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YouTube’s Factory Workers Are Angry

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People who make YouTube videos don’t clock in every morning or hang out in the break room. But for those who make money off their science videos or baking tutorials, YouTube is a job.

That might sound fun, but there is a big economy built around online popularity, and like any large industry, it comes with disputes and questions over how the workers are treated.

Two researchers, Robyn Caplan and Tarleton Gillespie, found a common refrain from speaking to YouTube video creators and analyzing their work: Video makers were frustrated by YouTube’s complicated rules and unpredictable paychecks.

Think of YouTube as a virtual factory, and its labor relations are not great.

For those of us who watch YouTube, this tension matters — just as it does if schoolteachers or autoworkers are unhappy with their bosses: It affects the product.

On YouTube, the company shares the money from commercials with the people who make videos. It’s common for video creators to complain that the amount of money their videos generate can be unpredictable, and it’s often not clear why.

There are also intricate, constantly changing rules about what material violates YouTube’s guidelines against harassment or poor taste and therefore might be deleted or disqualified from ads.

If your paycheck were unpredictable and you didn’t get an explanation, you’d probably be mad at your boss, too. (YouTube typically says it continually adjusts its policies and applies them consistently.)

Caplan and Gillespie aren’t the first to notice the uncertainty that comes with making a living from online influence. Their research, however, cleverly identifies a couple of root causes of YouTube’s labor unrest.

First, there is a fundamental tension between YouTube’s promise to give everyone a shot at expressing themselves and the reality that openness makes YouTube’s advertising relationships vulnerable to people who might post tasteless, vile or dangerous things. “Users provide the labor and cause the trouble,” they wrote.

And second, Caplan and Gillespie said they were surprised at the intricate tiers of YouTube’s work force that give the popular video makers more moneymaking opportunities and help figuring out (or skirting) YouTube’s rules than their less popular counterparts. Caplan and Gillespie told me that there would be less tension if the video-making middle class had the same help as the stars.

Yes, we want YouTube to weed out horrible videos. But lack of clarity about the rules and the feelings of uneven treatment have made video creators — whether they post horror videos or white-nationalist ideas — unsure if YouTube was cracking down on the kind of material they made.

What the duo highlighted was the inherent power imbalance between the internet companies and all of us who make a vast majority of the tweets, posts and videos.

Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other websites are trying harder to give people explanations for why something they posted might have been deleted, and a chance to appeal. But it’s incredibly difficult to do this with billions of people.

I’m also not sure the internet companies have an incentive to do this. If you get frustrated that Facebook disabled your account or if YouTube banned ads on a chef’s videos, it might be devastating for the people and not make a ripple for the companies.

We make the product in this internet factory, but the bosses have far more power.

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Brian X. Chen, a personal technology columnist for The New York Times, walks us through how to make YouTube and other Google websites forget our old habits. The big internet companies don’t need to keep every morsel of your online activity forever.

People change. So do our hobbies and interests. So there’s no practical purpose for letting Google keep a permanent record of our internet searches. Google hoards the data so that it can build detailed profiles on us, helping marketers better target us with ads.

For many years, Google has recorded our complete search histories by default, and only recently the company announced that it would set search data to auto-delete after a period of time for new users. (How many of us are new users to Google, though?)

Last fall, I wrote about how we should seriously consider taking advantage of Google’s auto-delete controls for purging search histories on, Google Maps and YouTube.

Let’s use YouTube as an example. A few months ago, I did a YouTube search on a video game I was playing. I have since finished the game, so I don’t need YouTube to keep recommending videos related to that game (nor do I need it to constantly remind my wife that I am an RPG nerd).

So in this scenario, I would like my YouTube search history to auto-delete periodically. Here’s how I set that up:

  • Visit Google’s privacy control panel called My Activity at

  • Click on Activity controls.

  • Scroll down to YouTube History and click Auto-delete.

  • Choose when you want your search activity to self-destruct. Your options are after three months or after 18 months. (I chose three months.)

Using this My Activity tool, you can also go through this process to auto-purge voice requests made with Google Assistant, destinations that you looked up on Maps and searches in Google’s Play app store.

  • Those who have the data have the power: It’s hard for all of us to understand the real-world impact of big technology companies, in part because they tightly control their data for competitive reasons. My colleague Noam Scheiber looks at one consequence of the tech black boxes — a debate over whether a study of Uber and Lyft driver wages was unfairly influenced by the companies, which provided their internal data to a handpicked academic.

  • {Screams out loud}: Anne Borden King, who researches medical misinformation online, found her own Facebook feed crowded with ads for bogus cancer treatments after she posted about her own diagnosis. She wrote an opinion piece for The Times about why social networks that people turn to for support in their health crises also provide a playground for pseudoscience companies to pitch false hope. (Tuesday’s newsletter will have more about health misinformation online.)

  • What happens to the radio tinkerers in their basements? Ham radio operators — people who make their own home radio transmitters — talked to IEEE Spectrum about whether their hobby can survive now that smartphones let anyone easily talk with the world without a radio antenna. (Fun facts: Drunk dialing is apparently a thing in ham radio, and there’s a program for amateur radio operators to speak directly with crew members on the International Space Station.)

What did you learn today from this technology newsletter? That baby skunks are called “kits,” and that they are supremely cute.

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