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  • Sankalp Dasmohapatra

Algorithm Gamification: The Loss of Original Content Creation

Before YouTube’s arrival on the Internet in 2005, the space of online content consumption was a disaggregated mess. The visibility of content was minimal and limited to specific content websites that were otherwise unregulated and difficult to naturally find. I, of course, do not speak from personal experience since (thankfully) for anyone born in the early 2000s or later, YouTube was all we knew when it came to video content online.

By the early 2010s, YouTube “content creation” as a profession seemed to have gone from a joke to a viable career path for many. Creators like Smosh, Good Mythical Morning, and RyanHiga had found a unique niche of regular, individual-led content creation that was unlike anything available on television or other media at the time. YouTube content creation felt like it existed outside of the confines of strictly scripted, mass-produced and corporatised media. Its unpredictability and creative freedom made content incredibly diverse and infinitely accessible to a general audience. 

Over the course of the 2010s, as YouTube grew in viewership, a new crop of content creators emerged that now found themselves in a vastly different creator landscape. With YouTube having become an incredibly lucrative career path, the monetisation options for creators improved drastically. Everything from the introduction of multiple ads per video to branded content became the norm for creators. 

I would argue that this point, amplified the most by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, became the turning point for content creators on YouTube. To understand the heart of monetisation on YouTube, we need to understand the underlying principles behind how creators make money. Even the largest of content creators are unable to sponsor every single video that they put out and instead depend on YouTube’s own monetisation system called CPM (Cost per 1000 impressions). Essentially, creators are paid based on the number of unique views that they receive on their videos. The goal for most creators is therefore, quite obviously, to maximise viewership. 

Explaining how Content Supply and Demand has Changed

Content consumption patterns for most of us have changed over the years. While creators relied primarily on subscriptions that generally indicated the reliability of viewership on videos, a rise in content creators and an update to the platform’s ecosystem have changed this engagement pattern. YouTube consumption occurs primarily on mobile devices now and is typically a product of how videos appear on your home screen. Creators are left to fight for limited viewing space where their subscriptions rarely factor into their viewership (it’s why you’ll see many creators talk about how x% of their viewers are not subscribers). Maximising this space means optimising your content to fit what you think will get you put onto people’s feeds more, and what would enhance their chances of them clicking on your video.

While you probably haven’t actively considered what makes you click on a video, there’s a good chance that your favourite YouTuber has. Everything from the choice of colours in a thumbnail to the words used in a title is particularly important to the number of impressions you get. It is no wonder that creators now dedicate their teams and time to ensuring that these parts of their videos are just right. Monetisation patterns incentivise watch time and video retention which in turn affects the value the algorithm assigns to it. The YouTube algorithm is designed to prioritise content which a broad viewer base may find appealing and to keep its users on the platform for as long as possible; trendy videos that are retention-optimised invariably benefit from this setup. 

The Mr Beastification of Youtube

The act of following YouTube trends is not particularly novel. Ever since the Cinnamon Challenge in the early 2010s, there has always been some form of viral video that creators across the platform will imitate for a quick paycheck. The more perverse issue on the platform today is that of hyper-optimised content creation. Creators no longer care about the topics that they’re most interested in creating should they not align with the preferences of the algorithm. Content creation today is about what is the grandest, most ostentatious performance that creators can put on so that the algorithm likes them the most. A YouTube video from the largest content creators often has the budget and production that a mainstream TV show would.

A creator who arguably exemplifies this more than any other is Mr Beast. Mr Beast single-handedly pioneered what I call the “Pay for Views” concept of content creation. The average Mr Beast video today is based on  a simple premise: “How can I spend as much money as possible so that you watch my video?” Today, YouTube is littered with creators who follow this premise, including many who simply ape Mr Beast. Creators therefore base their content type on what may land the most attractive title, typically seen as the highest dollar value they can fit to entice viewers.

The underlying issue with this model of YouTube isn’t just restricted to a particular brand of creators. It seeps in more insidious ways to all content that YouTube promotes. There is an aesthetic that must be followed, a turn of phrase that must be used, a concept that must be adhered to. Content generally does its best to fit into a box so that your limited phone space can promote it. All creators for a given genre imbibe a particular aesthetic into their content. The next time you watch your favourite YouTuber, you will begin to notice patterns that are central to their presentation and presence in your feed. 

Content creation is no longer about pushing the needle on what makes new or innovative content on the internet; it has become a competition of who can do the best to ensure that the algorithm likes them. If you look up “YouTube algorithm” you’ll chance upon dozens of videos by creators telling you what you can do to make the algorithm love you. Content creators that emerge on the platform now come from a place not of loving the content they create but of loving the lifestyle that it gives them. 

The Pattern Across Platforms

Algorithm gamification applies across platforms, particularly when it comes to short–form content. The most egregious example of this has been the trend of placing Subway Surfer videos beneath the actual content to keep up engagement. If by sheer luck you have never chanced upon these videos, they feature video content split vertically with a clip of a video game (Subway Surfers being the most common) spliced under their video to ensure that the screen always has something to keep you engaged. But, as in the case of YouTube, this optimisation finds itself influencing the content creation in subtler ways. It’s the reason why creators use a particular font when captioning their videos, or why they have a particular lighting style, or why their videos are made to be perfect loops to keep you watching. The underlying principle is always about engagement.

Over time, as short-form content has become an equally lucrative field for content creators, we have seen that it falls victim to the same pitfalls that longer content does. This issue will persist for as long as the motivation for content creation stems from a place of monetisation and engagement numbers. If you’ve ever been in a marketing team for a club and needed to shoot a reel, you’ve invariably had this conversation. 

The Underlying Issue

Now this doesn’t mean that engagement optimised content is necessarily ‘bad’. No artistic creation can be judged by that lens and creators should not be judged by standards imposed onto them by the industry. The issue is that today, content creation has lost the original charm of the artistic process. The appeal of YouTube in its early stage of creation had little to do with the production value, aesthetic appeal, or curation of video content. It was about appreciating the uniqueness of content creation that made it so there was constant innovation in the types of videos available for a given genre. 

I maintain that there is nothing wrong with creators getting paid more or choosing to raise the production value of their videos when successful. The issue, in the end, is with just a particular type of content that we consume, which becomes the primary focus of both the platform and creators, and invariably has drastic implications on the future of the field. 

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