Update: As of February 14th 2017, just over a year after we originally published this article, one of the biggest and brightest YouTube stars has been practically disowned by the platform. PewDiePie, the highest-earning YouTube content creator in the world – and one who has been most vocal about his dissatisfaction with the platform in the past – has reportedly been removed from YouTube’s premium advertising programme following repeated antisemetic jokes and bits in his videos.

Crucially, YouTube has also reportedly cancelled Scare PewDiePie, one of the original shows that anchors its subscription service YouTube Red, signifying it is essentially washing its hands of the guy. We wouldn’t be surprised if PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg) fully decamped to another platform in the near future. In the meantime, though, it’s a sign that YouTube is continuing to mature as an advertising platform.

Every week we learn another ridiculous fact about YouTube. It’s regularly used by a billion people, over a third of all people on the internet. The average viewing session on mobile lasts more than 40 minutes, and over 300 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. 

The latest figures available on the official YouTube blog reveal that the number of user-operated channels earning six figures grew 50 percent year on year, and the past few years have seen the birth of production collectives (and funded original content) comprised solely of YouTube stars.

And those stars, who’ve made their names solely through YouTube videos, are now more influential than celebrities who’ve come up through more traditional media channels. Last year a study commissioned by Variety found that the majority of 13 – 17 year olds in the US rated YouTube celebrities found that:

“Eight of the top 10 slots in a survey ranking talent conducted exclusively for Variety are now commanded by YouTube creators, more than the six revealed last year in a nearly identical survey.

“Although the top YouTube favorites have somewhat shifted — videogame whiz KSI has bumped off comedy team Smosh (aka Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla) as the top influencer — online luminaries are crushing traditional film, TV and music stars.”

Beyond the numerical statistics, there are more fundamental signs that YouTube is a cultural game-changer. There’s a recognised linguistic shift happening on the platform, which The Atlantic’s Julie Beck dubbed ‘YouTube Voice’.

YouTube content creators have a ‘presenting’ voice not dissimilar in purpose to the received pronunciation of traditional British radio presenters, in that it sets a tone for the broadcast. But while RP was meant to impart a sense of authority and knowledgability, YouTube voice is meant to inspire a sense of inclusivity. From The Atlantic’s article:

“So it turns out the “YouTube voice” is just a variety of ways of emphasizing words, none of which are actually exclusive to YouTube—people employ these devices in speech all the time. But they generally do it to grab the listener’s attention, and when you’re just talking to a camera without much action, it takes a little more to get, and keep, that attention.

“All the videos I used as examples in this article come from popular YouTube accounts, with hundreds of thousands or millions of subscribers—in other words, from people who know how to engage an audience.” 

Teething problems

So YouTube is both a successful monetisation platform and a cultural force in its own right. But it didn’t grow to the position it’s in now without some teething problems.

Since YouTube is so driven by the personalities we’d categorise as its ‘stars’, it’s unsurprising that the vast majority of the controversies that surround it were as a result of either their misbehaviour or morally dodgy attempts to make money.

The latest high-profile example of the latter broke last week and, as is typical in the world of YouTube, sped to a conclusion incredibly quickly. The Fine Brothers are the creators of the ‘React’ franchise in which groups of people are exposed to stimuli they normally wouldn’t. ‘KIDS REACT TO HARLEM SHAKE‘, their second most-watched video, is fairly typical of their output.

On January 26th, they announced they were launching ‘React World’, essentially a franchise for the video format. Critics, however, were quick to point out that the format was hardly proprietary in the first place and, more importantly, would allow them to issue cease and desist letters to any channel that infringed on that supposed format. From Upvoted:

“The backlash started after the Fine Bros announced the launch of React World, a franchising program that would grant content creators licenses to make their own renditions of the shows. Many people saw the move as a greedy, underhanded way of trying to monopolize the market.

“According to [attorney Ryan] Morrison, the Fine Bros have already issued a plethora of cease and desist letters…”

Further pillorying from other YouTube channels swiftly followed…

…and eventually the Fine Bros rescinded the trademark applications, saying in a Medium post:

“We realize we built a system that could easily be used for wrong. We are fixing that. The reality that trademarks like these could be used to theoretically give companies (including ours) the power to police and control online video is a valid concern, and though we can assert our intentions are pure, there’s no way to prove them.”

However, the prevailing mood online seems to be that the Fine Bros are only sorry that they got caught, and a backlash continues online. Additionally their subscriber numbers continue to fall as of the time of writing.

Coming of age

It’s far from the only misstep that brands have made on YouTube. Take a look at the debacle of the Nintendo Creators Programme, or the Oreos campaign that wasn’t labelled as advertising by its stars, or even YouTube’s own initial missteps with YouTube Red.

But it’s worth noting that the Fine Bros debacle could only have come about because of the relative youth of the medium. YouTube has been around for over a decade now, and the React channel since 2010. That’s not a huge amount of time, and as we’ve seen with the Oreo advertising issue there are still logistical issues that need to be navigated.

YouTube might have come of age in terms of monetisation and cultural impact, but there’s only so much time for these issues to have arisen in, and there’ll undoubtedly be more to navigate.

But there are a few reasons to expect that YouTube will have an easier time navigating those hurdles than an older medium would have. By dint of the huge amounts of video that get uploaded, YouTube audiences have greater choice than ever before in terms of what they consume. As a result there’s essentially no cost to that audience for voting with their feet and abandoning channels when they act immorally, as the Fine Bros are discovering.

Brands like Nintendo, too, which could have benefited from the enormous Let’s Play community on YouTube, mishandled their strategy and saw similar backlashes that ultimately might have benefited their competitors. 

So even when an issue arises that isn’t covered by advertising guidelines, the same thing that empowers YouTube stars to be such influencers – their audiences – might be the thing that keeps them in check.