Around 2016, something interesting started happening on YouTube. Content creators who had once churned out shorter, sub-10 minute videos were now regularly uploading 20-, 30-, or even 60-minute long videos. Videos that could have easily been 7 or 8 minutes were padded with filler content aimed at reaching the 10- or 15-minute mark. Viewers and creators alike complained as the layout of the site changed – ‘recommended’ or ‘trending’ videos were funnelled onto the homepage, whilst subscribed content was difficult to find, shoved into a dusty corner.
And so, amongst the top 250,000 creators, the average video duration shot up from 7 to 8 minutes to around 13 or 14. This paradigm shift is largely explained by changes YouTube made regarding monetisation. Videos would be eligible for mid-roll ads (ads that play during the video) once they had reached 10 minutes, leading to some creators making 3 times as much as they would on a shorter video. Longer videos were even more profitable, as creators could slip in a few more mid-roll ads. Videos were demonetised if they contained content that advertisers might not like, like swearing or talking about sexual topics. Invisible algorithms that recommended videos or determined what was ‘trending’ seemed heavily skewed towards a particular type of content: longer videos, music videos, or Jimmy Fallon.
Since then, as with every big change on any popular social media site, people have complained. Loudly. What’s worse is that I kind of agree with them (for the most part). I understand that YouTube is offered for free, but I also understand that consuming free things on the internet usually means that you are the product. YouTube is a time vampire. It wants you to stay on it and consume and watch advertisements for as long as possible. It learns your habits. It feeds off of your attention.
It profits from your distraction.
When YouTube changed the way it offered their service, what they were really doing was maximising how efficiently they could suck the time out of your day. So, when people complained, what they were really mad about was that they were suffering the eventual consequences of this profit model. Recommended or trending videos were often clickbait-y, formulaic (think top 10 style list videos), or transparently padded with irrelevant footage and long outros. “But this is great for creators!” Some might think, and while they’re right in some ways, we should also question whether or not this is actually good for creativity. Certain creators, like animators, can take weeks or months to create just 5 minutes of content. Others simply don’t need to take 15 minutes to convey the same information they can in 3 and a half minutes. In the end, when your livelihood is proportionate to how many people’s eyes you can glue to a screen – or on how long you can keep them there – eventually you begin to create content for an algorithm, and not people.
And I think that kind of sucks. I’m not the only one who feels this way, as evidenced by the growing number of creators who have turned to alternative sources to generate revenue while having more freedom over their content. Since 2016, Patreon has grown to staggering heights, boasting incredible statistics (±$25 million estimated monthly payouts as of September 2021) fuelled by a flourishing user base. Of course, YouTube is not the only reason for its success, as podcasts dominate the upper echelon of earners on Patreon. Anecdotally, though, I remember a lot of YouTubers expressing their gratitude for sites like Patreon as they allowed them to continue producing content without having to compromise their integrity.
As far as I can tell, YouTube continued with this model until around 2020, when it decided to lower the minimum time for mid-roll eligibility from 10 to 8 minutes. It also fine-tuned its algorithm a bit to make it so that creators can swear in a video without getting demonetised, but not in the first 30 seconds… for some reason. I don’t know, either. Progress, I guess! I sure hope no other social media site takes this profit model to a new level, and things don’t get real weird.
Facebook Gets Real Weird
If you haven’t seen these types of videos, then I envy you. Facebook allows you to monetise your videos once they reach 1 minute long – but you can make a lot more once they reach 3 minutes. However, the viewer has to watch for at least 45 seconds, and you make more if they watch the whole thing. Regrettably, this has led to the popularity of what I call “frustration content”.
Just slightly over 3 minutes. Check. Clickbait-y title or thumbnail. Check. Attractive person/people doing something in a way so ineffective or impossible that you watch to the end purely because you’re curious to see how it ends. Check. Rinse and repeat around a thousand times, and you might just find Facebook fame. Much of the content generated on the internet tends to be shared and re-uploaded across websites, and the worst of the worst frustration content is what tends to get shared the most. Because of the way social media algorithms work, engagement in the form of comments or re-shares will boost a post’s popularity. When people comment, or angry react, or share the video writing about how stupid they are, or how it would never work like that in real life – they know.
They profit from your frustration.
This put into words all the little things about online content which has been nagging at me for a while. I was definitely somewhat aware of how YouTube and other platforms are profiting and why things seem to be so much longer and a little bit less creative, but your blog made it make sense. I feel like every month or so I stumble across someone doing something creative online and I think “hey I can do that with my own creative thing” and when I think of it more I feel discouraged knowing I’d have to make content for the algorithm as you said.