Creators are claiming that an “algorithm change” is to blame for a series of issues on YouTube: a sudden decrease in the average amount of views their videos get, users being unsubscribed from channels without their knowledge, and videos not appearing in the subscriptions feed. TenEighty chats with Luke Cutforth, Scola Dondo, Mary Akemon, and the Internet Creators Guild about what is actually happening, the consequences for creators, and the future of YouTube.
“Remember the sub feed? Remember when that was a thing? This is what we get now, we get the ‘recommended’.”
On 2 December, Felix Kjellberg uploaded DELETING MY CHANNEL AT 50 MILLION. in which he outlines issues that he – and many other creators – have been experiencing: a significant depletion in the amount of views each video gets, being unsubscribed from channels without realising, and videos from channels you are subscribed to not appearing in the subscriptions feed.
A few weeks earlier, Felix ended his daily vlog series after noticing how poorly they were performing. He assumed his subscribers didn’t enjoy them. “It’s not worth it if people don’t like the content that I’m making,” he said, “[but] now I’ve figured out it’s because YouTube changed how you view videos.”
Calling out the new notification system, which is being advocated by creators as the only guaranteed way to see every upload, he said: “You can double-subscribe now. Hey, what a great idea! ‘Let’s make the subscription fucking useless, now they’ve got to double subscribe.’
“I find that a lot of people that work with YouTube [the company], almost anyone, have no idea what it’s like to work on YouTube as a content creator,” Felix added. “As someone who has built this for years and really cares about it… It feels like a kick in the face when they make changes and don’t tell anyone about it, because this site means so much to YouTubers.”
In a second video, Felix clarified that it’s only views on newer uploads that are affected. Before November, his videos would average around five million views. Now they struggle to get two million, which Felix referred to as a “record low”. As the most subscribed creator on YouTube with over 50 million subscribers, that means only 4% of his audience are now seeing his videos.
Even the amount of views he would usually receive from being ‘suggested’ has decreased. “It seems like it’s more focused on viral videos now,” he said.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen an algorithm change by a long shot…”
Speaking to TenEighty, Luke Cutforth points out that in his seven years on YouTube there have always been outcries from creators about problems with the subscription box. So what makes this any different? “This is the first time in my existence on YouTube where it has affected the biggest channels,” he says. “I also think it’s the worst I’ve ever seen an algorithm change by a long shot.”
In 2012, the algorithm changed to favour ‘watch time’, in a move intended to drum out clickbait videos. However, it also put pressure on creators to upload longer and more regular content, as this was the type of video that would be rewarded.
This unfairly disadvantaged certain types of creators. In 2015, TenEighty investigated how ‘watch time’ had damaged animators, whose videos tend to be shorter than those of vloggers and gamers, because of how much time it takes to create even a short animation.
But are the recent issues genuinely down to an ‘algorithm change’? Scola Dondo thinks it’s certainly feasible. She says: “I’m not sure about this one, I’ve been on YouTube a long time and the website has changed a lot so it’s totally possible.”
Luke also believes there has been an algorithm change, but not in the way people think. “This is not a change to subscriptions,” he says. “When YouTube carts out their head of subscriptions to assure everyone that nothing has changed, I believe they are genuinely telling the truth, or most of it.”
On 14 December, YouTube Help uploaded Let’s talk about subscriptions in which Zindzi McCormick, a Subscriptions Product Manager at YouTube, affirms that YouTube doesn’t unsubscribe people from channels.
“Subscribing is a core part of the YouTube experience,” she says. “We’ve actually already looked at over a hundred different cases and so far we haven’t been able to find any underlying glitch.”
Addressing the issue of videos not appearing in subscriptions feeds, Zindzi says: “Every video that a creator uploads will show up on the subs feed for all of their subscribers by default… usually, it’s just a matter of minutes.”
Yet, if this is the case, there shouldn’t be any issues with subscriptions despite the multiple reports from creators and users. It also doesn’t address whether or not there has been changes to the algorithm. Something doesn’t add up.
Luke accepts that YouTube hasn’t changed the way it deals with subscriptions, but points out that the subscription tab has moved. “It’s no longer the default view when you go to YouTube, meaning what you mostly see is ‘what to watch’ or ‘recommended for you’.”
Luke – and many others – believe that the ‘what to watch’ and ‘recommended for you’ sections are where an algorithm change lies. “[It] now cares a lot less about what you’ve subscribed to,” he says. “Instead it makes guesses about what you might want to watch rather than believing what you’ve told it you want to watch.”
“YouTube no longer trusts you to decide for yourself what you want to see,” he continues. “If I go to my homepage, SEVEN OUT OF EIGHT VIDEOS are from channels I am not subscribed to!”
While YouTube haven’t said much outside of denying any changes, it does appear that they’re concerned. The aforementioned video, and a survey on the topic of subscriptions have been issued.
Christopher Schmidt, a YouTube employee, has also responded to concerns on Twitter, denying that the decrease in views is due to an intentional ‘algorithm change’.
YouTube's algorithms change constantly. What doesn't change: Intent ("more watchtime"). YT is always working to increase watchtime. 1/
— Christopher Schmidt (@crschmidt) December 4, 2016
Hank Green agreed, saying that “attrition is unavoidable”, and YouTube has also offered an explanation of the trending tab.
The Internet Creators Guild are also investigating.
We’re concerned to hear reports of @YouTube unsubscribing viewers from channels and are collecting documented instances & information. 📝 pic.twitter.com/rUJUcTSCoa
— ICG (@ICGuild) December 2, 2016
Laura Chernikoff, Executive Director of the Internet Creators Guild says that, although they are unsure what is causing the problems, they are “focusing on collecting facts–the symptoms, rather than the supposed causes.”
“Right now we’re working with creators of many different sizes and genres to gather data [and] log errors,” she says.
She adds that what is now needed is “clear and open communication from YouTube… describing the issues they’ve heard about, what they’re doing to look into them, and what they’re finding.”
However, the discussion among creators continues, including questions directed at YouTube and requests that viewers check that they are still subscribed to their channels.
I think the main prob other than algorithm changes is actually that the homepage just recommends huge YouTubers + doesn't have your sub feed
— Lex Croucher (@lexcanroar) November 28, 2016
Evan Edinger, Sean McLoughlin, and Ethan Klein have voiced their concerns in videos about the recent issues, emphasising the lack of answers from YouTube about why these issues are occurring, and advocating the use of the bell button to be notified when a creator uploads.
On Twitter, Emma Blackery said that “YouTube is blatantly lying to us”, while Em Ford said that “transparency is key”.
Sammy Albon compared the changes on YouTube to “twitter hiding like all my tweets and making me lose followers each time i tweeted”.
Some creators also believe that the type of content that is valued on YouTube is changing. “I think that the traditional vlog is dead,” says Mary Akemon, a smaller YouTuber and organiser of Community Unite.
“Shorter content used to be prized. I still cringe at making a video over five minutes, and I rarely watch one that long, [but now] watch time is king, so if your content isn’t long form you’re doomed.”
Laura agrees: Tthe YouTube algorithm favours daily, consistently performing, long-form content. That does not necessarily mean it favours virality, but… it’s clear the end goal is in keeping users on the site for longer viewing sessions.”
“It’s like everyone’s turning into a tabloid trying to think up the most outrageous title to get views”
Scola suggests that the decrease in views means that creators have to think of new ways to make their videos attractive to their audiences. She says: “It’s going to start affecting the way creators create and actually it already has. It’s like everyone’s turning into a tabloid trying to think up the most outrageous title to get views.”
While notable online creators are taking notice and speaking out, these issues are hitting smaller YouTubers significantly. “Normally I’m able to monitor the growth of views within the first hour of uploading and it’s just been dismal,” says Mary. “I first noticed it in September, and pretty much every video I’ve uploaded since has been under the average amount for my channel [consistently] for a couple weeks [after] upload.”
Mary isn’t sure what is causing the problems, but points out that if the algorithm has changed to favour engagement – likes and comments – then this should benefit smaller creators.
“Generally we have a pretty good view-to-engagement ratio,” says Mary. “[But] what we [do] know is that subs and views = value. So if those things are down, initially it may move people to stop making videos.”
“It’s good when those at the top are vocal. It gets ‘YouTube, LLC’ to notice.”
However, she finds hope in the discussion that’s taking place as it gets everyone involved in the effort to resolve the issues.“Those from all sub levels start voicing their opinions,” she says. ”It’s good when those at the top – like PewDiePie [Felix] – are vocal. It gets ‘YouTube, LLC’ to notice.”
While Luke believes that there is “very little” that YouTubers can do to remedy the situation, Mary urges: “Use your power as creators to contact YouTube, use resources like Spaces, Managers, Networks…Viewers should comment and like more.” She believes that this engagement can make a view more valuable.
Laura says that it is advisable for creators to diversify in these conditions. “These recent issues reaffirm that it benefits creators to have other ways to make money, other places to publish their work, and other methods for connecting with their audiences.”
The future of YouTube and the creators that call it home, seems uncertain. Platforms like Vimeo, which has funded film projects, such as PJ Liguori’s series Oscar’s Hotel in the past, and Facebook Video, with a reported eight billion video views a day, are attracting creators.
It prompts the question as to whether some creators might even start to abandon the platform. “I think ‘YouTube, LLC’ needs to be careful. More and more creators are seeking other options,” says Mary. “Giants can fall and Google isn’t perfect.”
Scola agrees that some may look for an alternative. “There’s going to be less variety because everyone will try to do what works best for the new system,” Scola notes. ”I guess if that doesn’t happen then maybe some people will find another platform that better suits them.”
“Creators are competing within an increasingly busy ecosystem”
Laura is far more positive, referring to the “authenticity, connection, and a sense of true belonging” that individual creators bring to the platform. Nonetheless she acknowledges the hardship that they now experience when faced with companies that have “huge teams and budgets that crank out a massive amount of content.
“Creators are competing within an increasingly busy ecosystem,” she states.
Luke, on the other hand, is not too sure. “I think YouTube in the long term may even be actively killing individual made content like myself or most creators,” he says. “It’s possible that they may want to shake the ‘kid in their bedroom’ image they’ve had since they started as this is less attractive to broadcasters, advertisers, and news networks.”
He suggests that companies with higher budgets will now take priority. “Slowly over the next ten years, individual creators like myself on YouTube, who don’t have a team of editors, will die out,” he says. “And they’ll be replaced (as is already happening) with news organisations, broadcasters, and advertisers making premium content all day, every day.
“YouTube is not broken,” Luke states. “YouTube is changing and doesn’t seem to care if it leaves us all behind.”
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