In the past year, and even more so in the past month, social media companies have come under fire in a range of ways. Firstly, Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress, and the accusations that Facebook has taken self-regulation as blanket permission to avoid accountability, for one. Twitter has also been criticized for their inability to monitor content and remove fake news, bots and abuse. And lastly, the darkest and most unfortunate of all, the shooting at YouTube headquarters in San Francisco.
Amidst these events, one begins to wonder at the sustainability of social media. With an ever-growing number of users, social media has re-defined the way we interact as a society. But it has also made it incredibly difficult to monitor content, and the business model of advertising revenue is more precarious than ever. The relationship between the users and the platforms has been growing ever more fragile.
On Facebook, concerns about privacy and data mining are now arguably justified. Some have also criticised Facebook for facilitating the erosion of democracy through careful targeting based on mined data. Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress is an attempt at simulating accountability, an attempt which has been made over and over in the past decade. For users, the platform is increasingly untrustworthy, but for advertisers the stakes are much higher. Although Facebook’s advertising promises a huge reach, the more bots are active on the platform the less return there is for an advertiser’s money. Facebook’s decision not to share ad revenue with content creators, however, has arguably allowed them to avoid the uncomfortable situation that YouTube has found itself in.
Many YouTube creators have spoken out about the lack of communication and transparency in regards to monetisation and advertising. Creators are put in a situation where they can potentially lose up to half of their revenue, or face lower returns on content that may have taken up to seventy hours to create. Alternatively, creators of content which may not meet YouTube’s strict guidelines are faced with the prospect of creating something of good quality, with a high viewership, but which generates no revenue for them. This understandably upsets those who use YouTube as their full-time job, and makes it difficult for them to sustain their creative effort.
2017’s Adpocalypse has already shown that creators rely on ad revenue, and in some cases, feel powerless to defend their content against algorithmic decisions resulting from a scramble to appease advertisers. It is impossible to have a conversation about the YouTube shooter without acknowledging that in her videos Nasim Aghdam had spoken frequently about her low ad revenue, her anger towards YouTube’s perceived ‘censorship’, and about the fact that her videos were flagged as not advertiser friendly. But regardless, she had known that her content clearly violated the guidelines, and it would be ridiculous to attempt using these frustrations to justify her actions. What Aghdam’s actions show, though, is that the relationship between creators and YouTube as a platform has the potential to rapidly deteriorate as creators may feel entitled to revenue despite no clear indication that it is their due. The fluidity of the relationship and the lack of formal contracts is a huge attraction for creators, but it may also be a big draw back.
What all these events point to is a glaring lack of legal definition of the role social media plays in our society. Fame and money are making social media a gold mine for those who do not possess the talents celebrated through traditional means. However, this is not recognised in our current legal structure. Social media is thought to be no more than memes and cat videos, but it is a growing industry. And just like any industry, it is having growing pains, pains which could take a turn for the worst if nothing is done to restructure the way the industry is built. It would be foolish to ignore the opportunity for improvement. Social media doesn’t have to crumble, it has to evolve. And to do that, self-regulation is no longer sufficient.