Maintaining the knowledge gap between creators and YouTube’s human and algorithmic raters seems, according to Sprave, to perpetuate a culture of confusion, and if you’re feeling cynical, of accepting unpaid labor. “If you can’t do gun videos anymore, fine,” Sprave says. “But then tell them the truth that they’re not wanted on the platform. Assuring them they’re welcome but then demonetizing them is unfair, and this has to stop.”
Of course, it’s not just people making videos about guns who dangle in constant demonetization limbo. “We also want to explicitly express our solidarity with the LGBTQ+ YouTube creators who are currently suing YouTube in California regarding many of the same problems, especially lack of transparency regarding recommendation and monetization,” says Michael “Six” Silberman, an IG Metall representative. Many times over the last few years, queer creators have faced algorithmic penalties for the subject matter they talk about because it isn’t, as one ill-fated filter put it, “family friendly”—and hence advertiser friendly. The result: YouTube, which claims to pride itself on inclusivity and frequently features queer creators in its own advertisements, doesn’t pay its queer creators as well, if at all.
“YouTube created the means for which these new voices could not only appear, but make revenue, and then the platform took away that money,” says Craig. “That’s where the rise of the YouTubers Union is coming from, the giving and taking away.”
The give and take is bad for users too. If creators are penalized for saying anything outside what’s palatable to a narrow class of monied corporations, YouTube becomes a very boring platform.
The YouTubers Union and its partnership with IG Metall are not the first attempts at organizing online creators. The aforementioned Internet Creators Guild, founded by prominent and well-respected YouTuber Hank Greene, was a splashy effort that collapsed this summer, unable to gather adequate funding or recruits. Nor is FairTube the only union vying for creators’ and YouTube’s attention. “I think the German effort is the most significant right now,” says D’Angelo. “There’s also an opportunity for more traditional entertainment unions. SAG-AFTRA is very much interested.” According to D’Angelo, the powerful Hollywood union currently represents many creators in their offline work, but notes that the SAG-YouTuber team-up is at present “very much an LA thing.”
YouTube, at large, is not. Sure, many YouTubers are American, and many celebrity YouTubers are even based in Los Angeles, but that’s not really who unions are for. The powerhouse creators need the union less than other creators. “When Logan Paul gets demonetized, he can just call a YouTube vice president,” Sprave says. “He doesn’t have to talk to an anonymous email.”
What’s more, the US creators live under different labor laws than many of the others looking to unionize. Operators of small to medium channels are from everywhere—while D’Angelo was running the Internet Creators Guild, they had members in dozens of states, as well as in New Zealand, Spain, and the UK. That, D’Angelo notes, creates a real challenge when trying to organize. Compared with the people who first unionized Hollywood in the 1930s, who worked not only in the same country and city, but often the same building, YouTubers have a lot less tying them together.
Or at least, that’s the way it seems some YouTubers, many of whom, as both Craig and D’Angelo point out, have grown up in a pretty anti-organized-labor period of American history, a time when many unions have been chipped away into oblivion or toothlessness. “A lot of the talent is young kids who are dropping out of school to do this job. There isn’t a built-in familiarity with the history and importance of unions,” says D’Angelo. “That leaves them in a very vulnerable position because they haven’t been exposed to these ideas.”
In some cases, even if people are familiar with what unions could do to help them push back against YouTube and Google, they’d never risk it. “People feel bullied from being advocates,” says Joshua Lamel, executive director of Re:Create, a coalition of digital rights groups that advocates for online creators. “People on these platforms still want to be in the traditional systems; they want to be movie stars and work with record labels. Some are terrified of getting on the wrong side of Disney.”