Free Labour in YouTube’s Capitalist Society

Digital media has had an undoubtedly huge effect on the world of work in many positive, but also many problematic ways. One of the many branches that digital media has unlocked is a whole new sphere of occupations; not only are there new ways to work, there are entirely new – and entirely digital – places to work. In 2007, YouTube launched its ‘Partner Program’ (Official YouTube Blog, 2007) after growing astronomically in 2006, creating advertising spaces on and around particular users’ generated content and offering said users a cut of the profits made from this. To users at the time, the partner program represented greener pastures on the horizon, where users could now be paid to create content that they were otherwise gladly making purely for their own personal interests (for free). This essay, however, will explore how digital media has bolstered the concept of ‘free labour’ and changed the way people work. Concerning user-generated content production, particularly on YouTube, this essay will discuss the impact of the YouTube Partner Program, its creator-centric facade and its sinister exploitative underbelly, which solidifies and embodies the notion of immaterial labour.


An Introduction to Free Labour in the Digital Age

Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited. (Terranova, 2000)

Terranova wholly and eloquently summarises the dangers within the concept of free labour. Free labour or immaterial labour is a term for labour that produces no ‘material’ goods (i.e produces cultural or personal rewards as opposed to currency or ‘material goods’) for the labourer (Hardt and Negri, 2001). The danger, as Terranova explains, is the practice of commodifying – or transforming into trade value – these tasks and activities that are not generally understood as traditional ‘labour’ due to them yielding immaterial results. In the early internet days, as Terranova goes on to explain when summarising the case of The AOL Community Leader Programme, corporations like AOL manipulated people into free labour by attracting users of their sites to moderate chat rooms and community boards purely for fun, cultural and social reasons, something which has since become widely understood as ‘real’ labour that should certainly be rewarded like any other professional occupation, resulting in legal action to be taken against the offending corporations (Priceonomics, 2014). Since the AOL controversy, users have become wiser to outward exploitation of this calibre, yet online corporations have arguably only become more exploitative and manipulative, deeper disguising what is actually labour within the services of the sites they host.

In 2012, Facebook announced that the average revenue it makes per individual user of its then 955 million monthly active users quarterly was $1.21 (Facebook, 2012); with companies like Facebook making extortionate amounts of money from the content users, immaterial labour is clearly easy to lace into online services. Of course, many users extract immaterial value, whether that be social or emotional value, through generating content for sites like Facebook due to the networking service they present, so the argument of whether Facebook is forcing free labour out of its users is incredibly debatable. The point still stands that the users’ role in producing a current of profit exclusively for the corporation sitting beneath the facade of the site or service they provide is often overlooked by the very users in question, and the ethics of this lack of transparency are certainly something that should be discussed. Nicholas Carr puts this bluntly when comparing this type of business to sharecropping in agriculture – where a landowner will allow a tenant to use and work the land for a cut of the produce – explaining that:

One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. (Carr, 2017)

The premise of this business model is that the ‘many’ performing the labour make insignificant amounts of money through advertising revenue, but when every cent of every user’s revenue are totalled into one bucket, the ‘few’ snatches a lot of money exclusively for themselves for doing essentially nothing. Besides the obvious parallels between sharecropping, the print industry and alike, the premise of this business model on this sheer scale is undeniably something that could only be achievable in the digital age due to the advent of the internet and digital media and is certainly a potential downside to Web 2.0.

In the argument of what constitutes actual labour, reward for labour is at the epicentre of the debate. In the traditional sense, the word ‘labour’ implies work that one is employed to do, usually for a reward, which is usually payment in the form of money. Of course, alongside this, volunteer work is understood as work done for free, usually with the ‘reward’ for the labour being something else of value to the person performing the labour. In the case of a volunteer shop assistant, for better or for worse, the personal value the volunteer may be rewarded with could be experience working a shop, to further the future of their career. In more specific industries, such as film or journalism, often people will volunteer for labour for the sake of exposure, to make a name for oneself. It is acknowledged by most that this type of free labour for ‘exposure’ or ‘experience’ is manipulation – to the point where it has become a niche internet meme of its own (Estrada, n.d.) – yet this type of work continues on despite diminishing returns for the labourer, because independent content generators being manipulated believe that they are receiving value for their labour.

This argument is not about experience nor exposure being invalid or invaluable reasons to work. It is more that if certain corporations can offer these rewards and a monetary incentive, all – or at least most – corporations should. Digital media, for many reasons, has only made this form of work more common. Many users of the internet are under the pretense, or at least are ignorant to, laws that apply to their actions – whether that be copyright laws for photographs, music or art, or labour laws that ensure employee rights are upheld – due to the free and open nature of cyberspace, meaning that work is ignorantly stolen leaving the labourer unpaid. On top of this, the internet is a free-for-all for business startups and small companies that may be financially lacking, who recruit workers with the promise of reward later along the company’s timeline. These are just a few possible explanations why digital media has extended this older work model and enforces the notion of free labour.

It is not just the rewards of labour that have been changed by developments in digital media, types of labour have evolved; new ways to work, like remote working, are becoming feasible and entirely new occupations have been birthed from all this change. With most, if not all jobs requiring a comprehensive understanding of modern technology and social networks, it is not a stretch to say that the world of work has become technology-centric, with digital media infecting even the most isolated of jobs. With new jobs being born out of necessity, it is difficult to maintain a single definition of the word ‘labour’ broad enough to include modern and digital labour; the line of what is and is not ‘labour’ in the digital age is blurred. A perfect example of this is the discussion of review sites, whether it be establishment reviews, such as TripAdvisor, or film review sites like IMDb or Letterboxd. The main premise of these sites is that users review places they’ve been or films they’ve seen so that fellow users can gain an insight on a place or film without being there or seeing it. These sites are so effective because they are born of necessity for a platform and their shared simple premise is very attractive to users. This becomes problematic when a user considers that they are the fundamental driving force of the platform; without the content produced by the user-base, the sites would cease to function entirely.

The sites that host this content gain money from advertising revenue, brand deals and similar streams, while the producers of the content, the users, see nothing of this money. The debate that stems from this is once again a question of value – as previously mentioned, reward for labour does not necessarily equate to financial reward; writers of the content must receive some form of personal reward that is valuable to them, else the user base of the sites would drop significantly. If a writer eats at a terrible restaurant or watches a terrible film, they may feel rewarded through warning other readers. In this case, the readers, too, are rewarded for their use of the service, as they save time and money by avoiding poorly reviewed places. Peter O’Connor eloquently summarises why these platforms have such great success and why they are so ‘rewarding’ to their users: ‘By making it easier for consumers to disseminate their viewpoints, and facilitating access to such opinions, the Internet is having a profound effect on how consumers shop.’ (O’Connor, 2008). The owners of the sites acknowledge this as the reward for users’ labour, with monthly emails praising writers for how much they’ve helped readers and incentivising the production of further content with meaningless milestones, for example on TripAdvisor ‘You can collect points to reach new levels and unlock badges along the way!’ (TripAdvisor, 2019).  While there is undeniably personal value for the users, the revenue that the site owners receive is largely generated from the content produced, but whether this revenue is of greater value than the value the users gain from the service is difficult to discern. Problems like this are certainly not exclusive to jobs in the wake of the rise of digital media, though digital media has been integral in the creation of these platforms and has undeniably allowed this arguably exploitative form of labour to grow further.

YouTube’s Capitalist Society

Despite all the hype surrounding the innovative uses of the internet as a public medium, it is still a medium constructed in a capitalist era…  it is susceptible to the same forces that… defined the nature of radio and television, media once hailed for providing innovative ways of communication… Nowadays, both media have transformed and produce commercial, formulaic programming for the most part. Advertising revenue has more impact on programming than democratic  deals. (Papacharissi, 2002)

Papacharissi’s fears of the internet are incredibly apparent within YouTube. The rise of YouTube echoes the rise of television and radio with great similarities. Upon launch in 2005, YouTube was a bare-bones video hosting site that had as much potential of freedom as the internet itself did; users could share whatever video content they wanted to whoever they wanted for ‘free’. The platform quickly developed into more than just a pool of random videos as creators started uploading to their own schedules, driving traffic not just to a single video, but to the creator’s entire channel of content and content to come. Just like in film, television and radio, specific creators were cast into stardom and built up huge fanbases who would log in every upload day to catch the latest video as it went out – ‘YouTuber’ was quickly becoming an acknowledged profession. The ‘subscription’ service allowed creators to see how many fans they had, and provided easy access to their content for subscribers. This perfect blend of features was unstoppable in propelling YouTube into one of the fastest growing websites of its time (O’malley, 2006). Google was quick to see the capital potential of the platform, purchasing it in the early days of its extreme growth (BBC News, 2006). It was with Google’s purchase that YouTube’s focus for free and open sharing of video content began to take larger leaps towards a focus on generating revenue – understandably, as YouTube had been losing money since its launch. YouTube began ‘partnering’ with channels that had content ‘attractive for advertisers’ (Official YouTube Blog, 2007), offering them a fifty-five percent cut of revenue for every advertisement placed on or around their content (with YouTube/Google taking the remaining forty-five percent) (Peterson, 2013). YouTube since Google’s purchase has only echoed what Papacharissi describes of the television, radio and the internet more and more, with the free and open expanse of communication on YouTube getting dozens of limiting policy changes, prioritising revenue over the very user base that allow for that revenue stream to be a viable one in the first place.

YouTube has quickly evolved from snapping quick videos and posting them for the world to see to scheduled professional production of videos as a full time occupation. YouTube of course still offers free video sharing for all, but the community and the corporate underbelly of the platform undoubtedly have shifted focus onto the professional, money making users. It is hard to fault YouTube for what it has become, offering thousands of users genuine financial reward, however small a cut, for doing what they love. Unfortunately however, these top creators are just the tip of the iceberg of the user base, and what lies beneath the surface is what makes YouTube so problematic. YouTube has become an archetype for vicious capitalism. John Bellers’ famous statement of the poor making the rich in Proposals is impressively applicable three hundred and seventeen years later to the state of YouTube, as I will go on to discuss.

As a good and plentiful living must be the poor’s encouragement; so their  increase, the advantage of the rich; Without them, they cannot be rich; for if one had a hundred thousand acres of land and as many pounds in money, and as many cattle, without a labourer, what would the rich man be, but a labourer? … the labour of the poor being the mines of the rich. (Bellers, 1696)

By 2013, YouTube’s Partner Programme was at its broadest. YouTube themselves were still accepting partnership requests that met their then unspecified and unspoken requirements and taking forty-five percent of the earnings, but had additionally handed out power over partnership to Multi-Channel Networks. These networks were businesses separate from YouTube and Google that offer YouTube Partnerships and other services to help channels grow in exchange for a further cut of the creator’s revenue (Google Support, n.d.). MCN’s (Multi-Channel Networks) had much lower requirements for acceptance, meaning a lot of small creators jumped into long, unbreakable contracts stripping them of upwards of sixty percent of their total revenue just to reap the benefits of the partner programme. Harking back to Bellers’ ‘poor making the rich’ argument and Carr’s sharecropping analogy, YouTube themself and Multi-Channel Networks represent the landowners, and users become labourers of the land, who keep the platform afloat for themselves and each other. Additionally to this, for a long time, well established media properties owned by huge corporations were granted a larger cut of revenue than YouTube’s independent creators in order to make the platform more advertiser friendly and generate more revenue for the corporations and Google. While this was allegedly equalised in 2013 (Peterson, 2013), its effect is visible even six years later, with roughly half of the video spots on the ‘Trending’ feed being dominated by well established corporate entities or properties, despite independent content with similar view counts more so fitting the definition of ‘trending’ not even being included (YouTube, 2019). As evidenced by all the effects above, one could argue that YouTube has almost become a capitalist society of its own.


YouTube, Ad Revenue and Free Labour

It is almost an understatement to say that YouTube has been a driving force in the growth of digital media, fundamentally changing how media is consumed in the twenty first century – the effect of which is evident in other streaming services, like Netflix (Recode, 2017). YouTube’s effect on the digital workspace is equally dramatic. It has generated professions not just for independent personalities who wholly create their own content and post it on the service, but also for teams of content creators, just as in the television and film industries. For example, certain channels may uphold an individual entertainer as the face of the operation with video editors, marketers, producers and alike all orchestrating the content underneath. Additionally, YouTube itself hires employees as a business themselves to keep the platform afloat, with MCNs doing the same. YouTube’s sheer scale has opened up new opportunities for work and entirely new jobs have been created in the wake of its growth. On the other hand, the aforementioned ‘YouTube Society’ that has emerged from the platform undeniably promotes exploitative behaviour, to the extent where it is no exaggeration that in mainstream digital media, no online media platform epitomises the aforementioned dangers of free labour quite like YouTube.

The platform encourages a form of meritocracy in the sense that those that dominate YouTube with the largest subscriber counts and paychecks are ‘selected’ based on the quality of their content; the biggest YouTubers on the platform have earned their rank on the ‘Most Subscribed’ ladder through attracting the most viewers and most shares from viewers – PewDiePie would not have become the most subscribed YouTuber in 2013 (Cohen, 2013) if viewers did not enjoy and share his content enough to elevate him to that level. While this is a neutral system on the part of the service provider in theory, as the users decide who deserves the top spot, corporate interference has undoubtedly swayed this into bias territory. As corporations flooded YouTube to reap the benefits, they became the most advertiser-friendly content on the platform and were elevated in search results and homepage spots almost automatically. Additionally, users are more likely to stick to the content creators and entertainers they enjoy the most and rarely expand their horizons to smaller channels.

In 2018, YouTube shook the core of its platform by enforcing a harsh new requirement for YouTube Partnership, including partnership through an MCN. It stated that ‘starting today we’re changing the eligibility requirement for monetization to 4,000 hours of watchtime within the past 12 months and 1,000 subscribers.’ (YouTube Creator Blog, 2018). It meant that until a creator reached one thousand subscribers and four thousand hours of watchtime per year, a creator could not be partnered by any means, and thus not be paid for their content.  It is here that the problematic side of YouTube’s influence on work promotes free labour and by exploiting its own system. To reach the requirements of the partner programme, a YouTuber needs to grow their audience, theoretically, through engaging content. YouTube’s system does not necessarily promote engaging content, rather ‘fresh’ content that will make the most ad revenue and garner the most watchtime, usually promoting content with statistics that imply video quality – i.e high like-to-dislike ratios, high view counts and from users with high subscriber counts – by displaying them on the homepage or trending tab (Covington, Adams and Sargin, n.d.). This means that in creating engaging content, a creator will perform free labour and often investing their own finances into a video, in the hopes that they will rise the search ranks and gain views. YouTube’s algorithm will analyse the aforementioned statistics of the video, and in the case of a new channel, will see that the view count is very low, most likely discounting the like-to-dislike ratio from the calculation, as due to low sample size it is not necessarily a fair gage on how engaging the content is. As a result of the other statistics, the video will most likely not be promoted to users and the channel will not gain subscribers, as it is far less advertiser friendly than its competition. New channels are not just at a disadvantage, but the algorithm is actively working against these channels becoming popular. On the other side, established companies and properties are not only likely to gain subscribers and views through cross promotion on other popular media (for example, a chat show could promote their YouTube Channel on television and gain subscribers, theoretically without performing any labour in creating content for the platform), they are actively promoted by YouTube due to their appeal to advertisers. The established large scale YouTubers (in Bellers’ words ‘the rich’) dominate the platform, and as more new channels are created (‘the poor’), ‘the labour of the poor’ becomes ‘the mines of the rich’; The platform promotes free labour of small channels to generate content and culture for the platform to gain subscribers to be paid for their work, but does not reward this and in fact works against them in order to make it easier and quicker for the bigger and more established channels to take more money for themselves and for YouTube. An example of this in action is the rise of the YouTube channel Jablinski Games, created by Hollywood star Jack Black (Black, 2019), which within one week of creation and with merely twenty nine total seconds of content, gained one million subscribers (Socialblade, 2019). Without taking into account the quality of the content, it is clear to see that such huge channel growth in such a short amount of time from a single video is not a natural occurrence in the history of YouTube, the reason it was possible for Jablinski Games to explode like this is due to Jack Black being a well established star. His videos were almost immediately promoted on YouTube trending, due to his celebrity status, and he was able to cross promote his channel on Facebook to his millions of followers.

As outlined earlier in this essay, it is important to note that this type of free labour is not exclusive to YouTube and has been present for years in other industries and is comparable to work ‘for exposure’. On the other hand, this is not usually outspoken or in the case of YouTube, even promoted to such an extent. Usually, free labour like working for exposure is kept under wraps due to its exploitative nature, but YouTube seems to embrace that it relies on the free labour of its small users to keep the larger users afloat, and with policy changes it seems to be sealing it in as a fundamental part of its service. Just as with Facebook, TripAdvisor and the sharecropping of agriculture, labourers are forced to work fields that they do not own, making little to no reward for themselves and the corporation heads or landowners milk the profit. Digital media did not invent sharecropping, but has catalysed a whole new industry of sharecropping. While positive effects have come from digital media’s influence on the world of work, it is without a doubt that without a platform like YouTube at the forefront of digital media, exploitation on this grand scale could not be possible and certainly would not be encouraged.

One of YouTube’s core values is to provide anyone the opportunity to earn money from a thriving channel, and while our policies will evolve over time, our commitment to that value remains… (YouTube Creator Blog, 2018)

… If you’re Jack Black.

Thanks to Alfie Bown for his feedback and input into the discussion.



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