In 2005, digital history was just beginning, the internet morphing from Angelfire and LiveJournal pages littered with neon pink 8-bit icons and animated dancing babies to organized and centralized platforms like MySpace and Friendster or Facebook for the select few, from a marginal meeting place for the socially awkward and porn-addicted to an indispensable part of the everyday of everyone, from a private place for perversions to a wholly public square. That demanded a process of cleansing, and into that world came the video hosting platform YouTube. Its tech was better, its videos loaded faster, its interface was easier, and its popularity soared. Above all, it had standards. Tech writers crowed about the platform’s capacity to detect and remove the porn and gore and fetishes that dominated rival sites, even as those standards denied YouTube its easiest path to viewers, to videos, and to revenue. Eighteen months after the first video was uploaded to YouTube, a grainy and bizarre 20 second clip of a YouTube cofounder at the zoo, Google, vanguard of the new, clean internet, bought the platform for one billion, six-hundred and fifty million dollars.
YouTube had only seen its first ads a few months before, but a savvy company can turn users to profit, or at least higher stock prices, and Google was and is among the savviest. To understand how the modern day YouTube, rocked week in and week out by new scandal, can right their ship while bettering the world requires delving deep into that process. Standing in the way is the ad world’s impenetrable argot, composed of English and English-sounding words which combine to form phrases with no English meaning, like Dynamic Remarketing Implementation Specialist and Programmatic Platform Solutions Consultant, two titles conferred on me for my success at scaling and optimizing and 10X’ing. From that vocabulary, I’ll use only two terms, a split from the dozens of possible splits of the ad world: brand and performance.
In its simplest, most succinct state, brand sells your company and performance sells your product. The two sit on opposite sides of old and new, of art and science. Brand is the world of three martini lunches, double breasted suits, and soliloquies on selling a lifestyle and an identity. Brand is creative shops of dejected art students spending months prepping a 15-second spot. Performance is the world of metrics, databases, and algorithms. Performance is the sledgehammer Google and Facebook took to brand, turning soliloquies into clinical analysis of the dollars you get from your customers because of the dollars you spend with us.
But rather than doing away with brand, performance delineated and defined it, set expectations for advertisers, and peeled back the fog of what makes something sell. Advertisers still demand brand, and that has never fit neatly into Google’s data-driven culture. Performance shows you what click came before what sale, the cost of that click, and the revenue on that sale. Brand is more nebulous, harder to pin down. Google rolled out half a dozen surveys and correlated search summaries and audience behavior metrics to show advertisers what they got for their brand money, but fitting brand in the data-driven box was a constant struggle.
In February 2017, a few weeks after headlines blared that YouTube shared ad revenue with Hezbollah and Hamas, and a month ahead of the realization similar headlines would become the new norm, the Wall Street Journal fawned over the platform and its 10-fold increase in viewership “fueled by the Google unit’s aggressive embrace of artificial intelligence to recommend videos”, a growth rate that would put the platform ahead of traditional TV in short order. The lone brand seller on my team sent the story out to the group, composed of eight performance sellers and three performance data analysts, delighting that TV, the white whale of brand, was giving way to a Google product, that the clinical data scientists composing our client’s C-Suite would now see the value of brand and invest hand over fist in YouTube spots.
The article gushed about videos uploaded, user watch time, and the vast reservoirs of advertising opportunities. Performance craves growth like that. Performance is most at home at the top of clear cut searches like “Expedia deals to New York” or “Download Visa Apple Pay”, which need no machines guessing or algorithms extrapolating to understand the user’s intent, and searches of this type made up a third to half of my clients’ budgets. A ten-fold jump there would map almost perfectly to a ten-fold increase in sales for our clients and something close to that in revenue.
Brand is most at home on the national stage, in slots like the Super Bowl and the Oscars. Brand’s measurement is fuzzy, divined from a combination of surveys, focus groups, and a procession of third party providers promising to clear the fuzziness so anathema to Google and the clinical data scientists at our client’s C-Suite. “What can’t be measured can’t be improved” is the Hail Mary and the Shahada of Google, repeated in course and repeated endlessly in times of uncertainty, and brand is uncertainty. Executives, managers, stockholders, and tech pundits believed the metrics of performance could manage that uncertainty, and began to treasure growth in viewers and watch time.
But among YouTube’s first “billion hours of watch time” were hundreds of thousands of hours spent on how the Sandy Hook victims were crisis actors and how diversity is white genocide. After watching a cat video on a clean browser I was recommended “TOP 5 WAYS TO IDENTIFY A JEW”. I’d type the Arabic for “foundation” into the search bar, and YouTube would autofill half a dozen names for ISIS media houses interspersed with their Al-Qaeda and Taliban equivalents. A million more searches is a gold mine for advertisers. A million more videos is a minefield.
In 2017, the mines went off with overpowering force. A New York Times op-ed called for Google’s CEO to resign, and that episode would prove the smaller of last year’s scandals. The James Damore saga stirred political passions but “Google fires employee behind anti-diversity memo” elicits neither the depth nor the universality of revulsion of “YouTube Is A ‘Shop Window’ For Child Abusers”, “YouTube promotes conspiracy videos attacking Florida’s shooting survivors”, or “Big brands fund terror through online adverts”.
My old coworkers insisted the winds would change again and that YouTube’s pitch to creators and to advertisers remained irresistible. YouTube will host your gigabytes worth of data for free and let anyone in the world access your videos instantaneously. They’ll let you see who watches the video, for how long, and who referred them. They’ll then use the world’s best AI to comb through an audience of one and a half billion to find who’s most receptive to your message and deliver them to your channel. That was power not even the best advertisers in the world had a decade ago.
But when the conversation moves to responsibility for content hosted, YouTube morphs from game-changing technology to a simple public square, access to which is a god-given right denied only to those who deal in bare breasts or copyrighted soundtracks. The scandal, in this telling, is a latter-day Skokie Affair with YouTube playing the role of the ACLU, as though the lawyers took breaks from trial by finding poor whites from broken homes and handing them copies of Mein Kampf.
YouTube competes with TV for money to build brand image, and TV can tell advertisers with near certainty that jihadi and Nazi content will not be a part of that image. YouTube has no such capacity, and any resourceful journalist can follow YouTube’s own recommendations to find and report on the sorts of fiascos that brand managers exist to avoid. While that remains true, each new view, each hour watched, and every other uptick in performance metrics represents a greater cost than benefit. That will remain true until YouTube raises the standard of who they grant their services to.
The thousands of creators who found no audience for their bile and prejudices and conspiracies before YouTube, and cannot without YouTube, and the hundreds of thousands who found no content to support their bile and prejudices and conspiracies before YouTube, will cry censorship and bias and more, enlisting mainstream creators along the way. Those creators will make the most noise, and YouTube will face headlines about an exodus to Vimeo or Dailymotion. Those creators will be standing shoulder to shoulder with society’s worst, and YouTube is big and its value distributed enough to let them. No one at YouTube would tell a disaffected teen in a Beirut slum to watch more Hezbollah videos, and they shouldn’t program machines to do the same. If a creator fails that simple moral test, they’re a liability for brands no matter how large or loyal their following.
Chasing clicks and hours watched has robbed YouTube of its reliability, its safety, and its appeal to brands. The fix demands fighting an internal culture that confuses freedom of speech with a right to world-beating advertising techniques and that refuses to step up to its role as an arbiter of truth. Google’s Search team solved the latter after once finding itself telling users vaccines cause autism and 9/11 was an inside job. The Search team chased truth and reliability and rejected calls to let the slipperiness of truth and reliability dissuade them. YouTube, for its future and society’s, must do the same.