Dependency on big tech platforms is a risk for all content creators
Back in the day when print and paper ruled the world there was a simple supply chain. Your media company created words and images, then used printers, distributors, newsagents and other outlets to deliver magazines to readers.
All those parts of the chain were hidden from readers, and there were alternatives; it was possible to swap out any of those components and not affect the product. Readers would never know nor care which printer used which paper, and any one newsagent made no difference. And the postal service could be relied upon to deliver subscriptions; it wouldn’t suddenly decide to not deliver your magazine.
Not a lot of marketing was needed either. Consumers of automotive content didn’t have many options, so they bought the few magazines that were well known. In any case, you weren’t reliant on just one method to publicise your work to your readers.
In 2021, everything has changed. Many content businesses are now entirely digital, and that means they’re on a platform run by a tech company, or dependent on one. For example, a YouTuber is entirely dependent on YouTube. Someone monetising Facebook is dependent on Facebook, and many people have huge Instagram followings. Notice the difference; the platform is now part of the content, to the extent that we call people YouTubers and not videojournalists or somesuch, and we “do it for the ‘Gram”.
The supply chain has switched; we now create content on, and for a platform as opposed to creating content with invisible platform components.
Now these tech platforms are great because they mean the creator can just focus on content; no need to worry about technical details, and they have massively lowered the cost of entry to content creation which has positive and negative effects for readers.
But the use of such platforms carries a huge risk, and that is lock-in to the platform with the potential to lose your outlet, or have your terms and conditions changed. Imagine waking up one day to find your YouTube account with tens of thousands of subs, gone. Or your Facebook page, or your Insta. Your income, your work…gone.
Or maybe it’s not gone, and maybe there’s an algorithim change and you lose traffic, or income. My Facebook page has been stuck on about 12,600 followers for ages – I don’t really care what the number is as I’m about quality not quantity of followers, but if I did and relied upon it for growth then I’d have a problem. Or what if YouTube slashed payments to creators by 30%, just like that.
At first glance, a website is a good way to manage this risk. You can always run a website with something like WordPress which you control entirely, and then you can switch hosts and your readers will never notice the difference. You could even switch software, say from WordPress to Drupal and so long as the domain name is the same and the content is there, it’d still work. But it’d be a huge amount of work to switch software, not like just sending your files to a new printer.
But that’s not a complete solution to the risk either, because Google controls 92% of search traffic so if you upset Google, you have a problem – your site is still up but a ghost town with much less traffic. So you’re still dependent, just indirectly. It wouldn’t be a problem if there were say 4 or 5 major search players so if one has a problem with you, or you it, then you’re not wiped out.
And the other problem with websites is they don’t pay very well. Video is where it’s at, not the written word on websites. That’s why online newspapers have paywalls, or are reduced to just plain begging for donations, because online advertising doesn’t pay enough. It is in Big Tech’s interests to drive consumer eyeballs off websites you control to platforms they own.
So these days content creators are back to a Big Tech platform in some shape or form, you can’t digitally publish without one, and then we get into the monopoly problem. You want to create videos? The answer is YouTube. Yes, there’s Vimeo, but with 240 million monthly viewers vs over 2000 million for YouTube there’s no comparison, and guess who Google prioritises in search results? So YouTube kind of has a monopoly for video content, making it hard to switch because there’s no real alternative, and switching itself is really hard anyway. It’s way harder than picking up a website and changing hosters. So if there’s an income reduction you’d cry and suck it up, just take the hit.
Now let’s say you fall foul of the rules of your platform. Assuming you’re not deliberately breaking the rules, maybe your content has been misinterpreted as hate speech, misleading tags or porn. Maybe criticism has been interpreted as harrassment, or you’ve stuffed up with not making clear your content is a promotion, or something to do with affiliate links. Big Tech automates, relying on algorithims which are cheaper than humans, and algorithims don’t deal well with edge cases.
Or maybe it’s not you, and it’s sabotage, where a competitor generates false traffic to your outlet in the knowledge it’ll be detected and land you in trouble. So there’s this from Google’s support page:
Google treats invalid traffic very seriously, analyzing all clicks and impressions to determine whether they fit a pattern of use that might artificially drive up an advertiser’s costs or a publisher’s earnings. If we determine that an AdSense account might pose a risk to our Google Ads advertisers, we may disable that account to protect our advertisers’ interests.
The problem is clear; content creators are paid on ad impressions and clicks, and if there was an army of bots just clicking ads, then revenue for the creator goes up and the advertiser pays for no return. So, Google has algorithims to detect that sort of behaviour, and stop it. Which is great, it’s fraud, and Google is absolutey right to want to prevent false returns.
But what if it’s not you?
However, ultimately it is the publisher’s responsibility to make sure that the activity on their ads is valid.
And they have a web page to explain how, but it’s really not that helpful and identifying, then stopping such traffic is a difficult technical task. Moreover, by the time you’ve figured it all out I suspect your account will already been suspended.
Anyway. So let’s say you’re in Google trouble for invalid traffic. What you do is fill out a form explaining your plight, hit send, and hope. At the bottom of this form is this cheery note:
I have read the entire form and provided all the necessary information. I also understand that once Google has reached a decision on my appeal, further appeals may not be considered, and I may not receive additional communication from Google.
So there you go. Your content business depends on how well you fill out that form, and there’s no discussion, no nothing, it’s probably a one-shot. Better type carefully. At least with a Big 4 bank there’s a code of conduct, an ombudsman, and you can, eventually, get a human on the phone. With Big Tech there’s just a basic form and hope. YouTube does appear to have a three-strikes policy, but it’s not clear how well it plays out in practice.
And you don’t even need to have fraudulent traffic. What about this:
“YouTube may terminate your access, or your Google account’s access to all or part of the Service if YouTube believes, in its sole discretion, that provision of the Service to you is no longer commercially viable”
Now that’s comercially sensible and not an unusual clause. You can’t complain really, it’s a free product in a free world. But, that won’t lessen the damage if it happens, and importantly, there’s no way to appeal, plead your case.
Is this risk real? It sure is. A friend of mine runs a very well known and respected automotive repair business which was founded some 40 years ago, specialising in one marque. He’s had a business Facebook page for many years, and it had a small but interested audience who liked reading about what the business was up to, and commentary on the marque it serviced. Then one day the page was gone, wiped out. No warning, no explanation, no nothing. Just gone, and no way to ask anyone why. Lucky for him his business wasn’t dependent on it, but he’s now naturally wary about putting further effort into his new page. The best explanation he and I can think of is that somehow he triggered a trademark issue with the marque he services.
Another friend of mine suddenly lost his private Facebook account for reasons nobody can understand – we think related to the sharing of a video about COVID. Luckily other people had admin access to his business Page, otherwise he’d have lost 100k followers there, but it’s made him reduce his involvement with Facebook, and also made him more wary of investing further in YouTube. Facebook has not responded to any of his requests to work out what happened.
There’s quite a few similar tales such as this one and this one. And this blog post has an excellent, far better than YouTube’s own, rundown of what’s not permitted content. It’s pretty commonsense stuff, but algorithims are not always commonsense.
So what can a content creator do? Here’s some ideas:
- Understand the terms of service. Content creators must understand the terms of service of their platform and work well within those terms. For example, Facebook pages may not “include third-party products, brands or sponsors” and apparently, the cover image may not include contact details or excessive text. YouTube has similar guidelines, as do all the others. There are also a lot of rules around competitions. These are not all of the platform’s making, and are generally pretty sensible and easy to comply with. Do note what you’re agreeing to for copyright and privacy though; everything you post on Facebook means you grant them a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free and worldwide licence to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate and create derivative works of your content.“
- Understand why the terms of service are there. Corporates have rights too. They may be legally liable for the consequences of content created on their platform, or at least take a reputation hit. They don’t want advertisers paying for false traffic. And they have a vision for their platform, which requires the users to work towards…and nobody is forcing you to sign up. It’s helpful to consider the bigger picture behind the terms of service as it helps you comply.
- Keep up to date – all terms and conditions change, and what was once permitted, may not be. So you need to actually read those update emails and notifications.
- Look at real-world cases – there will be plenty of examples of platform problems, so read up on them. But note that they will be written from the view of one party only, not usually Big Tech’s perspective so be aware of little-guy underdog bias.
- Take note of warnings – if you do get a warning, take the time to understand it and take action. You don’t have a right to the service, you’re there so long as you play by the rules.
- Run a multi-platform strategy. Problem is, that’s expensive, especially for the smaller creators, and Big Tech actively discourages it so as to focus traffic to their platform alone. For example, many of us have noticed that Facebook seems to bury YouTube links on Pages…so some people create teaser videos just for Facebook, or embed videos into a website page and post that.
Big Tech platforms are now in the same realm as the postal service, bank loans, telephony, and other critical services businesses build their operations around In all those cases your business can certainly be denied access to the service, but only after serious misconduct, and there’s always a way to have your case heard, often with an independent overseer to abirtrate disputes. Not just instant denial, fill out a form, hope and if it doesn’t work out, lose everything forever.
If you sign up for a building lease for your business, you don’t expect to arrive one morning to find the building and all your equipment has vanished…so too, the tech platforms should have a responsbility to engage with their customers in the case of issues even if it’s a free service. Nor do you expect to find the rent doubled overnight.
The problem for content creators is not that the rules exist, it is the enforcement without adequate communication.
So it seems to me that content creators have no real choice but to rely on Big Tech, and very little chance to mitigate the risk of that reliance. I’m no fan of red tape, but seems to me this is one area where a bit of regulatory oversight might solve that problem. What are your thoughts?