making extensive changes. The torrent of negative headlines has slowed. The platform is now making statements proactively, rather than reacting to bad news. YouTube seems to be clear about the future direction of travel — something that certainly couldn’t be said of the most chaotic points of the last two years.

Wojcicki is still embracing the idea that YouTube was founded on — “our focus as a company is to distribute the content produced by others” but she’s added an important addendum: “That doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibility.”

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

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