by Amanda Hess, NY Times:
At the age of 21, David Pakman started a little Massachusetts community radio talk program. While the young broadcaster got his show syndicated on a few public radio stations, it was a YouTube channel he began in 2009, “The David Pakman Show,” that opened up his progressive political commentary to a whole new digital audience. The show has since amassed 353,000 subscribers, and roughly half of its revenue now comes from the ads that play before his videos. He earns enough to produce the show full time and pay a lean staff.
Or, at least, he used to. Last month YouTube announced abrupt, vague changes to its automated processes for placing ads across the platform. Ads on Mr. Pakman’s YouTube channel evaporated, dropping to as little as 6 cents a day, and forcing him to set up a crowdfunding page to help cover $20,000 a month in operating costs.
“This is an existential threat to the show,” Mr. Pakman said. “We need that money.”
Since its 2005 debut with the slogan “Broadcast Yourself,” YouTube has positioned itself as a place where any people with camera phones can make a career of their creativity and thrive free of the grip of corporate media gatekeepers. But in order to share in the advertising wealth a user base of more than a billion can provide, independent producers like Mr. Pakman must satisfy the demands of YouTube’s unfeeling, opaque and shifting algorithms.
The architecture of the internet has tremendous influence over what is made, and what is seen; algorithms influence what content spreads further on Facebook and turns up on top of Google searches. YouTube’s process for mechanically pulling ads from videos is particularly concerning, because it takes aim at whole topics of conversation that could be perceived as potentially offensive to advertisers, and because it so often misfires. It risks suppressing political commentary and jokes. It puts the wild, independent internet in danger of becoming more boring than TV.
YouTube’s most serious ad change yet came in the wake of reports from The Times of London and The Wall Street Journal that ads were appearing on YouTube videos that espoused extremism and hate speech. When majoradvertisers like AT&T and Johnson & Johnson withdrew their spots, YouTube announced that it would try to make the site more palatable to advertisers by “taking a tougher stance on hateful, offensive and derogatory content.”
But according to YouTube creators, that shift has also punished video makers who bear no resemblance to terrorist sympathizers and racists. YouTube’s comedians, political commentators and experts on subjects frommilitary arms to video games have reported being squeezed by the ad shake-up — often in videos they’ve posted to YouTube. On the site, it’s known as “the adpocalypse.”
The topics of Mr. Pakman’s videos are no more controversial than the programming typically found on CNN or the local news. In fact, because his show is also broadcast over the radio, it adheres strictly to FCC content rules. But the show takes pride in its independence from corporate ownership. “I have no boss above me,” Mr. Pakman said, and because of YouTube’s automated ad systems, “I’ve never had any contact with advertisers, so it’s impossible for me to ‘sell out’ to satisfy them.”
Instead, he’s subject to the whims of the algorithm. To rein in its sprawling video empire — 400 hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute — YouTube uses machine learning systems that can’t always discern context, or distinguish commentary or humor from hate speech. That limitation means that YouTube routinely pulls ads from content deemed “not advertiser-friendly.” That includes depictions of violence or drug use, “sexual humor” and “controversial or sensitive subjects,” including war and natural disasters. YouTube has previously blocked ads on Mr. Pakman’s news videos referring to ISIS church bombings and the assassination of a Russian diplomat. YouTube creators can appeal the decision to a human who will watch the video, but the recent changes have upended the usual processes, often leaving creators without an official channel for appeal.
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