On February 14, 2005, YouTube—a soon–to–be Internet giant—was born.
Initially, the website seemed innocent enough—it was a video sharing site where anyone could hop on and post videos. From cat videos to comedy sketches to dumb pranks, it was an easy way for people to feel more connected on the budding World Wide Web.
However, despite its outward harmlessness, YouTube has always had a darker underbelly that often goes unnoticed. Although many of its earliest videos were seemingly innocent, the creation of YouTube itself stemmed from the onslaught of fruitless Google searches for the video of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nip slip. YouTube was a response to the consumer demand for an accessible video host site. While much has changed since 2005, this underbelly still exists.
Earlier this May, Dan Howell, an English YouTuber, came back to the platform after being one of YouTube’s greatest stars with a standout video entitled “Why I Quit YouTube.” Despite his three year absence from the site, his video quickly rose to the top of YouTube charts as long–time followers of Howell (whose fame is often credited to his participation in the viral YouTube duo Dan and Phil) flooded his channel to see what his newest video was about.
Unpredictably, Howell's video wasn’t just a short, ten–minute apology for being gone with promises for future content. It was an hour and a half story detailing his burnout and conflicts with YouTube representatives combined with a recounting of YouTube before the takeover of widespread advertisements. The video began with him reflecting on his YouTube career, sharing that he started to simply upload comedy sketches and exercise his creativity. At the start of Howell's career, advertisements didn’t exist on YouTube and the website was drastically different from how YouTube currently looks. Content could be as long or short as one pleased, and the site was simple for both creators and users. However, as the website got more and more users, YouTube implemented video recommendations that took into account a viewer's interests so that they could discover new content and the "like" button, which allowed viewers to show support to their favorite creators and subsequently caused the most famous channels get on the YouTube homepage.
But as user counts grew and the Internet evolved, things were bound to change. Rampant capitalism caused millions of adverts and desperate, budding businesses to slowly seep into the YouTube realm. In early 2009, ads started appearing on YouTube in multiple forms. Howell reveals in his video that this shift led YouTube to become progressively more ad–friendly.
But what exactly does this shift mean for YouTube creators? It pressures them to create longer videos so that they can incorporate more ad breaks at the beginning, middle, and end. It encourages content that’s uncontroversial and won’t get demonetized. It pushes creators to aim for optimization and to cater to the algorithm—a seemingly mysterious but shockingly powerful code that decides whose videos get recommended. And on top of all of this, it generates a constant loop of creator feedback through graphs upon graphs of viewership data. If a creator’s video doesn’t do as well, the graphs make the shortcoming abundantly clear, leading creators to feel like failures.
Howell, who throughout his video explains how he considers himself a “bad YouTuber” due to his infrequent uploads, felt that this new aspect of YouTube led to his burnout. He describes, “If you are making a video from the heart—if you are truly expressing yourself and have put everything into it and you love it because it’s good, [then] you’ve tried your best. And then you’re greeted with a wall of red lines saying, ‘Sorry, nobody likes this, sweetie. Try again next time.’ [It’s] soul–destroying.”
He goes on to mention how hard it can be to cope with the desire to make profit off your work while maintaining authenticity. During one of his very first ad collaborations, Howell remembers that he felt horrible when a fellow YouTuber whom he had looked up to called him a “sell–out.” Viewers and creators alike acknowledge that to this day, the line between making a career out of YouTube and "selling out" is a hard line to walk. In nearly any popular video, creators will take an “ad break” to represent a brand that reached out to them or advertise a new app that is paying them to do so. At one point in Howell's video, he even jokingly starts to say that the video was sponsored by NordVPN, a company that is frequently mentioned in ad breaks.
Even though it’s reasonable for these creators to want to make ad money given that YouTube is their job, ad breaks can make creators seem inauthentic. In order to generate revenue, YouTubers often have to read from a script to promote another company’s objective. Sometimes this can be a problem, especially when rich companies get a lot of YouTubers to advertise an app or product that is actually relatively lackluster. A great example is Raid: Shadow Legends, a mobile game that frequently uses misleading advertising to generate more downloads, according to YouTuber D'Angelo Wallace.
On top of all of these stressors, creators are pressured to keep posting more and more. The more someone posts, the more likely the algorithm is to favor them. Alternatively, someone who is relatively inactive or even just moderately active, like Howell used to be, may get overlooked by the algorithm. According to The Atlantic, “More video is uploaded to YouTube in 60 days than the three major U.S. networks have created in the past 60 years.”
With these mounting pressures, it might be fair to say that being a YouTuber in 2022 is hard. According to Howell, it’s a lot of effort just to maintain authenticity and really be yourself. But beyond Howell's issues with “new YouTube,” he shares an experience that he had with YouTube Originals employees—one that caused him to feel blindsided, leading to his declining mental health.
According to Howell, he’d proposed a pitch about two years ago for a YouTube Originals show that he was very excited about. Everyone in YouTube Originals seemed ecstatic about it. They stated that they were ready to get it going and thought it would be perfect for the site. Howell says that he spent months working on and perfecting the pitch to send to higher–ups and get the show in the works. But after submitting his pitch and waiting for a response, the representatives for Youtube Originals didn’t respond for seven months.
Howell later received a couple more lackluster responses and an email with seven bullet point notes on how to improve his pitch. But Howell was ultimately notified via phone call that the representatives had decided the show was no longer a good fit for YouTube. The YouTube Original representatives couldn’t even bother to impart the news themselves.
“I fucking imploded,” Howell states. "A year of talking about all of the amazing things we could do. [I dedicated] my life to this, hearing nothing but hyperbolic, unabashed glee about this project. [I went] through seven months of silence, anxiety, and confusion—and then I have to hear from someone else that their strategy has shifted?"
But despite everything YouTube had put him through, Howell ends the video by discussing his future on the platform and how he’s not going to leave. Instead, he's simply going to change course by refusing to cater to the algorithm or focus on optimization, and instead just post things that he wants to on his own time.
With the power of today’s algorithm, it’s truly impressive for anyone to choose to actively ignore it. Still, even Howell admits that it’s a privilege he holds due to his history on the platform. Most YouTubers can’t just choose to ignore it; instead, they have to keep unwaveringly dedicating themselves to making content that YouTube likes and will pay for to make a living. At the end of the day, for a lot of people, YouTube truly is just a job—and a somewhat unstable one at that.
There isn’t really a way to change YouTube, and because of this, Howell thinks that it’s often better for creators like himself to create content that they are passionate about. And that’s exactly what he plans on doing from this point forward—regardless of likes, subscriber counts, and ad revenues.