Content platforms (Medium, YouTube, etc) are rigged against individual creators

; Date: Tue Jul 20 2021

Tags: Make Money Online »»»» Writing online

Many recommend making money working online by creating "content" for platforms like YouTube, Medium, or many other user-generated-content platforms. You create and upload content, to earn income from visitors to the website, who are viewing videos, reading articles, or ordering t-shirts. However enticing it is to find an audience on a content platform, the platform owners are in the drivers seat, and the terms of the deal can change at any time.

The concept is gaining freedom from having a J.O.B. by uploading content to an online platform. Platforms like Medium or YouTube have large audiences, and there is a large amount of membership or advertising dollars that the platforms offer to share with content creators. Success is often seen as the freedom to live anywhere, travel at any time, or even making a living through traveling to exotic places. Successful content creators can receive not just revenue from the platform, but money from sponsors, or from selling their own products.

The model is for the content creator to first shoot some video, write an article, or create other content. Then the creator uploads that content to the platform. In a later step, the creator reaps the profit. In between those last two steps is a lot of work. For example, some YouTubers report spending 60 hours a week shooting and editing videos.

There are plenty of examples where content platforms have changed the terms of service, changed payout ratios, changed the structure of the platform, or made other changes, that made it hard on the individual content creators. In some cases the changes were beneficial, but in other cases the content creators were left holding the short end of the stick and feeling very frustrated.

What's meant by "3rd party content platform"?

To understand what a content platform is let's talk about a few examples of 3rd party content platforms. The "1st party" is the content creator (the person who creates the video or article or whatever), the "2nd party" is the person who views or reads the content. That makes the "3rd party" to be the content platform which mediates the connection between the first two.

  • Video - YouTube, Vimeo, Rumble, Bitchute, Odysee - These are all sites where anyone can create an account, and upload videos. YouTube is of course the 8 zillion pound gorilla in this space. The last three are primarily serving the folks escaping from content moderation policies on YouTube.
  • Text - Medium, Blogger, Substack - These are sites where anyone can create an account and post articles. Blogger is an old service that hasn't aged well, and is focused on blogging. Medium is focused on writers, and insightful writing that is well presented. Substack is focused on writers operating paid newsletters. These platforms are a good choice for those who don't like talking on video.
  • Stuff for Sale - Zazzle, Teespring, CafePress - These are sites where you can upload graphics meant to be plastered on products. The service takes orders, prints the graphic onto the product, then ships it to the person who placed the order.

What a content creator does might now be a little more obvious. They create video, text, or graphics suitable for posting to their chosen platform. In order to be successful, the creator must find a way to bring traffic to their creative work rather than the other creative works on the platform website. The creator might then share links to their postings on social media sites, or they might use SEO techniques like including desired keyword phrases or linking to their content from multiple websites.

Traffic volume is key. The more traffic arriving on content the more likely it is the creator will earn revenue.

Content platform owners are in charge

While this model seems simple, there is a big problem. Namely, the tense relationship between the content platform owners and the content creators. A few examples are:

  • Platform owners have changed things around to disadvantage content creators.
  • Some platform owners seem to be making special deals with large scale content creators, while pushing aside the smaller creators.
  • Some platforms are under fire over content moderation policies. From some corners the criticism is that the platforms aren't doing enough to rein in hate speech or the spread of fake news, propaganda, or misinformation. In other corners, the criticism is whether the platform is unfairly restricting freedom of speech.
  • Some platforms have shut down with little notice, completely erasing all content posted to the platform.
  • Platforms maintain ownership over the subscriber list, meaning the content creator does not have direct access to their audience.

Some Content Creators end up pouring their life into creating content for their selected platforms. The successful ones might ride high as an Influencer. They might attend conferences, get paid to travel, and more. But what happens if that gig comes crashing down?

Most of the platforms started by serving individuals. The idea developed that anyone with an idea can build a virtual soapbox on one of these content platforms, and use that position to talk to the world. But, as each platform has grown has it maintained the same openness to anyone with ideas to publish? For example, YouTube appears to be favoring Big Media and its own offerings (YouTube Movies, etc), in ways that might limit the visibility of smaller channels.

Each platform is a business where the primary allegiance is to shareholders and employees. CEO's and Boards of Directors have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders, who can (and do) file lawsuits when that duty is not obeyed.

The platforms all promise an audience who might view your content, and possibly make some money. The platforms can change anything on a moments notice. The deal you think you have could vaporize in an instant. They could change the terms of service, advertising revenue payouts, features, or they could even go out of business. These companies exist to serve their employees and shareholders. They are not your friends.

Many content creators end up bitterly complaining about changing terms of service, or other unilateral changes made by the content platforms.

I've been around the content creator scene for over 10 years. In that time I've experienced not only changed terms of service, but a major service suddenly shutting down and disappearing taking my content (600+ articles) with it. But my experience was mild compared to experiences reported by others.

Examples of changing policies and corporate death among 3rd party web platforms

To better understand this, let's go over a few examples.

Examiner.COM In 2009 I began writing news articles for Examiner.COM, an early Citizen Journalism website. I was The Green Transportation Examiner, which meant my topic circled around electric vehicles and other ways to clean up the transportation system. At the time I was very keen on this topic, and still am. It was early in the Obama Administration when there was still talk of a Green Jobs Revolution. The deal offered by Examiner.COM was that articles would wind up in Google News. That meant having the power to insert information into the news-stream about electric vehicles.

In return, Examiner.COM paid about $0.01 per page view. Therefore my task was to both write articles, and somehow drive traffic to my articles so I could snag some revenue. In theory one could make a living by writing news articles, and indeed a few people did so.

I was able to make a couple hundred dollars a month from my articles, was able to attend conferences and other events with press credentials, to talk with company executives about business issues, and more. I leveraged the work on Examiner.COM to doing similar work on TorqueNews.COM and later PluginCars.COM. But on July 1, 2016, Examiner.COM suddenly announced it would completely shut down on July 10, 2016. Conditions for Examiner.COM writers had been worsening for a couple years before-hand, so the closure wasn't exactly a surprise. There had been tens of thousands of people writing there, and all that work (millions of articles) simply vaporized with almost zero notice.

Over the seven years I wrote for Examiner.COM, support from the company constantly shrank. The editorial staff was downsized several times. The back-end training website stopped being updated. There had been a back-end community area allowing Examiner writers to exchange ideas with each other, but that was shut down after a storm of complaints from writers. The payout ratios changed as well, making it harder and harder to make income through the site. It became harder and harder to get articles accepted for Google News, seemingly because there was a lot of junky articles published on Examiner.COM. That was especially true towards the end as editorial oversight vanished.

Examiner.COM was completely in control of the audience. While readers could subscribe to notifications from the site, I had no access to those readers other than by posting articles. What's most important to an author is access to their audience. Once the site shut down, I could no longer reach those readers.

Podango This was an early podcast hosting service in the early days of podcasting. Podcast hosting services handle distribution of the audio or video files comprising the podcast, as well as hosting a podcast-friendly website. Podango existed for a couple years, then on December 26, 2008 (the day after Christmas) the CEO, Douglas Smith, made an ominous announcement that (podcastingnews.com) the future of the Podango service was "uncertain". Hurm.. "uncertain" doesn't sound too dire, does it? Then by January 1, 2009, Podango simply vaporized, with the site replaced by a "we're on vacation" notice. Those five days were during Christmas Week, when most people are relaxing with family. Somehow Podango's condition wet from "uncertain" to "dead" in the blink of an eye.

This was a service some podcasters relied on to reach their audiences, and it simply vanished. They were unable to retrieve any data or files. Because their audience received the podcast via an RSS file controlled by Podango, these podcasters lost access to their audience.

YouTube On YouTube there is a whole industry of people making a living by creating and posting videos. The frequent changes to YouTube policies often do not serve run-of-the-mill YouTube creators. Issues include demonetization, shadow banning, lowered rankings in search results, blocking individual videos, or even complete bans of channels. For example where YouTube originally allowed us to monetize any video, that changed to require the channel surpass a threshold of subscribers and viewing time.

Supposedly when YouTube bans a video or a channel, it's because of terms of service violations such as spreading hate speech or encouraging illegal activities. But can you explain the case of Jordan Pier, who produced very nice informative videos about repairing vintage electronics? He was known for talking respectfully, and informatively, about completely legal and normal topics, yet his whole channel was summarily shut down in July 2020. Fortunately his channel was reinstated, but that episode feeds a growing frustration over seemingly unfair/unbalanced enforcement of YouTube terms of service.

A YouTube Content Creator cannot access to their audience, the people subscribed to their channel, other than by posting videos. Therefore, if YouTube bans a channel, the Creator is banned from reaching their audience.

The mass shooting at YouTube headquarters An extreme form of YouTuber frustration came on April 3, 2018. (en.wikipedia.org) Nasim Najafi Aghdam, an American-Iranian YouTuber focusing on Veganism, had grown irate over YouTube's policies. She bought a handgun, and then went on a shooting rampage at YouTube's headquarters in San Bruno, CA, before killing herself.

Migration from YouTube The less extreme form of frustration is the exodus of video creators to other platforms like Odysee, BitChute, or Rumble. These alternate sites are popular among those concerned about "moderation issues" from YouTube.

Medium.Com Writing on Medium is kind of like YouTube for people who prefer written words. Not all of us feel comfortable in front of a camera, after all. Medium shares revenue with writers, enticing us with the idea of earning a living from our writing. While Medium.Com is known for insightful articles, tastefully presented, there are some issues behind the scenes.

Policy changes at Medium.COM drove away large publications like ThinkProgress, Free Code Camp, and Hacker Noon. A Publication is a subsection of Medium focused on a specific topic area, controlled by an editorial team, to which writers can submit content for publication. Submitting articles to a Publication is attractive since it gives the writer access to a larger audience.

The policy changes made it untenable for those publications to stay on Medium. At the same time Medium launched several of its own Publications, run by paid Medium staffers rather.

David Smooke, HackerNoon CEO, (www.youtube.com) posted a video explaining their reasoning for leaving Medium. Hacker Noon was started on Medium, but the policy changes blocked them from features which they felt were important. The tipping point came when Medium decided to put all stories behind a paywall, violating Hacker Noon's goal of openly published information. A related issue was when Medium forbade Hacker Noon from running advertising. Another raw point was that Medium had control over "reader data" and the e-mail addresses for subscribers. That puts Medium in control of the relationship with your audience.

GamerGate This isn't a platform, but a problem that exists across many platforms. Originally this referred to the women who enter the video gaming culture only to be met with an overwhelming stream of horrid sexist attention that is clearly sexual harassment.

A report on (www.huffpost.com) Huffington Post details a few cases of women streaming videos onto Twitch. The report describe how these women are subject to a massive wave of sexist sexual harassment attacks, even though these women stay fully dressed and do not do anything sexual in their videos. There is a subculture of men taking any snippet of exposed cleavage and turning it into pornographic imagery for their sexual pleasure. It's disgusting, and gives other men a bad name.

The HuffPo article discusses a few policy changes Twitch is making to limit the problem. Some of the YouTube policy changes may have been related to this problem, since the harassment is not limited to Twitch. This harassment is something every woman publishing content online unfortunately faces, because that male subculture believe it is their right to commit these horrid acts.

Whose "brand" is strengthened when Content Creators post on 3rd party platforms?

We've seen that the platforms have more power than do the content creators. One way this plays out is the uneven benefits between platform and content creator.

Every posting adds more content to that platform, each making the platform more important. But to what degree does the posting build the importance of the creator of that posting?

Each posting is tagged with the name of its creator, and a link to their profile page. But, how many of us pay enough attention to recognize who created that content?

Does someone who reads your article say "I read on Medium about ..." rather than say "So-and-so wrote about ... on Medium"? Saying the first line means the platform was more important in the readers mind than the writer of the article.

The potentially uneven playing field of a 3rd party content platform

Because the platform owner controls content recommendations, the platform can potentially preference some content creators over others based not on merit but on business deals. Remember that YouTube's origin, as the sites name implies, was in allowing everyone to post whatever videos they want. Including cute kitten videos. But is that still the case?

For an experiment, create a new Google Account and then visit YouTube. If you don't want to create a new Google Account, instead open an Incognito Mode browser window. The point is to visit YouTube with a fresh identity rather than the identity you always use.

Study the initial home page recommendations, and especially notice the prevalence of big name channels, or videos with millions of views apiece. With a newly minted account, YouTube doesn't know who you are, and therefore doesn't know what to recommend. That the recommendations lean heavily on the big name channels is a clue that YouTube gives preference to those channels.

How does YouTube generate lists of recommended videos? Machine learning algorithms keep track of your viewing and searching habits, and other data it can learn about you, using that data to match your interests against videos on the site. Similar techniques are used on other content platforms. The task of platform owners is enticing you to spend more time on their site, by recommending content that you're likely to want to watch or read.

The question is whether the platforms make recommendations purely on your interests? Or, do the platforms insert their own interests? Are there channels paying the platform to be ranked hither than other channels?

YouTube has its own services, like YouTube Movies, that compete against other channels. When you see a cluster of YouTube Movie recommendations, were they selected organically based on your interests? Or were they artificially inserted into the recommendations?

Lessons learned

These stories have some lessons to teach us:

  • Platforms control access to the audience
  • Platforms change revenue payouts over time
  • Platforms change the definition of Acceptable behaviors/content over time
  • Platform owners might make deals to preference big content owners over the little guy
  • Platforms have shut down with little or no notice
  • Platforms make feature changes with little or no notice

The bottom line is, using a third party platform puts you at the mercy of the platform owner. Your business, your livelihood, your visibility to your audience, all that and more are controlled by that platform. The platform may offer an excellent deal, and it may be a popular platform used by zillions of content creators. But, the platform can change at any time, and you could end up holding the short end of the stick.

Strategy ideas for benefitting from a 3rd party platform

It's important to understand the points made earlier, and to understand that these platforms are not your friend. The platform owner may have assigned someone to help you with issues, but that does not make the platform your friend. The platform may have made promises to the community, but that doesn't make it your friend.

Once you understand what's said above, it's important to think about minimizing your dependency on these platforms. For example, you could operate on multiple platforms making sure your audience knows how to find you elsewhere. That could be as simple as maintaining a Twitter or Instagram account, routinely using it for posting updates.

Make sure to keep a backup copy of all articles or videos on your own computer. That way, if the platform suddenly shuts down, or bans you from posting, you can repost your content to another platform, or to your own website.

Setting up your own website is recommended, since that is territory under your complete control. For instance, Medium is very open to writers who cross post articles from their own site. Many YouTubers produce blog posts corresponding to each video. Don't be dependent on the 3rd party platform, but instead use the platforms to amplify your own website.

Third party content platforms are enticing, since they attract a large user base which you can reach through their platform. But, you must be aware of the risks, and be ready to skedaddle when the deal turns sour.

About the Author(s)

David Herron : David Herron is a writer and software engineer focusing on the wise use of technology. He is especially interested in clean energy technologies like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. David worked for nearly 30 years in Silicon Valley on software ranging from electronic mail systems, to video streaming, to the Java programming language, and has published several books on Node.js programming and electric vehicles.