Yesterday in the “Twittersphere,” noted intellectual Sam Harris tweeted some distressing news:
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) May 8, 2017
What does this ominous tweet mean, exactly? Those of you familiar with Amazon are probably also familiar with their ads on some of your favorite blogs or websites. Amazon uses what are known as “cookies” to remember items you’ve shopped for before, and then when you visit a website that has the Amazon ad bar it will populate some of the items you’ve been looking at. This is called “affirmation” in the marketing biz: reminding you constantly about the things you’ve contemplated buying, thus re-affirming it’s importance in your mind. Creepy, right?
Anyway, the point is that the “Amazon Affiliate Program” is how the company finds websites to advertise on. If you’ve ever clicked on a product featured on your favorite podcast’s website, that click leads to a small amount of money paid to the content creator who put up the ad. This is how a lot of content creators stay in business: they use affiliate programs with shopping sites to make small amounts of money that add up. This is what fuels the business, in a lot of ways.
There are several ways to “monetize” (AKA start making revenue on) your content as a YouTuber, Blogger, or Podcaster. YouTube has a monetization feature which pays you for every “engagement” with an ad (an engagement being a certain amount of time the viewer watches an ad rather than clicking passed it.) Several companies also advertise on podcasts through “plugs”, where the host mentions a product on their show and if the listener enters the show’s promotional code upon purchase the show gets a cut of the sale.
Let’s also not forget all the advertising and sharing required to successfully promote your product on social media. There is a vast network of monetization on the web, if you know where to find it.
This all sounds great, right? A real future on the web for people who are creative and ready to make as much content as they can and make some decent money in the process, it seems. So is there any problem?
This is where Sam Harris’ tweet comes into play: let’s not forget for a second that while these platforms are creator driven, they’re also owned by large companies who can shut you down for almost no reason at all.
Lately, several streams of monetization have dried up because of arbitrary reasoning, reasoning of which the companies have been having trouble explaining themselves. It doesn’t seem to be connected to hateful or abusive content: Sam Harris’ podcast is mostly about intellectual topics like religion, philosophy, and neuroscience. Yet Amazon deemed it not worthy of being an affiliate with.
Roaming Millennial, another popular YouTuber, has made several videos about a variety of cultural and political topics. Her channel is hardly what anyone would consider offensive. Yet many of her videos have been demonetized completely, and there doesn’t seem to be consistent reasoning why YouTube deemed her content not worthy of advertisers.
Let’s take another, slightly more offensive example. Steven Crowder runs the “Louder with Crowder” podcast and his show covers several controversial subjects in the news. Crowder has not been one to shy away from politically incorrect topics like gender fluidity and the ridiculousness of the modern college campus (please, Steven, tell us how you really feel.) Yet the topic that got several of his show’s episodes demonetized was a criticism of another YouTube “news show” (term used loosely), “The Young Turks.” Crowder even claimed YouTube was showing favoritism toward The Young Turks, demonetizing its critics and boosting TYT videos to the front page even when they were consistently down voted.
But why, one might ask? What incredulous and unprovoked blow to decency’s face did they blow that warranted a financial slap on the wrist? The point originally was to make advertisers happy: some premium brands weren’t happy to find out their commercials were played along videos that praised the holocaust or broadcasted klan rallies. So they intervened in the process, asking that YouTube be more selective. This has most certainly happened on various platforms, including Amazon, where advertisers are concerned for their brand’s reputable name. It’s almost understandable, except for the sad fact that the red line they draw in the sand isn’t clear at all. The list of community standards grows every day, and sometimes companies impose nonexistent ones just because they can. All to make those darn soda companies happy.
The point is, it’s becoming hard to know exactly what it is that will make these large companies suddenly unplug your cash flow: is it a criticism of other cultures or barbaric religious practices, as is the case with Sam Harris? Is it an insensitivity toward delicate issues by speaking about them frankly, as is the case with Roaming Millennial? Or is it that your show might even threaten the preferred champion of the platform, as it is with Louder with Crowder? These ponderings all lead to two very uncomfortable questions: is the only way to make money through affiliate programs or monetized videos by playing the game their way? And, if so, how will that affect the creative spirit of the community when they learn that they can’t express themselves freely?
These are serious questions that need to be addressed soon if the platforms want long-term health. Though the advertisers do help pay the bills, they wouldn’t have anything to advertise on if it weren’t for the content creators. If they start losing touch with the fact that these platforms are created by the users, they’ll be playing those soda commercials to an audience of none. But at least those people will have the right opinions. Right?
There isn’t a good answer to avoiding this from happening to you right now. All you can really do at the end of the day is be authentically you, and not let the threat of autocratic shutdown spoil your creative spirit. If you are saying something important, people will support you. It doesn’t have to be through ads or affiliate programs: Steven Crowder started what’s called the “Mug Club” to bypass demonetization issues, where users can pay an annual fee for daily content and get a sweet coffee mug in the process!
Indeed, it seems premium content is the future when it comes to keeping your revenue lines safe. Without it, you could just get your money cut off for no clear reason, and then you’re left with nothing! So when starting off in your creative career, try to have a long term strategy that involves a subscription based system.
Most importantly, create without fear! You run the show, not YouTube or Amazon. If these companies feel they need to impose an arbitrary purity test to their revenue streams, they may find out that there are a whole lot of people who don’t conform perfectly to their standards. Nor do they need to be: we’re not all drones in a Seattle warehouse. We’re humans, imperfect and occasionally brash. Don’t tame yourself for fear of retribution. Do you, whoever that is, to its fullest potential.