The Evolution of YouTube

How YouTube has changed in recent years and the controversies that have helped shape it

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


With the release of PewDiePie’s (Felix Kjellberg’s) video “Ending the Subscribe to PewDiePie Meme” on April 28, he signaled the end of not only the battle for the most subscribed YouTuber, but also confirming the changing of the guard of the YouTube platform that many of us have recognized. The T-Series vs. PewDiePie subscriber war for the spot as most subscribed YouTuber may have led to numerous enjoyable moments. However, YouTube’s creators struggle to produce and profit off of content, and YouTube is in a situation where the culture war is centerfold on its platform.

YouTubers’ long-term prospects can’t be mentioned without highlighting the ongoing situation that has plagued the platform since early 2017. Dubbed as the “Adpocalypse” by the YouTube community, numerous advertising companies had cut ties with YouTube. For many content creators at the time, revenue from advertisements on their video was the bulk of their income.

A major reason for the Adpocalypse at the time was often attributed to PewDiePie, because he was criticized by media outlets, most notably the Wall Street Journal, as espousing anti-Semitic rhetoric in many of his videos. This resulted in him losing his partnership with Disney.

The incident was covered at large by the YouTube community alongside mainstream news outlets which, at the time, were varied. Many blamed PewDiePie for causing the Adpocalypse while others rushed to his defense. In retrospect, the incident has had numerous effects on the platform today.

“A lot of people misinterpret the PewDiePie incident. I don’t think he fully affected the website. It was a stepping stone to something bigger,” said Quinton Reviews, a Youtuber that oftentimes reviews YouTube phenomena, reflecting back on the situation. “What happened was that for some time, PewDiePie had had a lot of hit pieces written about him. It got to the point where he started, as a joke, to include a lot of humor that tried to mock that sort of thing. There was a video where he jokingly implied he was a Nazi. If you were fully caught up, you fully understood it wasn’t serious.”

The Right Opinion, a YouTube channel that focuses on documentary-style analysis of YouTube phenomena, argues that the Adpocalypse occurred not necessarily because of PewDiePie, but in conjunction with the incident. Rather, the problem was that around the same time, numerous articles by the mainstream media covered the fact that many advertisements were played in videos that featured ISIS propaganda.

“With PewDiePie, the worst possible thing was his instance brought attention to the state of the platform of the time. But he was not the reason all the advertisers left,” he said. “It was necessary in many advertisers’ eyes to remove their support. They didn’t want to be seen next to terrorist content because people may feel they are being associated with that content.”

Though PewDiePie’s actions on the platform were put on full display, other, more subtle effects began to take place as a result of the controversies in that period.


Graphics by Marlee Chlystek

Sanitized YouTube

To diffuse the situation with advertisers in response to the Adpocalypse, YouTube began to turn toward corporate media, celebrities and strongly promote harmless content. YouTubers, most notably PewDiePie, who the platform backed in the past, were soon distanced.

“They moved away from the independent creator and toward corporate creators, with guys like Colbert and Corden because they want to be safer to advertisers,” said Ethan Ralph, host of internet show The Ralph Retort. “You’ve had people that no one has heard and they’re suddenly famous. Those people might use the n-word and advertisers get nervous. They can trust these corporate entertainers—they’re more stable. They have more respect for the leash they’re on more than PewDiePie.

“YouTube wants to present themselves as a platform that can appeal to all demographics. Depending on who you are when you click on the homepage, you’ll see something different, YouTube caters to that,” The Right Opinion said. “It’s hard to say what YouTube wants. If you look at YouTube rewind you see what they’ve done there.”

To Samantha Close, associate professor at DePaul, the move is not a necessary one; the strategy YouTube is attempting is to also compete with rival media platforms.

“It’s taking away from what made it popular and groundbreaking at the beginning. The ‘you’ in YouTube is becoming less relevant,” said Samantha Close, associate professor at DePaul, criticizing the move. “It’s a decision that the folks in charge of YouTube is making. They see themselves in competition with Netflix, which is a different business model. The strength they got is a different kind of content. It’s vlogs and more independent creators. It makes me sad to [see] them going that way. They’re losing out what made them a successful platform.”


Rise of Far Right Politics

The Adpocalypse had also occurred at the dawn of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. With a Republican president about to take a seat in the oval office, the rhetoric was ready to change.

“Donald Trump had a strong social media following, and he was very active. As a result, you had more right wing political figures be so active on social media,” said Lauren Placek, a viewer of right-wing content. “So many people became interested in expressing their views online. There were right-wing Youtubers who felt there hadn’t been a fair right-wing voice, so they have been putting their own views online.”

However, the circumstances surrounding PewDiePie would have as much of an effect on right-wing politics on the platform.

“The problem was two groups didn’t get PewDiePie’s jokes—one was the mainstream media; one group was white supremacists. Both groups were fully convinced that he was non-ironically a Nazi and he was hiding it. The media attacked him for this saying that he was unironically spreading white supremacy rhetoric. The white supremacists treated him as a martyr,” Quinton said. “The major point was he normalized rhetoric. By constantly including those sorts of things in his videos, he was making a scenario where real-life white supremacists could use his face and his words to support their own horrible rhetoric.”

Ethan Ralph, whose online show has often had right-wing guests, argued in a phone interview that the right-wing politics have faced a constant takedown of their channels. This has been considered on YouTube as de-platforming,

“I think the media and the activists are desperate to get back their gatekeeper role,” Ralph said.  “Now it’s a different ballgame. You can make a YouTube video to get an audience or fire up your blog to get people to read their stuff. They don’t like this stuff because they can’t control I it?. They know they can’t fully put it back in the bottle, but the best way to kind of get their credibility or power back is to attack people’s money, kick people off Patreon or PayPal. They say they do it to everyone, but you look at the list of people who they de-platform and it leans heavily towards the right.”


Demonetization on a Large Scale

Issues on the platform since the Adpocalypse have affected YouTubers on such a large scale that it affects even the side of YouTube apolitical and noncontroversial. Youtubers across the board have suffered demonetization more frequently. Just like with how YouTube decides which videos to promote, monetization is also tied to an algorithm. Topics that may seem controversial but handled mildly have the potential to be demonetized.

“It’s one thing if a YouTube channel is promoting Nazism or racism. But there’s other videos out there that speak against that,” Placek said. “Suicide is a big topic too. Even if it’s a video that’s supposed to be helpful and not spreading hate, those videos will get demonetized or taken just because it mentions certain topics.”

“The tricky situation isn’t just making content, it’s making content that satisfies a mysterious, mechanical force which controls everything about our professional career and the way I pay my bills,” Quinton Reviews said.

Another common problem attached with demonetization is once a video is published, the video may initially be uploaded as being demonetized based on the algorithm. A solution is to appeal for monetization by having it manually reviewed. The problem is even if the video is approved, it can not only take days, but once it’s monetized most of the bulk of views the video would have received has happened. The creator is not compensated for the views gained during demonetization.

The system has been in place for a while now and has had little change since implementation.

“I feel like they’re currently not looking for nuance and therefore they will continue to be criticized because they will be demonetizing videos that cover topics really well and they demonetize it just because it may be a bit insensitive, and that’s silly,” The Right Opinion said.