YouTube Has a Problem on Its Hands: Change My Mind

The last couple of weeks, a storm has been brewing on social media around the policies and content allowed on the largest social media platform in the world: YouTube. Let me explain.

Who Are the Players?

Before we get into the details about what all is going on, we should meet the characters. Really there are two people at the center of this story and one major company. We’ve already established that YouTube is the major company. But who are the people?

The two warring parties here are Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder.

Carlos Maza is a journalist for Vox Media. He is primarily responsible for “Strikethrough,” which is a video series under the Vox brand. The video series is hosted on Vox’s website as well as YouTube. Maza is gay and, from what I can tell, makes that a prominent part of his platform (it is included in his Twitter handle). Maza holds liberal political views and works for a liberal news outlet, Vox.

Steven Crowder is a conservative political and cultural commentator best known for this picture, which has been edited and memed thousands of times, including in the title of this blog post:

But beyond that memeable picture, Crowder is a new version of the conservative radio shock jock for the digital age. He’s Rush Limbaugh if he was 30 years younger and was on YouTube instead of the radio. He’s John Oliver but conservative..and usually much more offensive.

What’s Going On?

It all started, sort of, when Maza (@gaywonk on Twitter) tweeted this thread last Thursday (click it to see the full thread):

Maza is bothered, as he says, by the insulting commentary of Crowder.

Crowder is a conservative commentator. So naturally, many of his views are inherently offensive to a significant portion of people. But it’s more than just his opinions that are offensive. His delivery is incredibly offensive. He wouldn’t deny this. I’m not accusing him of anything he wouldn’t own.

Here’s a recent example of a typical podcast segment/video from Crowder:

I’ve been aware of Crowder for a while, but I’ve never really consumed any of his content until I started writing this blog post. I see why people like his content. He’s witty. He’s edgy. He has friends who egg him on a la Dan Patrick on his show. It is definitely “entertaining” in the most neutral sense of the word. I didn’t really enjoy any of the content, but I definitely see why people do.

Maza tweeted this compilation video of how Crowder has criticized him:

Without a doubt, Crowder’s treatment of Maza is reprehensible and offensive. It’s probably fair to even call it outright harassment. The question is: does Crowder’s behavior violate YouTube’s policies? Being offensive and rude is not against YouTube policies. If it was, some of the most famous comedians and commentators would have been banned long ago. The question is not whether or not Crowder’s actions are “wrong” or “mean”. The questions is whether or not his actions break YouTube’s policies.

What Did YouTube Say?

YouTube made a statement on Twitter in response to Maza’s Twitter thread saying that after a thorough review of the content on Crowder’s channel, they do not believe he is violating YouTube policies. Here is their statement:

YouTube has decided after a couple of days of review that Crowder should be demonetized but not banned from the platform. On one hand, I appreciate that YouTube isn’t just throwing down the ban hammer on Crowder because he’s mean. In my opinion, some social media platforms have been a bit too quick to suspend or ban users in the past for being jerks when they didn’t violate any stated policies for the platform.

However, in the case of Maza v. Crowder, I’m not sure I understand YouTube’s response. Here is a highlighted line from their policies on harassment and cyberbullying:

I mean it seems pretty clear to me that Crowder has content that “makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person.” Now, I don’t think Crowder has any videos whose sole and primary focus is Maza and making hurtful comments about him (I couldn’t find any). From what I can tell, most of Crowder’s rude remarks toward Maza are in the context of covering the content/topic Maza has covered in his videos. In providing commentary on an issue Maza has covered, he throws jabs in about Maza.

What I mean to say is that Crowder insults Maza in passing within the context of videos rather than creating videos whose primary topic is Maza and making fun of him. Obviously neither is good, but I wonder if YouTube finds passing insults permissible and more focused insults as breaking the above policy.

For now, YouTube has decided that what Crowder has done is permissible but not able to be monetized. As you can imagine, that has not gone over very well. Demonetizing Crowder won’t really do anything except galvanize his supporters. He likely makes a small percentage of his overall revenue through YouTube monetization as his content isn’t very lucrative for advertisers in the first place.

Why Does All of This Matter?

It matters because small fights like this have historically had massive implications on how social media platforms regulate content and execute their policies. People don’t like it when the policies of social media platforms allow jerks to thrive on being jerks.

YouTube, and other social media platforms, have the difficult job of deciding where it is that a line is crossed. For instance, Crowder was being criticized for calling Maza a “queer”. But Maza regularly refers to himself and his community as “queer” (it is the “Q” in “LGBTQ” after all). Certainly, Crowder was using the term in an insulting way. But is it YouTube’s job to prevent someone from insulting another person? Or is it YouTube’s job to make sure that it’s platform isn’t used for physical violence?

At the center of all of this conversation is a controversial subject: words and the extent of the damage they can cause.

YouTube unequivocally does not allow any content that suggests physical harm be done to individuals. However, in recent years, more and more emphasis has been put on the “harm” words cause people.

Many, particularly those on the political left, consider verbal attacks or insults as serious as physical attacks. This belief is particularly popular on college campuses which set up safe spaces for students to retreat when speakers come to campus and challenge their views. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write of this phenomenon in The Coddling of the American Mind:

The belief that words or ideas can be “dangerous” or “harmful” is growing in popularity and social media is obviously a huge minefield of verbal insults. So, for some, logging on to social media at the risk of enduring a barrage of verbal abuse could be as risky as stepping onto a literal, physical battlefield.

Many want YouTube to treat verbal abuse and harassment with the same level of severity as threats of physical abuse or attacks. YouTube seems to have drawn a line in the sand, making it much more difficult to be banned for verbal attacks than for physical attacks. This is not popular.

I don’t really have an opinion on this. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to figure out where to draw the line. I don’t believe jerks should be banned from having a voice online, even though I think jerks are jerks. But where does one cross the line from being a jerk to being worthy of being silenced? Has Crowder crossed that line? It’s hard to say. With Alex Jones, who was banned from YouTube months ago, it seemed as though it was when his verbal abuses started to have offline effects that he was banned from the platform. He wasn’t banned for saying Sandy Hook was a hoax, but he was banned when some of his viewers started harassing the family of Sandy Hook victims in person and in ways beyond social media.

Perhaps with Crowder it’s the same. He’s verbally insulted Maza online, but no one has approached him in person as a result of Crowder’s words. Maybe that is what would put it over the edge? It’s hard to say. I don’t think even YouTube knows, honestly.

What Happens Next?

Maza has continued to hound YouTube about its faulty policies. He claims the platform doesn’t care about LGBT creators:

All the while, conservatives regularly complain that YouTube and other social media platforms have a bias in favor of liberal ideas and creators.

Crowder posted a video defending himself here:

But what is next for YouTube and speech on social media? That remains to be seen.

Earlier today YouTube started banning users and removing videos revolving around neo-Nazi and white supremacist content. Kevin Roose and Kate Conger wrote in the New York Times:

YouTube announced plans on Wednesday to remove thousands of videos and channels that advocate for neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other bigoted ideologies in an attempt to clean up extremism and hate speech on its popular service.

The new policy will ban “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion,” the company said in a blog post. The prohibition will also cover videos denying that violent incidents, like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, took place.

YouTube did not name any specific channels or videos that would be banned.

“It’s our responsibility to protect that, and prevent our platform from being used to incite hatred, harassment, discrimination and violence,” the company said in the blog post.

Since that article was written this morning, some channels have already seen the effects:

Moving forward, it is going to be interesting to see how major social media platforms regulate content on their platforms.

The people who use these platforms come from innumerable backgrounds with varying kinds of morality. A room full of 100 social media users would generate dozens of opinions about where the “line” needs to be drawn in terms of what content is allowed and what content is not allowed.

Maza v. Crowder is important because it may act as a critical inflection point regarding these discussions. Can a conservative commentator use a social media platform to call a liberal commentator names based on his nationality and/or sexual identity? Is such action just mean or is it not allowed on the platform?

We are living in fascinating times. Our grandchildren will look back on this time in the age of the internet and marvel at how unregulated and “wild west” everything was.

For now, we watch some of the most powerful companies in the world grapple with their own morality and the morality of their users.

NEW RESEARCH: 5 Key 2019 Social Media Usage Trends

Some have speculated that there could be an impending social media exodus. Many books, Christian and not, have been written recently about pulling back from phone use, curtailing social media activity, and other like themes. I have read many of these books and have changed some of my own habits. They are super helpful.

However, the publishing of books about the perils of social media and increasing negative sentiment regarding social media do not mean there will be an exodus from social media anytime soon. Just look at Facebook. Despite an apocalyptic year full of terrible stories about privacy violations and poor content moderation, their usage remained stable.

As long as the internet exists, there will be social media. Social media will change forms. Some will opt out. But I would bet my house that at least 75% of Americans will be social media users for the foreseeable future.

The last few springs, Pew Research Center has published new data on social media usage in the United States. This year’s data came out just last week. I wanted to write on it right away, but I was preparing for a long weekend vacation in NYC and had to prep my workload for that.

Finally got some time to look at the data this week. Let’s look at five of the biggest trends revealed in the data.

1. YouTube is the biggest social media platform in the world.

…but most people don’t see it as a social media platform.

You may read that YouTube is the biggest social media platform in the world and think, “Wait a second. YouTube isn’t social media. It’s just a place to post videos.”

YouTube is a social media platform. Countless hours of video are posted every day and millions of people are watching and commenting on those videos. Media is posted and social interaction happens around that media.

The survey says 73% of Americans use YouTube, and 51% of those people use it every day.

The platform is most popular among the youngest Americans surveyed. About 90% of Americans ages 18-24-years-old use YouTube, and 93% of Americans ages 25-29-years-old use it. The survey didn’t poll Americans younger than 18 (because they aren’t really allowed), but I am certain the usage statistics for Americans under 18 are near those of Americans ages 18-24.

2. 51% of American adults use Facebook “several times per day”; 74% at least once per day.

Facebook is no longer the “newcomer” in the social media world. Facebook is the grizzled veteran of the social media world, and it has had a heck of a year. It seems like there is a major controversy every week regard Facebook in some form or fashion.

However, despite the constant bugaboos that hound Facebook—whether it be how they use our data or the kind of content they allow on their platform—its usage remains steady among American adults.

Obviously, Facebook would like to see a growth in the usage of its platform among Americans, but considering the year it’s had, maintaining its usage percentage isn’t the worst thing to happen.

3. There is an 18% disparity in Instagram usage between 18-24-year-olds and 25-29-year-olds.

This was probably the craziest stat out of the whole study from my perspective:

  • 75% of 18-24-year-olds use Instagram
  • 57% of 25-29-year-olds use Instagram

I am 28-years-old, and I am shocked that there is such a disparity between my age group and the folks just a few years younger than me. The disparity is pretty stunning. I mean, 25-29- and 30-49-year-olds have more in common when it comes to Instagram usage!

But at the same time, when you take time to think about it, it really isn’t very surprising. Consider the two age groups and how different those times in life are for Americans. One group is largely in college while the other is out in the “real world.”

Basically, college-aged students use Instagram much more than their peers who are new to the post-college world. This is likely due to the fact that Instagram came onto the scene when current college students were in roughly middle school. Instagram was more ingrained to the social lives of our current college students than it was for people closer to my age.

America’s 25-29-year-olds received Instagram in college while its 18-24-year-olds received it in middle school. This, I believe, is the primary reason for this surprising disparity in usage.

4. Facebook is the most popular social media platform among senior adults.

…I mean…is anyone really surprised?

According to the survey, 46% of Americans 65+ use Facebook. YouTube comes in second at 38%. I believe Facebook is most popular among seniors for a number of reasons, but primarily because it was the first social media platform that pervaded senior adult culture and because, for many of them, Facebook is all about connecting with people from the past, like Classmates.com used to be.

If you only looked at that statistic, you would be tempted to think that Facebook will die when its users do—so many people on Facebook seem older. But the most prolific users of Facebook are actually the 25-29-year-old demographic, as 84% of them use Facebook.

But this isn’t super surprising. Why?

Facebook became the dominant social media platform when 25-29-year-olds where in middle and high school, just like Instagram did among the 18-24-year-old demographic.Snapchat and Instagram are especially popular among 18- to 24-year-olds

Is there a trend here? Is it possible that whichever social media platform came into the lives of Americans in their adolescent years is the one most likely to stick with them into post-college adulthood? I think there is a case for that. I think it is more likely that today’s college students stick with Instagram for a long time rather than migrate to Facebook as they get older. But who knows? Time will tell. Facebook is technically more prevalent than Instagram among 18-24-year-olds right now (76% versus 75%), but if you know any college students, you know that they actually use Instagram much more than Facebook.

5. There are more Americans who use LinkedIn than use Twitter.

According to this data from Pew, 27% of Americans use LinkedIn and 24% of Americans use Twitter.

When you see super “woke” people on Twitter raging about why the latest “problematic” movie star deserves to be “canceled” because of something they said in a text message 10 years ago, remember just 24% of Americans are even on that platform and an even smaller percentage is paying any attention.

Twitter is home to some of the loudest social media activism, and yet it has fewer users than the corporate social media platform that spams emails every day.

I love Twitter, but its influence on our overall culture is overstated, despite the fact that the leader of the free world uses it as his primary communication platform.

In Conclusion

All of this is to say: social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It will change in the next decade. Some people will opt out of social media. Some will limit their usage of these platforms (I know I have). But if social media survived the incessant bad news about Facebook and YouTube this year, it can survive just about anything.

The task for us is to learn how to use it wisely. It isn’t going away. Just look at how 2020 candidates are already using it.

Daydreaming about what “a world without social media looks like” steals valuable time away from learning to live in a world in which we are governed through it.

Forget a world without social media. Learn to live in a world shaped by social media.

Read Pew’s article on its data here.