Facebook is currently rolling out what it’s calling a “News tab,” a dedicated section on its platform that aggregates news story links from about 200 publishers, and for reasons that I can’t fathom it’s actually paying some of these publishers upward of $3 million a year for the privilege of linking to them (most agree that this is a PR stunt that will help Facebook’s efforts to wave off antitrust probes).
As with most Facebook actions, this one has generated its fair share of controversies, especially in its decision to include racist hate site Breitbart among the publishers. But lost within this debate is the persistent throughline of how large platforms discriminate against independent publishers in their efforts to court mainstream media companies.
There are currently tens of thousands of publishers that try to leverage Facebook’s enormous reach to drive eyeballs to their content, and every time Facebook carves out prime real estate for select publishers it hand picks, it’s depriving these smaller publishers of attention, making it that much harder for them to surface their content in front of audiences.
It’s not just Facebook that engages in this type of behaviour. In fact, it should be considered a law of the internet that any sufficiently large platform will eventually abandon its homegrown creators in order to court mainstream media and celebrities.
YouTube is a prime example of this law in action. Few platforms can lay claim to a more cohesive and vibrant community, one that has spawned some of the most creative filmmaking of the 21st century. Yet in YouTube’s quest to scale its advertising revenue to tens of billions of dollars a year, it’s slowly shifted its priorities away from this community in favour of promoting traditional media companies and celebrities.
I’ve written in the past about how YouTube’s done this with its trending video tab, lowering the bar for mainstream television networks while making it nearly impossible for organic YouTubers to be featured. But this week we’ve seen some new data on how YouTube is funnelling advertising money away from independent creators and toward their mainstream counterparts.
Back in 2017, YouTube came under fire for running advertisements next to what some considered extremist content. The outrage that emerged in the wake of these revelations resulted in what many have termed the “adpocalypse.” Essentially, creators saw their advertising revenue crater virtually overnight as an opaque algorithm determined whether their content was “brand unsafe.”
YouTube also launched a program called “Google Preferred,” a category that brands could opt into. In exchange for paying higher advertising rates, brands could ensure their ads would run against the most premium, brand-safe content the platform had to offer.
To calculate whether a video qualified for Google Preferred, YouTube assigned it a “P Score,” a number that, when it reached a certain threshold, allowed the video access to this more lucrative advertising inventory. The P Score was meant to be hidden from creators, but some enterprising coders discovered the P Score hidden in YouTube’s source code. They then examined the score across thousands of the most popular channels to see what kind of content qualified for Google Preferred.
And you won’t be shocked to learn that the channels that generated the highest P Scores all hailed from mainstream TV shows: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; Late Night with Seth Meyers; The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Virtually no homegrown channels made the top 10. Just as YouTube has been lowering the bar for its Trending tab, it’s also done the same for Google Preferred. “I think this confirms our long time suspicions that ‘homegrown talent’ is being pushed aside in favour of ‘advertiser friendly’ late night TV hosts,” YouTuber Nicholas DeOrio told FFWD.
I wrote a recent column about how we often leave out the independent creator community when assessing the health of the media industry, and that this community now comprises hundreds of thousands of content producers who collectively generate somewhere north of $10 billion in revenue. But because they often operate on the edges of media, they’re the ones most likely to be negatively affected when a major platform shells out $3 million to a mainstream content company to aggregate its content. As an independent creator, you can spend years building up an audience and a solid revenue base, but it only requires a single tweak to a platform’s algorithm to take it all away.