Just like Facebook and Instagram, YouTube uses a complex algorithm to decide the order of videos in any user’s feed. This means that YouTube shows its viewers the videos it thinks they want to see.
YouTube regularly tinkers with its algorithm, and recent changes have upset many of its more established broadcasters. One adjustment that caused concern was the expansion of the algorithm to affect videos in viewers’ subscription feeds:
For much of 2018, the algorithm favored new videos over those already uploaded. This meant that YouTube Creators felt pressured to release more and more videos at a frequent rate, in order to avoid having their videos unceremoniously shunted down subscriber feeds.
As a result, many video producers are now suffering from YouTube Creator burnout—they feel overwhelmed, on a perpetual treadmill. Many believe it is a case of “film or die,” in the YouTube rankings at least.
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YouTube began changing its algorithm in late 2017 in reaction to the Logan Paul saga – when influencer Logan Paul posted a video in which he stumbled on the body of a suicide victim. In reaction, multiple big-brand advertisers pulled their ads from the platform, worried about their ads playing on content that contradicted their brand values.
YouTube’s reaction was to set new rules about who could monetize their channels, with many existing channels losing their ability to earn income. YouTube Creators weren’t happy with the new rules, particularly as they likely lead to fewer opportunities for people to monetize their videos. One YouTuber complained on Reddit, “With this new change, I feel like I’m being pressured to do that annoying “don’t forget to mash that subscribe button” thing that I hate so much.”
Great piece on the toxicity of the YouTube algorithm:
“Professional YouTubers speak in tones at once reverential and resentful of the power of ‘The Algorithm.’ When your income is dependent on it, this code can decide what, or even whether, you eat.” https://t.co/fJi8oClSRh
— Taryn Southern (@TarynSouthern) September 11, 2018
With fewer monetized channels, YouTube has more capacity to check video content for advertising appropriateness. These changes have had a widespread impact. Some niche micro-influencer channels have lost the ability to play sponsored ads on their videos, diminishing their earning opportunities.
Brands are also affected, particularly those in specialist fields that are never likely to attract a large enough following to trigger advertisements. Indeed, brands in certain niche industries may no longer have suitable influencers promoting to the right communities through YouTube.
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The goal of any YouTuber is to have their content featured in YouTube’s “Recommended” list. However, that can be a surprisingly challenging goal for YouTube Creators.
YouTube rewards those creators who post most frequently. This means in order to be successful, creators need to produce a constant stream of videos. If they slow down their video production, YouTube penalizes them and rewards somebody who can deliver more content.
Although making a video may appear simple to the viewer, it usually involves a ton of work behind the scenes. Creators need to plan the video, stage it, shoot it, edit it, and upload it. Once the YouTuber has uploaded their video, they have to engage with their followers, monitoring and replying to comments.
Many of the best known YouTube Creators began their channels as labors of love. With the new algorithm, many creators now have to devote more hours per week to their videos than the average worker does to a full-time job. Tyler “Ninja” Blevins (who also livestreams) describes his daily schedule: ”9:30 is when I start in the morning and then I play until four, so that’s like six, six-and-a-half hours. Then I’ll take a nice three- to four-hour break with the wife, the dogs or family — we have like family nights, too — and then come back on around seven o’clock central until like two, three in the morning. The minimum is 12 hours a day, and then I’ll sleep for less than six or seven hours.”
Many YouTube stars have taken time out this year to refresh themselves. These include such YouTube luminaries as the Dolan Twins, Jacksepticeye (aka Seán William McLoughlin), David Dobrik, and Jake Paul.
Elle Mills made a very public video, explaining her personal burnout. “It’s not what I expected. I’m constantly alone, always unhealthily stressed, and always feel this overwhelming pressure… I’m starting to get panic attacks and it’s starting to scare me. I’m literally just waiting for me to hit my breaking point.”
Having a YouTube Creator burnout at just 19 suggests that the current system is piling considerable stress onto its stars. Many seem to be experiencing a paradoxical struggle between wanting to be happy “living their passion” while slowly growing to hate what they do after it’s become a daily grind.
Regular full-time jobs include vacation time and sick days. YouTubers don’t get paid vacation or sabbaticals, and instead, are essentially punished by the algorithms for their absence. This leaves little room for taking time to recharge, deal with an illness, or reduce stress.
Many creators are struggling to live an unsustainable “hamster wheel” lifestyle. The more they produce, the less satisfaction they feel. They are suffering from the law of diminishing returns, seeing fewer returns on their investment of work. This stunts creativity, with worn out YouTubers producing content for the sake of content.
This cannot be good for YouTube fans, who undoubtedly would prefer to see quality content from their influencers, even if it is not as often as the algorithm suggests. It also limits opportunities for brands to interact with the favored influencers.
The situation is not ideal for YouTube either. The video platform does not want to risk its top creators burning out and leaving the platform, possibly moving to Twitch, Facebook, or Instagram. It risks facing further bad publicity for not doing enough to help those influencers suffering from depression (or worse). YouTube doesn’t benefit when low-quality content is uploaded either.
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The challenge for YouTube is to find a balance between appeasing worried advertisers, exciting users with new content, and keeping popular broadcasters on their side. Early signals suggest that YouTube may have recognized the need to address this problem.
Little Monster kept a close eye on its clients’ channels this year, noticing that each channel had a large fall in the number of new videos included in YouTube’s “Recommended” section in August. While there are many possible reasons for this, one is that YouTube has partially reversed direction, with the algorithm focusing more on promoting older videos. If this is indeed true, this will reduce the constant need for new videos, and will probably increase the overall quality of the videos Creators share.
YouTube could also consider providing some level of personal and mental health support for its Creators, beyond just encouraging mental health as a broad concept. Gaming writer and video influencer Matt Lees believes that YouTube currently provides lackluster support and advice: “Encouraging creators to ‘take a break’ is pretty laughable from a system that actively promotes quantity over quality,” he says. “There’s no sense of responsibility for the culture that YouTube has created.”
Clearly, YouTube Creator burnout endangers everybody. At this point, YouTube knows it cannot isolate itself from the problem. It currently tries to make the lives of its creators easier with regular feature and policy updates. It also offers Creator Studio to simplify YouTubers’ lives by providing them with more insight into their viewers so they can tailor their content and grow their audience.
However, if YouTube is to continue to thrive, it may need to further rebalance its algorithm to make the platform more sustainable in the long-term. And it will definitely need to support its top creators to perform at their best.