FOLLOW THE MONEY: A LARGE-SCALE INVESTIGATION OF MONETIZATION AND OPTIMIZATION ON YOUTUBE
While YouTube has become a dominant actor in the global media system, the relationship between platform, advertisers, and content creators has seen a series of conflicts around the question of monetization. Our paper draws on a critical media industries perspective to investigate the relationship between YouTube’s evolving platform strategies on the one side and content creators’ tactical adaptations on the other. This concerns the search for alternative revenue streams as well as content and referencing optimization seeking to grow audiences and algorithmic visibility. Drawing on an exhaustive sample (n=153.770) of “elite” channels (more than 100.000 subscribers) and their full video history (n=138.340.337), we parse links in video descriptions to investigate the appearance and spread of crowdfunding platforms like Patreon, but also of affiliate links, merchandise stores, or e-commerce websites like Etsy. We analyze the evolution of video length and posting frequency in response to platform policy as well as visibility tactics such as metadata and category optimization, keyword stuffing, or title phrasing. Taken together, these elements provide a broad picture of “industrialization” on YouTube, that is, of the ways creators seek to develop their channels into media businesses. While this contribution cannot replace more qualitative, in-depth research into particular channels or channel groups, we hope to provide a representative picture of YouTube’s elite channels and their quest for visibility and success from their beginnings up to early 2020.