Friday, 9 September 2016

The "de-monetisation" of YouTube Content and the Repetition of Old Errors

So, as you might have seen, we're a bit late to the party with this one. Nevertheless, there are a few things to discuss with this latest online screw-up.

A few years back, the Co-Optional Podcast had a sentiment - The digital Wild West was coming to an end. With the growing province of the internet over other mediums, we would gradually see much of the old freedom we had taken for granted shrinking, and corporation delving into their coffers. Each using their vast resources to try and take a slice of this new pie for themselves. It's a sentiment which has not changed as time has gone by, and in this new era the big powers seem to be making the same old mistakes once more.

Anyone who has been on Youtube over the past week might have noticed a slight issue - The "new" terms of service. Nebulous, easy to abuse and extremely open to interpretation, many content creators were understandably enraged upon reading them. After all, who wouldn't be if they found the work they had put their sweat and blood into being demonetized over the use of curse words and "sensitive subjects" with little context. So, anyone who might drop the odd F-bomb to help emphasise a point? Can't use adverts. Anyone who tries to discuss racism in bad comedies or gender issues? You'll likely have your content taken down. Try to put up videos to help those with clinical depression or suicidal tendencies? Too bad, it's a "controversial" subject so you can easily get taken down.

While you can read the full list to your right, in effect this agreement allows those in power carte blanche to censor or screw over the jobs of video producers. Oh, and this is serving the corporations, don't make the mistake of thinking otherwise for even a second. Youtube itself came out and openly stated that this has been done to screw over any videos which are not deemed "advertiser friendly" or might rock the boat that bit too much. Like Content ID claims and so many other clumsy, ill thought out and apathetic sweeping changes their Google overlords force upon the website, it's to serve its paymasters. While the actual creators they pinch revenue from can burn for all the company cares, they will do anything to please their advertising paymasters.

This sort of behaviour sadly isn't surprising any more. In fact, after all this time, it's practically expected of the company. These rules weren't even some abrupt change, this was an edit made months ago without any real effort to truly enforce these laws. Yet, at the crack of a corporate whip, Youtube turned it into a cudgel to try and beat the community into submission, enforcing it with great relish. Oh, Youtube could have sent messages, they could have communicated with the creators to form better rules. Perhaps they could have even just given out a mass e-mail informing them of this change ahead of time, but that wouldn't have had quite so obvious an effect or given the impression of power. Suffice to say, no one is a fan of this, and for me personally it's one more reason to stick to writing over production.

However, the big issue here more than anything else is that we have a very old mistake being repeated once again here. A decades old one in fact, which has been proven time and time again to only cripple any medium hit by this PC friendly blight. Many will likely point fingers at daytime television, especially in the United States, or how corporations actively stamped down on anything risque. Such rules were, after all, partially why Star Trek never featured a true same-sex couple outside of novels until this year, and caused no end of problems for Babylon 5. Things were even more insane when it came to certain animated shows of the 90s, with Spider-Man: The Animated Series and even Batman being hit by some downright demented decrees. 

In each and every case, many shows only succeeded thanks to creators being smart enough to skirt their way around certain laws. Nine times out of ten, a script would only succeed by performing legal backflips about a law, moving so close that they could still get their message across to the audience without being blacklisted. In the case of Babylon 5, JMS was only able to strongly imply a lesbian relationship between two characters rather than truly turning it into a storyline. In the case of Star Trek, the first televised interracial kiss was only accomplished thanks to full fledged sabotage on the part of the actors and cameraman. Even South Park and Batman: The Animated Series were both hit by this at an alarming rate, and often only succeeded thanks to upping the ante or creatively interpreting the required changes. 

To go back even further - and stick with the superhero genre for a moment - you also have the Comics Code Authority. Produced as a knee-jerk response to fears about the medium in the mid 50s, it was intended to cripple any horrifying imagery in the medium or problematic themes. Much like the recent Youtube rules, the laws themselves were ill defined and broadly interpretative, but had the ultimate authority behind them. This resulted in a multitude of popular sub-genres dying out overnight, especially those which adapted classic horror tales to comicbook form. 
Many superhero comics lost a darker edge they had started out with, and crime stories were hindered by a ban on sympathetic villains or corrupt leaders. Even certain basic terms were banned from use, to the point where Marv Wolfman almost had his second name censored from his own book. It's thanks to the Code that the Silver Age is best remembered for its full blown insanity over dynamic storytelling. The true classics which have endured to the modern era were only accomplished thanks to the Code weakening, or being outright discarded despite its laws, as Alan Moore did with Swamp Thing. The very moment which finally broke he Code entirely was when the public realised it was actually killing off poignant storytelling rather than encouraging it.

Still, if the greatest failure of the comicbook industry isn't enough for you, consider another issue from the same era - McCarthyism. Driven by fear of Communist influences, Hollywood was subjected to an era of fear and paranoia. Films were censored over potentially problematic content, scripts were burned over fears of getting beyond their control, and the industry changed wholesale overnight. Creators deemed to be undermining the will of those in power were blacklisted, and barred from being hired by the industry. Those few who endured only managed to do so thanks to pseudonyms and writing through others, as those in power had effectively destroyed their careers on little more than a whim. While this might seem a little extreme as comparisons go, it does reflect the "guilty until proven" innocent mentality of these decrees at its most extreme. 

What's the point of all this exactly? Because this is supposed to be a new golden age of opportunities, free from old mistakes and with the best possible chance of overcoming the failings of past eras. Yet, ignoring how horribly this has backfired each and every time, for decades on end, Youtube and its supporting companies continue forcing this into online outlets. The more someone tries to choke down on this stuff, the more they try and behead the serpent and end what they see as an uncertain and hostile force, the worse things become.

What happens if they win? We end up with dull, banal crap which is so toothless that few audiences will be engaged by them. The sort of stuff which slowly led to the death of those unwilling to push the envelope or try new things, as audiences got bored and promptly jumped on the first rival willing to give them what they want.

What if they lose? Then they become hated all the more. Already there is no end of bad blood between many of the bigger corporations giving Youtube its cash and the general public they're invested in. Honestly, think for a second of each major company having a big monopoly on entertainment or a service to support entertainment - Comcast, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros., Valve Corporation; even those in relatively good public standing like Disney have an undercurrent of well earned dislike. Sure, hatred might not mean much in the short term, but poke any bear enough and they will bite. Electronic Arts learned that a long time ago, and they're still hurting over it.

Still, let's ignore history for a moment, and even the negative aspects of these new attempts to regulate content. Is there anything good which might come out of it? In all honesty, yes. For starters, this would be a chance to truly shut down any channels which thrive upon hate. You know the ones, those which earn cash by leeching off of online drama or spin-doctoring events to try and create social conflict. They're the sort of ones which lack any standards or scruples of any kind, the sort which manage to both make TMZ seem like a reputable outlet and the average clickbait article akin to hard hitting journalism. Complete crap in other words, and alongside response videos, they're one half the cancer slowly killing the platform.

However, shutting down such channels is the only benefit of this act. If this was Youtube's objective, they were not only painfully slow to respond to a major problem, but may have actively encouraged such channels by trying to shut them down. Such hard-line responses might destroy such channels in their current form, but it won't take them long to properly adapt and go back to business, Many will find new outlets and new backers to help them continue, either adapting and twisting the new rules to their benefit, or retreating to the darkest recesses of Reddit. With Patreon and its ilk proving to be more profitable than full fledged adverts these days, it would be hard to believe they would simply die out, and they would gain a new victim status to benefit their cause. So, they could twist things to present themselves as opposing censorship - an act we've seen far too often in past years - and they return in force, even more hell-bent upon making life worse for everyone.

All in all, it's a bad move in just about every conceivable sense. We can only hope that Youtube's overlords might stop and actually think for once in their misbegotten lives, but if they have never gotten off of their backsides in the past, it seems unlikely they would start now. Will it kill the platform on the whole? No. If it stays things will likely keep going, at least for the moment. Having endured so much in the past, it's unlikely this lone act would be able to drive out all of the big names reliant upon the platform for their livelihoods. However, it would be another big, and very nasty, crack to add to a growing list. Another problem which endures people are less loyal to the platform and are looking for alternatives elsewhere. While this move might not behead Youtube, it would be another drop of poison into its bloodstream. By this point, who knows just how many more it can take.

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