Imagine a café. It’s popular, with a large group of regulars who linger in front of the door each morning, all awaiting their next piping hot gulp. Because of the café’s popularity, there’s a neon sign in the window: “Great Coffee.” The sign is a landmark for customers, who expect to see it as they’re walking down the street. Then, after several years of caffeinating their customers, the café owner gets an email from the city. Unfortunately, the café doesn’t meet the city’s new coffee standards, so they will be sending over some contractors to take the “Great Coffee” sign down. Weird, right? That’s kinda what happened to most verified YouTubers yesterday.
YouTube is overhauling its verification system, and in so doing is radically changing who is qualified to have the coveted little checkmark next to their name. (Well, actually, YouTube is scrapping the checkmark, too, replacing it with a gray swipe.) In the previous system, anyone with over 100,000 subscribers could be verified. Now, creators will only be verified if YouTube determines that they are a channel of sufficient “prominence,” one that might need to distinguish itself from potential imitators. The result is that many creators—including people with over a million subscribers who have been working on the platform for over a decade—have been informed that their channel is due for de-verification, effective this October.
Creators are more than miffed. At the time of this writing, a Change.org petition to fire Susan Wojcicki as CEO was speeding towards 50,000 signatures. Many accused YouTube of failing to listen to creators, of being a self-serving disappointment, of being on acid. As the backlash raged on, YouTube offered a few clarifications and an appeal system, but even the platform’s politest professionals were thoroughly unimpressed.
YouTube’s relationship with YouTubers has been strained for a long time. The #YouTubeIsOverParty has been raging on since 2016, when YouTube started demonetizing creators’ videos for being “unfriendly” to advertisers. According to YouTube, this new verification system is needed to curb a different kind of unfriendliness: fakery. The platform notes that subscriber counts (and even the checkmark) can be easily faked, and that, according to their research, one third of users thought that the checkmark endorsed the YouTuber’s content, instead of just verifying their identity.
Under the new system, YouTube maintains that verification is still not an endorsement of content, but simply a reflection of notoriety and the strength of a brand, which is the squishiest bit of squishy subjectivity. After some mild badgering, YouTube clarified that the determination of “prominence,” like everything else on the platform, will be made by a combination of humans and algorithms. (“It’s a really interesting word choice, picking ‘prominence’ over ‘popularity'” says Brooke Erin Duffy, who researches social media and the online gig economy at Cornell University. “It has a moral quality.”) By way of example, YouTube repeatedly offered up Bon Appétit magazine’s channel, which in their estimation, is more prominent than the scores of other food channels across many cultures and languages that use the phrase “bon appétit” as part of their branding.