I’m not sure who I expected to be the first YouTube labor leader, but it wasn’t Jörg Sprave, a bald, bearish German man who operates a channel in which he builds unwieldy and peculiar slingshots and films them for his
2 million subscribers. In March, Sprave launched an organization called the YouTubers Union, a well-meaning initiative that nonetheless seemed destined to fade away, never be heard from again. Instead, in just a few months, it’s managed to win the backing of Europe’s biggest industrial union for a new campaign demanding fairness and transparency in YouTube’s moderation practices.
Here’s the charmingly Teutonic announcement video from Sprave and Christiane Benner, the vice-president of IG Metall, outlining “FairTube,” the joint initiative between Sprave’s crew and the German metalworkers union:
Sprave is giving YouTube until August 23 to enter into negotiations with his group over FairTube’s seven demands, the focus of which is accountability, transparency, and fairness in how YouTube decides which videos are allowed to carry advertising. The question, of course, is: Will YouTube listen?
Some context: As all good Marxists know, classes are formed through struggle, and for increasingly class-conscious YouTube creators, that struggle has been the ongoing battle over “demonetization” in the wake of the 2017 “Adpocalypse.” Over the last two years, sporadic boycotts of YouTube by major advertisers nervous about their ads being automatically placed in front of extremist, offensive, or otherwise brand-hostile videos (“EXPOSED: Feminism Is a Cancer,” brought to you by Procter & Gamble!) have led YouTube to “demonetize” certain channels and videos — that is, remove any moneymaking ads — often with little explanation or avenue for appeal. To some extent, demonetization has been driven by an obscure categorization process intended to give brands more control over what kinds of videos their ads appear near. Only, as Vice’s Edward Ongweso writes:
The introduction of these categories has proven to be incredibly consequential and opaque. As a result of their implementation, “creators are making less money, have less stability, and are constantly being suppressed and demonetized now that YouTube is in favor of ad-safe brands,” Sprave said. Even before the Adpocalypse, the top
3 percent of YouTubers got close to 90 percent of all traffic and even then, their average income was around $17,000 a year, according to a study by Mathias Bärtl, a professor at Offenburg University.
Meanwhile, YouTube’s advertising revenue has almost certainly grown (though it’s not clear that the company is profitable yet).
Like most global megaplatforms, YouTube can be a bit difficult to conceptualize as an entity. It likes to think of itself as a neutral marketplace, its creators as participants, and demonetization merely as the setting of rules: If creators don’t like it terms, they’re free to take their business elsewhere. Many creators seem to think of YouTube as a kind of territorial government (if not an authoritarian dictator), themselves as citizens, and demonetization as a violation of their rights — often with unfortunate consequences for the website’s culture. In forming a union, Sprave is suggesting that creators imagine it, essentially, as an employer, themselves as its employees, and demonetization as an extension of unfair labor practices.
This is obviously anathema to the company, which would like to limit its obligations to creators, but there is solid logic behind Sprave’s theory of YouTube. In a sharp thread on Twitter in June, Guardian writer Julia Carrie Wong suggested that YouTube is better thought of as “Uber, but for broadcasting” than it is as counterpart to Facebook or Twitter: “YouTube is basically the employer of its star creators,” she writes. “It pays them money in exchange for work but it also sets up very loose rules that maintain the legal fiction of a non-employment relationship.” That sounds much more like Uber — which the U.K. and New York State, at any rate, regard as the employer of its drivers, no matter how the company itself frames it — than it does Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, where influencers receive no money from the platform and sell sponsored posts independently (or leverage their fame in other ways).
It’s true that YouTubers tend to think of themselves more as artisans than laborers, independent producers valued for their individual skill and ideas rather than for the interchangeable labor of “creating attention-grabbing videos.” But as 19th-century artisans will tell you, market structures like YouTube’s algorithm, or industrial capitalism, have a tendency to turn everyone into a prole, no matter how beautiful their fields/hand-weaving/slingshot videos. And if creators are proletarian workers, as Sprave and Wong suggest, the logical strategy to effect change is to form a union.
It can feel a bit odd to think of YouTube as a workplace and creators as workers, given the website’s general place in the recent Zeitgeist. Wong’s observation, after all, was made in the context of YouTube’s continuing problems with right-wing extremism on its site. Do we really want to think of alt-right trolls as subjects for labor organizing? (Do right-wing trolls want to think of themselves as subjects for organizing?) I don’t know the answer, though I wonder if the unionizing process would actually be useful to YouTube in its quest to keep its site brand-friendly: If it formalizes its rules and clarifies its relationship to its creators, it could also enlist them to help maintain clear boundaries on the site.
Of course, even before we get to philosophical questions, there are the physical obstacles to YouTube organizing. YouTubers are scattered around the globe, living under many different labor-law regimes and rarely engaged in the kind of day-to-day interpersonal interaction that develops solidarity and class consciousness. For that matter, the population of potential YouTube scabs is so large, and the idea of creating and maintaining a digital picket line so unthinkable, that declaring and managing a successful strike seems like an impossible task.
This is why — for now — the YouTubers Union isn’t threatening to withhold labor. Its leverage, in this case, is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which guarantees “data subjects” the right to “intelligible” communication about data collection and processing. Sprave and his allies at IG Metall argue that YouTube’s categorization process is a type of personal data to which YouTube creators, as data subjects, have a right to information about.
It’s not a perfect tactic, in part because it could lead to what IG Metall’s Michael Six Silbermann described to Vice as a “caste system” in which
E.U.-citizen creators are granted more rights than creators left unprotected by GDPR. But the point of undertaking this legal battle as a labor action would be to ensure the same protections to all creators.
So will YouTube listen? It seems unlikely that the company will accede to Sprave’s demand to enter into negotiations with his union — that would only elevate an organization that YouTube no doubt wishes would just go away. But the involvement of IG Metall, and the legal, political, publicity, and organizing muscle it brings to the fight, means that YouTube now has to think seriously about how it relates to its creators. Dealing with them as dissatisfied customers, or even as unruly citizens, is one thing. Dealing with an organized union of your top creators would be very different.