Vloggers of the World, Unite? A Marxist Analysis of YouTube

by Olly Lennard

21 February 2016

I love being a YouTuber: I want to get that on record straightaway. When the Coalition government tripled tuition fees I realised that my subject, philosophy, a discipline already sequestered and esoteric, had just become that much harder to access. So I decided to give away my philosophy MA on YouTube, where anybody could learn what I was learning no matter where they were in the world or how much money they had. Since then it’s been amazing to watch Philosophy Tube go from 100 subscribers on Day One to reaching millions worldwide.

There are downsides though: for many creators YouTube is essentially a second job they have to pay for. That’s how it started for me, and even now I still make far less than the minimum wage. I don’t mind that so much, I do it to educate people and because I enjoy it, but even for the lucky few who make YouTube their career it’s often a case of ‘Get Rich or Die Vlogging’.

In her article of that name Gaby Dunn, a YouTuber with over half a million subscribers, describes the ‘isolating’ economic situation many creators find themselves in. It’s interesting she chose that word, a word conveying distance and vulnerability; the word Karl Marx chose for that feeling was Entfremdung – ‘alienation’. Alienation can help explain that isolation and show the power economics has to shape a community.

We can understand YouTube videos as products made by labourers – the creators who write, film, edit and upload them. Of course the real product in YouTube’s eyes is the ad space on videos, which YouTube sells to generate its revenues. The pre-roll ads you skip after five seconds and the banners you reflexively close are what keep the lights on. Advertisers pay for your attention; as the saying goes, “when the product is free, you are the product.” This money is split between YouTube and the creators – I get 55% of the ad revenue my videos generate.

To make any product you need some means of production and some labour. The means of production for a YouTube video are the cameras, microphones, editing software, tripods, computers, etc. Most creators own or lease theirs. But all that only gets you a video – to make a YouTube video you need YouTube itself, the website. That’s the most important means of production, and it’s owned not by the creators but by Google. This brings YouTube under capitalistic production – the mode of production whereby means are privately owned and products (ad opportunities) are sold in a market for profit.

You probably already know ol’ Karl wasn’t capitalism’s biggest fan. He thought that when means of production are owned privately rather than by the labourers themselves, work gets directed not toward the labourers’ own ends but towards producing the maximum profit for capitalists. Among other things, this causes alienation, which for Marx is as much a quasi-psycho-spiritual affliction as it is a socioeconomic situation. The encyclopaedia of Marxism calls it: “the process whereby people become foreign to the world they are living in.”

You can view alienation either as descriptive – mapping some economic relations – or as both descriptive and normative, mapping and also condemning them. Fans of capitalism might like to opt for the former. Marx being Marx – and Marx having seen what a blasted Mordor-esque hellscape unrestricted capitalism had made of Victorian Britain – the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital are pretty condemnatory. Still, you might think an alienated life could in the right conditions be a pretty sweet gig. I’ll leave that question to you.

Alienation on YouTube.

Marx thought there were four types of alienation that occur under capitalism, three of which we can worry about here:

The first is alienation of the labourers from the products, and it occurs when the workers are paid less than the value of what they make, or make products that don’t wholly belong to them. For instance someone working in a clothing factory might not be able to afford to wear the clothing they make. This is inevitable under capitalism because the whole point of hiring labour is to generate surplus value and then sell the product for profit.

In one sense we YouTubers aren’t alienated from our videos because we retain ownership of them and we can remove them anytime. We’re also not compelled to put ads on them: you’re free to use YouTube to share your videos without making a penny off them. But remember the true financial product is the ad space: YouTube takes 45% of the revenue that generates, so we are alienated from our products in that if we choose to allow them to be sold we’re paid less than their market value.

The second type is alienation of the labourer from the act of labouring. This occurs when labourers are coerced, forced, or not working on their own terms: they work not because the work itself satisfies some need but because they get wages, a means to satisfying needs. It also occurs when labourers can’t decide how the product is sold or applied.

Creators in the ‘Get Rich or Die Vlogging’ trap – too well-known or busy to hold down other jobs but barely making ends meet on the money YouTube brings in – might feel their labours confront them as alien, an embodiment of hostile forces beyond their control rather than the result of a fulfilling creative act. Of course that pressure isn’t all YouTube’s fault: it arises because whole countries rely on capitalistic production.

On one hand we YouTubers are close to our work because we’re free to choose and design what we make. We’re also at liberty to use our platforms to generate additional revenue: some sell T-shirts, I have a crowdfunding page and offer tuition to fans who want some extra help. I am creatively fulfilled by my work and it’s rare that I feel compelled or coerced into getting in front of the camera.

But we can’t control who advertises on our videos: it’s Google who sells the ad space and decides which companies are allowed to use it, meaning that on the other hand we can’t decide how our products will be sold. If an ad appears on our content for a company we’d rather not be associated with there’s little we can do about it. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm prioritises new videos too: we have to upload frequently or be left behind, so we can’t set our own schedules. For an educational creator like me, being able to take two weeks or a month to research a video would be wonderful, but the channel would wither without the fresh traffic the ‘Recommended For You’ algorithm brings in.

The last type of alienation we see on YouTube is that of labourers from other labourers. Under capitalistic production workers are pitted against each other, encouraged to seek what benefits them individually rather than what benefits them all. We see this when channels seek ‘rage-clicks’, subsisting by making deliberately inflammatory or reactionary videos. Some of these take the form of tearing down other YouTubers: the next time Feminist Frequency releases an episode watch how many angry reply videos spring up trying to ride the coat-tails of the traffic surge.

Well so what?

Would things change if YouTube weren’t capitalist? In some ways, no: the YouTubers themselves would own the platform and have a stake in its profits, but these are reportedly negligible anyway. Haters would still hate – digital video socialism wouldn’t remove all the ranty reactionary videos: economic forces can mould a community but so can lots of other things, the desire for attention being a big factor here. Capitalism outside YouTube would probably still continue, meaning those under pressure would likely still be feeling it. I don’t think alienation is the only or even proximate cause of all YouTubers’ problems. It’s already a less alienating (in the Marxist sense) job than many other careers; I’m by no means complaining or suggesting we storm Google’s offices and start delivering the April Theses.

All the ad revenues would go to the creators though, minus some fair percentage to pay for the upkeep of the site. There might also be a degree of democratic control over things like who advertises on our videos and what factors the recommendation algorithm considers.

That’s pie in the sky, however: Google owns YouTube and they’re focusing on turning profit from it – see YouTube Red. But the response to capitalist production has traditionally been to organise the workforce; could there be something like a YouTube Union someday soon?

Navigating the legal labyrinths to build an international group would be a significant challenge, but a body like that could represent the creators to YouTube, discuss changes to the platform, address widespread concerns about overactive content ID systems (which scan videos for copyrighted content), and advise new creators on how to negotiate with Mephistophelean multi-channel networks.

A YouTube Union could be a step towards countering alienation on the platform; might we soon hear cries of ‘Vloggers of the World, Unite!’?

Photo: Katie Killary/Flickr

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