My Crumbling Empire of Nickels

My Crumbling Empire of Nickels

Thoughts on Recent YouTube Changes for Teachers.

Two weeks ago I received an email from YouTube that informed me that my channel would no longer be eligible for monetization, which it would commence to retroactively lose on February 20th. Given the rather loud, angsty outcry on social media, it seems that my channel is not the only one that has succumbed to such a fate. And really, it’s not a huge deal for me. My channel exists to post videos for my work as a teacher. It’s not some huge financial loss for to lose the revenue stream that advertising brings in (a revenue stream that is in the neighborhood of dollars per month), and I’m fortunate enough that other support avenues allow me to continue to keep my digital footprint cost neutral, which is all I ever wanted. But I still think it’s kind of a crappy move on the part of YouTube as relates to teacher-created channels, and here's why:

This is not going to fix most of YouTube’s Problems.

YouTube has had a challenging year. The difficulties come from two different places. The first one, the one that the recent demonetization action seems to address, is the crazy firehose of YouTube content. The estimates change depending on the source, but it’s safe to assume that many hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute of every day. This is a notion that is beyond comprehension, and beyond moderation. Humans can’t watch that amount of stuff. Google being google, various artificial intelligence approaches are taken to trying to catch the genuinely horrendous bits that get uploaded. And that works, but it’s not perfect. So YouTube (rightfully in my opinion) caught some crap for running ads against awful videos. Advertisers don’t tend to like that kind of thing. Nor do they like things that are bizarre to the point of disturbing. Add this to the relatively-trivial process of monetizing a YouTube channel, and you start to see the issue. Hence YouTube’s fix of drawing a line in the sand: To monetize your channel going forward, you need to have >4000 hours of view time per year and >1000 subscribers. This probably seems reasonable to you. It did to me until I thought about it for a little longer and realized that it's not going to work.

Why isn’t it going to work? There are a few reasons, but the main one is that the internet is a Darwinian system. It evolves and adapts. With the monetization change, YouTube has just shifted the adaptive landscape of the platform. Agents that are interested in cheating the system are always going to find ways to do that. 1000 subscribers probably seems like a lot, but these things can be purchased for almost nothing. As can views (to get that annual view time requirement up). I have a hard time believing that Google and YouTube don’t know this, which suggests to me that this kind of a move is more of a cosmetic, “hey, here’s how we responded to your concerns” window-dressing than it is a useful, well-considered, change. Maybe the change sates the concerns of advertisers for a while, and when the inevitable mutations that lead to the next content issues show up down the road, YouTube has had that much more time to secure it’s monopoly in the online video content space. Eventually, advertiser complaints won’t matter that much, if at all.

The other main reason why monetization changes won’t work so well is that it doesn’t address the other primary source of YouTube’s problems: Bad Acting by Famous YouTubers. The monetization changes were rolled out in the aftermath of the “Logan Paul” situation. I’m not going to get into the details here, other than to note that it’s a primary example of very bad acting by a very famous YouTuber. Prior to Logan Paul, PewDiePie had a recent bout of bad acting. Both of these performers occupy the uppermost echelon of YouTube celebrity. Neither of them are going to be effected in the least by the monetization changes. Which means that the take-home message of the shift is something like “if you’re going to be a jerk, you have to be a popular jerk”. I don’t really like that on any level.

The Unintended Effects of Drawing Hard Lines

The monetization change is a hard line. You need X hours and Y subscribers to be able to monetize. Otherwise you don’t get to. On an intuitive level, this makes perfect, simple sense. Essentially YouTube has created a “zero tolerance” policy for monetization; zero monetization for channels below the threshold. But as anyone who has any experience with zero tolerance policies in the education sphere can attest, they remove the liberty to make exceptions when they are warranted. One place where exceptions might be justified in this case is in the education space. I don’t have data to support the following claim, but I am relatively sure that my channel, with ~4,200 hours of view time over the past year and 624 subscribers is well to the right of the distribution in the education-YouTube space. There have to be thousands of teachers on YouTube using their channels similarly to how I use mine, and I don’t see why any channel that looks like ours should be demonetized. For whatever problems YouTube has, the education space isn’t it. But almost every educator using the platform to make and deliver content has just been told that YouTube will no longer help cover their costs. That’s unfortunate, and for some folks I’m sure it’s discouraging. I can’t imagine it’s YouTube’s intention, but that’s what happens when you draw hard lines.

It also means that the vast majority of rebuttals offered by big-time YouTubers to complaints from the demonetized almost are wholly off-target for the specific case of educational channels. People like this guy, and this guy, this guy, all of whom I like very much, have weighed in on the changes, and none of them have even broached the topic of demonetized educational channels (which is notable if only for the fact that they make many many dollars running their own educational YouTube channels). Here is a sampling of some of the rebuttals on offer amongst the YouTube elite:

  • It shouldn’t be about the money- I agree with this completely. And I agree that YouTube channels that are set up to “make money” and “achieve fame” should get absolutely no sympathy regarding their demonetization if they haven't hit the new cut-off. But that's not the point of a channel like mine. A channel like mine lives to make resources available for students. There’s a cost involved in this. It’s not a lot, but it’s somewhere around a few hundred dollars in actual costs per year. I don’t know what the opportunity costs are, but I do know that I get quite a bit more than that when people hire me to teach for them, so my time is certainly not worth zero. Let’s ignore that here. And let’s also ignore that while the central ethic of my materials creation philosophy is that there should be no cost to the user, there is a vast industry of for-cost educational material that suggests there is a non-zero value for the work I create. Leaving those notions aside, I’ll suggest that at the least, I should be able to make and share things in a way that costs me nothing. YouTube revenue helped me do that.
  • The money being discussed is insignificant, anyway- Coming from people who make their living on YouTube when mapped against what I’ve outlined above, this holds no merit for me. $100 every few years is enough to provide for the entirety of my video-creation apparatus, so you’ll forgive me if I suggest that “significance” is very much in the eye of the beholder. A closely-related argument is "you'll grow soon enough". I don't want to grow. That's not the point of my work.
  • YouTube will be a better place- I don’t feel like it really will be (nor do I personally think that it needs to be), but I can’t imagine demonetizing the educational channels of teachers is part of some grand plan to improve YouTube. Which is exactly the point: The line is drawn without thinking about channels like mine. And the major supporting arguments seem to have been constructed similarly.

Not Griping, Just Sad

I hope none of the above reads like sour grapes. Nothing in the recent monetization changes is going to effect what I do on YouTube, or how I relate to making and using online video with my students. I’m sure I speak for pretty much every educator out there when I say that we are motivated by things larger than a few dollars per month in advertiser revenue. But it still smarts to know that a place that has valued your contributions to the point that they were willing to throw you a few bucks in goodwill has decided that you aren’t worth the effort and lumped you in with trolls and bad actors. I don’t think I’m either of those things, but I still find myself standing over here with a crowd full of them.

How on target is this cogent analysis? How off the mark are these unfocused ramblings? Drop me a line or leave a comment if you have something to say.

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Why Teach Kids? Maximum Fun Under the Laboring Sun

Why Teach Kids? Maximum Fun Under the Laboring Sun