In the torrent of videos uploaded to YouTube every day, Nasim Aghdam’s productions went relatively unnoticed.
Though they’ve been taken down from the video sharing website since Aghdam entered the YouTube campus in San Bruno, California, last Tuesday armed with a gun and injured three before turning the weapon on herself, her uploads — on subjects ranging from hand art to animal cruelty — were just a few minutes of the hundreds of hours posted to the platform every minute, and a fraction of the billion hours watched per day.
Since its creation in 2005, YouTube has transformed from a hobbyist website to a media monolith, bringing parent company Alphabet untold riches. Yet, as the platform has become more of a household name, its problems have also multiplied.
For years, there has been a festering unease among YouTube’s community of video creators at the direction the site has taken, moving from being a place where individual creativity is encouraged and sparked by interactions within a close-knit network to one where YouTubers have become little more than brand names, pumping out calls to fans to buy, buy, buy. Money has polluted the platform and diluted its founding principle, distilled in the site’s motto “Broadcast yourself” — which was stripped from its home page in 2012. To win at YouTube, you need to produce what the site’s algorithm wants, and the algorithm prioritises quantity over quality, with “watch time” being the key metric. This is the ability to keep you watching longer and longer, in the process viewing the adverts served against content, with some 45 per cent of the revenue going to the content creator.
YouTube has transformed into a hard-nosed business, a carefully controlled space that now has to make profit-led decisions that often butt up against some of the last hopes of the old guard on the site. In its public statements, YouTube frames its decisions as being no longer just for the benefit of the creator community, but also for its advertising partners.
Nothing can excuse 39-year-old Aghdam’s actions — no straight-thinking person would take out their frustrations with a company in such a violent way. But they represent the most extreme, reprehensible response to a commonly held viewpoint: That YouTube has become too remote, too distant and too opaque about its decisions — many of which have a real-life impact on the earnings and livelihood of those who upload videos to the site.
Increasingly, becoming a full-time YouTuber is seen as a plausible career option. Ordinary Joes can be transformed into multimillionaires thanks to a lucky break and a viral video. But with that ability comes increasing responsibility for YouTube itself, including the requirement for fair treatment for all, and consistency in policy and its application.
When Logan Paul, one of the site’s biggest names, uploaded a video in December featuring a corpse hanging in a Japanese forest, some complained he got off lightly with a temporary ban from making money on the site because — with a following of 17 million — any impact on his bottom line would also affect YouTube’s bottom line.
Others grouse about the way YouTube has changed the way its users make money, to placate its advertisers. In February, the channel introduced a rule that a creator must have at least 1,000 subscribers and have been watched for at least 4,000 hours in the past 12 months to earn income from ads. For those who have built a modest but precarious career on the site, such shifts can have an outsized impact; that they often come with little notice or explanation is a further perceived insult.
Aghdam was one of plenty of YouTubers who have complained about such changes. On her website, she claimed that the channel “filtered” and “regulated” users so they were less likely to be watched. From what we understand (and it still is early days, with police trying to unpick what seems like an implausible, modern-day media-fuelled motive), she decided to launch her attack because she perceived YouTube as harming her livelihood.
Aghdam’s self-inflicted death at YouTube’s California headquarters isn’t the first fatality connected to the platform.
Christina Grimmie, an up-and-coming YouTuber, was shot dead by an obsessed follower of hers when meeting fans in Florida. Monalisa Perez is currently sitting in a Minnesota prison, partway through a 180-day sentence for accidentally shooting dead her partner Pedro Ruiz while recording for their channel, when an attempt to go viral went wrong.
Last week’s attack is an incomprehensible, inexcusable response to discontent about YouTube, even for those attuned to the anger and frustration some YouTubers feel. But perhaps it will cause the video-sharing website to be more open about the decisions it makes, and to recognise the undercurrent of ire that has been bubbling under the surface for many years.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Chris Stokel-Walker is a political commentator and columnist.