It's Time For YouTubers And Twitch Streamers To Organise

Illustration by Angelica Alzona

Unique to the digital age is the video content creation industry, one where employees are "users" and employers are "platforms." In it, workers aren't owed squat. When there are tech issues, they can visit the support page. When there are platform updates, a lot of the time, the press knows first. Full-time YouTubers and Twitch streamers, workers whose livelihoods depend on these platforms, are weed-whacking their way through the nascent industry's first labour issues. And while it's a new industry, there's one old, time-tried solution to users' grievances: organisation.

It might seem absurd to suggest that full-time YouTubers and Twitch streamers have it all that rough. After all, they make a living playing video games or filming make-up tutorials. But as we've seen on several occasions, by hitching their wagons to two giant corporations — YouTube and Twitch, and by extension, Google and Amazon — these video-makers are opening themselves up to all sorts of risk.

On top of the 60-hour workweeks common among internet creators, and the myriad of problems we've seen stem from that, video platform companies can evade responsibility for their workers' livelihoods with a simple sleight of hand — they're providing a service, not a job opportunity.

But YouTubers' revenue streams can disappear without warning. This month, YouTubers are facing a crisis after brands pulled their ads from the platform and videos labeled "inappropriate" were demonetized. YouTubers can appeal through a somewhat enigmatic process.

The financial mess is affecting YouTubers as big as PewDiePie, who has 55 million subscribers, and many claim they're making a fraction of what they did just weeks ago. Few have a clear idea of what's going on. Among YouTubers, there is widespread foreboding and insecurity. It's not their first flirtation with financial risk; over the last few months, mysteriously disappearing view and subscriber counts caused widespread panic that lasted months.

A lapse in communication or a quick adjustment to technology can seriously mess up full-time content creators' finances. Twitch is traditionally communicative with its partnered streamers. But, sometimes, its tech can take a toll on users' pocketbooks. Even something as small as limiting Twitch streamers to one "Community" hashtag instead of two can radically decrease viewership, and therefore, cost them money.

Third-party "creators' networks" capitalise on the problem of communication by promising shady management deals that, sometimes, repossess streamers' channels or skim off 50% of revenue. It happens often, in part because content creators aren't talking to each other about pay rate norms or what toxic contracts look like. Many are young. And most sign NDAs, making it a breach of contract to share information.

The people who make videos and stream games can't just cross their fingers and hope that YouTube and Twitch will address the human issues they face working full-time on their platforms. These workers need more control over their livelihoods. They need to take action and organise — that is, to come together and collectively argue for better rights and protections — so Silicon Valley giants stop exploiting their work. It needs to be democratic and it needs to happen soon.

"With multi-billion-dollar companies who have the interest of the company at the forefront, the only effective strategy is to come together collectively and push back against that," Justin Molito, director of organising for the Writers Guild of America East, told me. On YouTube and Twitch, there are tens of thousands of "partnered" creators, or users who receive checks from these companies' ad deals. Alone, most are powerless, but together, they would have a bigger, more persuasive voice.

"My experience is that, when people come together around a set of demands and resolve to see those demands met, the appropriate corporation will figure out how to structure things," Molito said.

This is an entirely new type of labour. So the logistics of organising are a little foggy. Typically, guilds and unions can offer legal protections for workers. The problem here is that, unlike writers, YouTubers and Twitch streamers have never been employed by the corporations behind their platforms. And, likely, they never will be.

According to U.S. labour laws, a company "employs" a worker if it controls the time, place and conditions of work; pays for all aspects of work; and has a formal and exclusive relationship with that worker. Needless to say, YouTubers and Twitch streamers don't fit into that category. They licence their content to these platforms.

Mona Ibrahim, senior associate at the Interactive Entertainment Law Group, explained that "the reason Twitch streamers don't qualify as employees is because they have control over their work product and the manner in which they deliver that product, they pay for their own expenses, and the agreement is non-exclusive and commission based as opposed to an hourly rate or salary."

Work in 2017 looks a lot different than it did decades ago, and in three years, half of workers will be independent contractors, like YouTubers and streamers. Perhaps it's time for labour laws to expand to accommodate the modern generation.

In the meantime, there are still plenty of logistics to sort out. But the blueprint for organisation already exists in the Internet Creators Guild, which is led by distinguished YouTubers. This guild, which charges dues around $US5 ($7)/month, promises to help professional YouTube creators organise, although it's not currently able to offer legal protections. Collective bargaining is not a near-term goal for them.

It's just for YouTubers and is still in its planning phases, but its vision is promising. Over email, ICG executive director Laura Chernikoff told me that they currently have 800 members. "ICG was built to address situations related to the power imbalance between a disparate workforce of independent professional creators and the major platforms they work within," Chernikoff said, "as well as stakeholders like brands, talent representation, and other parts of the industry." Eventually, they hope to produce reports on what influences brand deals, share information for standardised contracts, and forge communication channels with platforms.

Since the ICG is currently only designed for YouTubers (and doesn't currently have collective bargaining ambitions) Twitch streamers have to find other options. They could wait until the ICG offers support for them or organise with their own association, with or without YouTubers.

A few big streamers, ideally ones who have already spoken out against labour conditions, would need to take initiative and launch a guild. That's the steering committee. It must include big-name streamers who already have a lot of leverage, and ideally, pre-existing human connections at these platforms. That way, a direct path of communication already exists. And otherwise, smaller channels will be afraid to join.

After collecting a few hundred streamers who support the initiative, this Twitch guild steering committee could establish a nonprofit trade association. They could incorporate it, if they chose. Once it's organised, the steering committee could ask for dues from streamers or YouTubers who wish to be represented.

Those creators can communicate their needs through private channels and determine common goals. Then, when it appears that a problem is brewing or must be addressed, the steering committee can come together and try to find a solution. If the problem is not resolved, members can threaten to strike or go to the nuclear option: transferring their businesses to other streaming and video services, like Microsoft's Beam or Vimeo. (Granted, YouTube and Twitch have something of a monopoly here, which makes it all the more important for YouTubers and Twitch streamers to organise and try to win some leverage.)

Right now, internet content creators have little sway over the platforms that allow them to make a living — unless those creators are already huge. Bigger partnered channels may have access to a "partner manager," or customer support for specific creators. When YouTube tech goes awry, or advertisers pull out, those big channels might receive an explanation. Smaller channels won't. Hank Green, who runs the convention VidCon and helped found the Internet Creators Guild, told me that he's had great access to YouTube, even on the weekends. He's been making videos on it for ten years.

He says it isn't fair that others don't have the same access. "I'll talk to people I know who have huge channels but don't have that same productive relationship," he said. "They don't know it's an option or they're newer to the platform."

Creators' networks have sprung up to fill that communication gap, but they have proven to be flawed, sometimes taking advantage of streamers and YouTubers by forcing them to sign imbalanced contracts that offer no real advocacy. For YouTubers, even signing with the Disney-owned Maker Studios can be risky. Several Maker-signed YouTubers I spoke with described regular late or withheld payments and poor communication channels.

On Twitch, streamers regularly sign imbalanced brand deals or sponsorship contracts that majorly screw them over. "We've definitely seen contracts where streamers would lose ownership of their channel in the process of signing it," said Omeed Dariani, CEO of the Online Performers Group, a boutique management company for content creators.

"The sort of stuff where, if a lawyer saw that in a contract they'd flip the table. No one should sign that kind of thing! But a lot of the time, it's just a kid [signing it]."

What would make a guild more trustworthy than a creators' network? Money. Organisations like Maker have financial stakes in streamers and YouTubers. Those organisations also have pre-baked relationships with Twitch and YouTube, which means that their interests won't always align with the people they represent. A guild, organised and run by the workers themselves, would be able to properly and earnestly represent YouTubers' and Twitch streamers' agendas when dealing with the powerful companies behind these platforms.

Online content creation needs to be a more sustainable job. Because it is a job. And no labour standards protect YouTubers or streamers because their industry is only now being recognised as such. Creators' lack of physical presence works against them in ways that teachers and coal miners never have to face. If they organised as a collective bargaining unit, it would set the tone for how Silicon Valley giants treat independent digital content creators in the years to come. As VidCon's Hank Green told me: "The thing YouTubers and online content creators have that coal miners never had is the biggest megaphone in the world."


Comments

    I think it's silly to try to think of content creators in terms of workers or employees, since as the article does eventually note, the relationship between the platform and the creator is nothing at all like employment.

    Labour laws don't need to be 'updated' to deal with this relationship though, they already encapsulate it just fine. A creator is essentially a company, whether as a sole trader or as a team of people. They produce a product that they want to sell. The platform is also a company, and the product they're selling is the hosting and distribution of media. The arrangement between these two companies is no different from a trade between any two companies - the platform sells to the creator hosting for their content and access to the platform's userbase. The creator purchases that hosting and access in exchange for sharing the ad revenue that content generates. If that trade isn't desirable for either party they're free to pull out and trade with another company instead, or sell their content directly.

    Naturally that doesn't mean creators can't band together to collectively negotiate better deals, but at the end of the day labour laws are perfectly fine for describing the relationship between the two parties.

      I'm in IR and I disagree. The creator after a while is generally only making content for one company and it becomes more closely aligned with a traditional employer/employee relationship (in the same way that things like deliveroo are employing people on what are traditionally called piece rates, which isn't quite legal but lives in a grey space thanks to the way people are engaged).

      A creator is usually expected to produce ongoing work and deliver it while under contract with Disney or whoever else it is that sponsors their content before it goes onto YouTube. There definitely needs to be some thought around how these relationships work, or we will end up in a future where everyone is self employed and there is no underpinning value for work of particular types. The hardest part is the global nature of the work and the fact that creators often don't work for a local company that has local labour laws applied.

      It's a really complicated situation in the same way as app based workers and there can definitely be work done around redefining labour laws on content creation for YouTube in the same way as we do for any freelance journalism/media/film work.

        Most creators don't make content for a company, they make content for themselves and deploy it on a service. Whether that service is Youtube or Dailymotion or Twitch is the creator's prerogative, the platform claims no ownership. If the platform were an employer then the employer would own the content made by the creator and all rights to it.

        The kind of partnerships you're describing when you mention Disney are completely independent of the relationship between the creator and the platform, which is what this article seems to be primarily addressing. The nature of a partnership is entirely down to how it's defined, there are a lot of shades. Contract law is reasonably well standardised internationally and would apply.

        In any case, the relationship between a creator and partner is no different to the relationship between a game studio and a publisher. The publisher may well commission work for the studio to perform, but the commission is between company entities - the studio's staff are never considered employees of the publisher. A cleaning service that regularly cleans a particular company's office aren't employees of that company.

        Buying or selling a service doesn't make you an employer/employee, and buying/selling is essentially what's going on here.

      So much this. Fundamentally what content creators are doing is no different from what a call centre does with phone lines - taking an infrastructure provided by a third party and using it for commercial reasons. In the same way that telcos may partner and work closely with call-centre companies to tailor delivery to their needs, YouTube et al may work with content creators to develop functionality, promote certain things etc - in neither case dos it make the infrastructure provider an employer of the whomever they're providing service to.

        I think a better analogy would be a shopping centre. The centre has the infrastructure to allow businesses to sell their product/content to customers.

        The businesses aren't employees of the shopping centre.

          The businesses have employees though and much of what goes on youtube is commissioned these days by another company outside the platform. So you're creating content for Disney or whoever under contract, then it goes on YouTube. Dunkey made a really good vid explaining this system and why it's so shitty for creators that do it full time. YouTube itself isn't really the issue.

          And there's a lot not to like about how shopping centres operate. The shops are often required to be open at particular hours, and can't open during hours when the shopping centre management has decided to close.

          Often a portion of the fees the shop pays to centre management will be passed on to one of the large tenants (usually a supermarket), on the basis that they are bringing in the customers.

          The shops might be required to participate in shopping centre wide promotions, such as gift cards, which skim off their profits.

    I must be one of the only people who doesn't really care if YouTubers crash or realise they can't make as much money from it anymore.

    I always found the service better when the content creators powered their channels with pure passion over chasing the all mighty dollar. There is so much garbage with click bait titles, copied content and deceptive preview thumbnails that the whole service suffers.

    Far too many aspiring superstars simple see YouTube as a way to make bank without having to get a "real job" and instead try to get as many subscribers as possible so they can start their cash flow, quality be dammed.

    Bring back passionate people who aren't looking to be the next big thing.

      It's important that youtubers being employed by companies like Viacom are taken care of. There is a massive amount of money in the platform and nothing is going to change that.

      To show contempt over an entire platform and it's content creators, purely because of how some people behave on it seems a little rough.

      So the majority of youtubers should have their career ruined because you are butthurt about a small few? So what if people turn their youtube channel into a career that supports them financially?

    People need to stop trying to turn hobbies into careers.

      I know right?

      Whenever I hear talk about the 'work' of streamers I Alway ways wonder: so when you finish "work" how many hours do you have to play games?

    I think the less that youtube/twitch personalities consider their content creation a formal profession the better. Plus all the advice I've read from existing streamers seems to suggest that the best way to make a channel successful is just to stream and have fun, not to treat it like a job.

    If a sole trader has issues with their work environment then it's their responsibility.

    If a sole trader cannot acquire enough income from their labours, its their responsibility.

    Why should a service provider have to be responsible for a sole trader which they have no control over?

    I think the people who "work" in this industry need a reality check concerning what work is and a few business fundamentals. Because the fact that you can write this much on the topic and be so disconnected from real life is astounding.

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