YouTube sets a goal of having half of trending videos coming from its own site

YouTube wants to have half of the featured videos in its trending tab come from streams originating on the company’s own site going forward, according to the latest quarterly letter from chief executive Susan Wojcicki.

The letter, directed to YouTube’s users, is meant to help ease concerns the site’s biggest stars have over copyright challenges, advertising policies and video monetization — along with their shrinking presence on the site’s trending feature.

YouTube’s biggest contributors are worried that their footprint on the trending tab is shrinking as the company favors “safer” content coming from other, more traditional, media like repurposed television clips, movie trailers, and music videos.

It’s been a rough quarter for YouTube. The company had to deal with yet another child predator scandal, which prompted the company to completely shut down comment sections on most videos featuring minors. 

The Alphabet-owned video company was also forced to wrestle with its role in the spread of a global anti-vaccination campaign that has helped foster a resurgence in Measles cases around the world — creating a new epidemic in the U.S. of a disease that had been largely eradicated in the country.

Beyond monetizing anti-vaccination videos, YouTube’s role in the dissemination of videos taken by the white supremacist mass-murderer who killed scores of people in attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand has created a backlash against the company in capitals around the world.

Wojcicki addressed both incidents in the letter, writing:

In February, we announced the suspension of comments on most YouTube videos that feature minors. We did this to protect children from predatory comments (with the exception of a small number of channels that have the manpower needed to actively moderate their comments and take additional steps to protect children). We know how vital comments are to creators. I hear from creators every day how meaningful comments are for engaging with fans, getting feedback, and helping guide future videos. I also know this change impacted so many creators who we know are innocent—from professional creators to young people or their parents who are posting videos. But in the end, that was a trade-off we made because we feel protecting children on our platform should be the most important guiding principle.

The following month, we took unprecedented action in the wake of the Christchurch tragedy. Our teams immediately sprung into action to remove the violative content. To counter the enormous volume of uploaded videos showing violent imagery, we chose to temporarily break some of our processes and features. That meant a number of videos that didn’t actually violate community guidelines, including a small set of news and commentary, were swept up and kept off the platform (until appealed by its owners and reinstated). But given the stakes, it was another trade-off that we felt was necessary. And with the devastating Sri Lankan attacks, our teams worked around the clock to make sure we removed violative content. In both cases, our systems triggered authoritative news and limited the spread of any hate and misinformation.

Given those examples, the commitment that Wojcicki is making to ensure that half of the videos in the company’s trending tab come from YouTube itself seems… risky.

The company needs to do something, though. The talent on which it depends to bring in advertisers and an audience is very worried about a number of recent steps YouTube has taken.

From the perspective of YouTube’s top talent, the company is abandoning them even as regulators restrict the ways in which they’re able to make the videos that have defined the site throughout its history.

In Europe, meme culture is under attack by lawmakers who have passed legislation muddying the waters around what constitutes fair use — and YouTube’s users are worried that the company may start restricting the distribution of their videos on flimsy copyright claims.

“[We] are also still very concerned about Article 13 (now renamed Article 17) — a part of the Copyright directive that recently passed in the E.U.,” Wojcicki wrote. “While we support the rights of copyright holders—YouTube has deals with almost all the music companies and TV broadcasters today—we are concerned about the vague, untested requirements of the new directive. It could create serious limitations for what YouTube creators can upload. This risks lowering the revenue to traditional media and music companies from YouTube and potentially devastating the many European creators who have built their businesses on YouTube.”

In many ways the letter is just a continuation of themes that Wojcicki laid out in her first address to the company’s core user base.

It’s a pivotal moment for YouTube as public pressures mount for the company to take more responsibility for the videos it distributes and the users that make up the bulk of its creative community start chafing under their increasing constraints.

The company appears to be responding with a commitment to be more transparent going forward, but it’s going to be increasingly difficult for the company to navigate between the pressures of advertisers for “safe” videos and producers for greater creative freedoms — all with traditional media putting the company increasingly in its crosshairs and new players like TikTok commanding greater attention.