On November 9, 2017, magician Steven Bridges posted a short video entitled ‘YouTube Is Killing My Channel’. “I know the title for this video is kind of dramatic,” Bridges says at the beginning of his brief walk-and-talk, “but that’s honestly how it feels.” He lays out how, over the past several weeks, YouTube has been systematically flagging his videos as “inappropriate”, effectively removing his ability to earn money on his own content until he goes through a special appeals process. There are no swear words in this video, no violence, nothing that could be considered inappropriate by even the most Puritanical individual—just Steven going for a bit of a stroll and venting his frustrations. In the comments below the video, Steven likes to post little messages for his fans to comment on. For this one, he wrote: “How long do you think it’ll take for YouTube to demonetize this video?”
Within thirty minutes, the video was flagged as inappropriate.
Steven is a prominent magician on YouTube with over 154,000 subscribers, and between his Patreon, busking and various gigs, and the success of many of his videos (including a few which have racked up over 1 million views), Bridges has been able to make a career for himself through his magic. Now, he feels like that livelihood is threatened by this recent wave of demonetization.
“It first happened with a video [published on October 11] called ‘This Card Trick Happens Fast‘,” Steven Bridges tells GeniiOnline via email. “At first I thought it must have been a glitch with YouTube. It didn’t bother me much at the time. But then when it happened with the next FIVE videos in a row without fail it got very annoying very quickly!”
Once he noticed that three of the videos he’d uploaded during the month of October were being demonetized, often within 12 hours of publication, he took to Twitter to rant about what he’d noticed:
— Steven Bridges (@StevenBridges) October 22, 2017
Then it was four videos in a row:
Well make that 4 videos in a row YouTube has demonetised.
— Steven Bridges (@StevenBridges) October 31, 2017
OKAY this has now happened for my past FIVE videos in a row. I DO MAGIC TRICKS LEAVE ME ALONE YOUTUBE!
— Steven Bridges (@StevenBridges) November 7, 2017
That’s when Steven started to believe something very specific was going wrong, and took to YouTube to vent his frustration with the platform.
YouTube has been a boon for tech-savvy magicians since its inception over a decade ago. It used to be that the path to success involved grinding out gigs at local clubs, maybe landing a night-time talk show slot, and slowly cultivating a following until you score your own TV special or a headlining act in Vegas. Now, young rising stars with some video editing chops can grow an audience all over the world simply by uploading and sharing videos, and can do so with complete creative freedom. “You don’t need a television deal to become well known,” Steven explains. “You can start a YouTube channel and post great content and build your own audience. With television, you have producers to answer to. You don’t have complete creative control on the content. With YouTube, I’m my own boss. I own the channel! Whatever I say goes.”
Since 2007, YouTube has allowed its creators to earn real money thanks to ad revenue—all creators need to do is opt in to allow their videos to be ‘monetized’, and once the video clears a certain view threshold, it starts earning cash. A viral video can earn a magician a few thousand dollars a piece; enough of those and a budding illusionist can turn their hobby into a full-time career, and even parlay that into shows and contracts outside of the platform.
But a lot of that changed back in March 2017, when many companies, including Pepsi-Co, Wal-Mart, and Verizon pulled their ads from the Google-owned video streaming network because they didn’t want their products to be associated with the extreme, hateful, or objectionable content often found on the site. Hundreds of millions of dollars vanished overnight, with many reputable magicians, performers, and other creators taking a huge hit in the money they bring in through their videos.
YouTube has since revamped its content guidelines, outlining exactly what videos are eligible for monetization, and will deny ads to any video it deems to contain “controversial issues and sensitive events”, “harmful or dangerous acts”, “hateful content”, “inappropriate language”, or “violence”. Anything its algorithms pick up as in violation of any of these guidelines could find itself demonetized—noted by a yellow dollar sign next to the infringing video in YouTube’s video creation interface.
Here’s the thing: Steven’s channel is, for the most part, clean as a whistle. “Yeah, I’d say almost every video on my channel is family friendly,” Steven says. “There’s a couple of routines such as Cookie Cutter and A Single Needle that aren’t appropriate for all ages, but those videos have content warnings at the beginning. I even bleep swearing on my channel, so the language is fine.” Steven thought that the algorithm was potentially flagging the word ‘trick’, so he tweaked his video copy for ‘Card Magic With Bry’ and even went so far as to limit the video’s tags (words that Google’s search engine uses to surface content for users) so nothing could be remotely construed as objectionable. The video was nonetheless demonetized, along with instructional, completely magic-free videos like ‘Getting Out of a Creative Crisis’.
Each time this happens, Steven receives an automatically-generated email that tells him his video has been demonetized for failing to adhere to one of the aforementioned guidelines, though the email doesn’t specify which one he’s violating. He then has to manually appeal each video through YouTube—a process that takes around 24 hours while an actual human looks at his content and decides whether or not he’s infringing on their policies. Each time Steven has appealed, his videos are found to be fully compliant and are immediately restored.
While dealing with this process each time is frustrating enough, what’s even worse is how YouTube doesn’t back-pay for ad views during the demonetized period—and that’s often the most successful window of a video’s lifespan. “What people may not realise when reading this is the knock on effect videos being demonetised has to my channel,” he explains. “Not only do the videos not make me money until they are remonetized after an appeal (which means they bulk of the views are not monetized), it also means that YouTube COULD be limiting how many times it pushes the videos out around the website, limiting their reach. ‘COULD’ being the key word here, as I don’t know for a fact this is the case, but I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t given the data I have.”
Even if you don’t have the more granular metrics that Steven has access to as a creator, you can see a distinct drop-off in viewership from the moment this wave of demonetization has hit his channel. Before October, an average video of his would get anywhere from 15,000-25,000 views, with at least one video going viral each month, roughly hitting around 200,000-500,000 views (with a few outliers in either direction). Since the beginning of October, views of Steven’s videos have been trending downward, which his most recent content struggling to break 10,000 views.
Something isn’t right, and while Steven has access to a partner manager who has been helpful in dealing with his struggles, any questions regarding monetization are handled by a separate team, who seems to only be responding to his queries with what Steven describes as “copy paste responses as opposed to genuine replies.”
When asked about issues creators like Steven are currently having, a YouTube spokesperson provided us with what appears to be a standard statement about a “recent system update” to its internal technology:
Over the last few months, we’ve reviewed the results from over a million appeals to help improve the machine learning technology that determines whether a video is suitable for ads. A few weeks ago we launched a system update which delivered greater accuracy around which videos are eligible for ads. As always, we encourage creators to appeal and request a human review where they feel our systems got it wrong.
So while this statement potentially explains why Steven’s videos are continuously getting flagged, it doesn’t explain how he can prevent it from continuing to happen, how YouTube is going to make up for his loss in potential earnings, or even a timeframe for when he could expect his troubles to finally be resolved.
And Steven’s one of the lucky ones. Since he has so many subscribers, he has access to tools like the manual appeals process and can speak with a partner manager in a vain attempt to make things right. Those who have fewer than 10,000 subscribers—i.e., up-and-coming magicians looking to use YouTube as a way to catapult their career into the global consciousness—have to wait up to 24 hours for YouTube’s automatic internal methods to scan their content again and hope it gets cleared.
Considering the lack of transparency or solutions that don’t involve relying on imprecise algorithms, the only option Steven and many other magicians and creators like him have is to simply wait it out. But who knows when this issue will actually get fixed—and by then, whatever goodwill YouTube still has with the people who create the videos that bring viewers (and by extension, money) to the site in the first place could be long gone.
“YouTube is still the best place to upload videos to and grow an audience,” Steven says, “but with a disregard for creators like this they are really opening themselves up to problems if a viable alternative comes along. Lots of companies are trying to get in on the video space. Facebook is giving it a good try! Although Facebook isn’t the best place for creators, with a few tweaks they could be a very serious threat to YouTube. Maybe YouTube thinks they’re too big to fail? I don’t know. But what I do know is that nearly every creator I’ve spoken to is frustrated with the platform at this point. If they don’t start putting creators first they will have some serious problems.”