The use of language and the creation of tech buzzwords to fuel a fear of missing out on the next big thing is nothing new. Towards the end of 2019, we witnessed the best of times and the worst of times for the tech phrase 'commercially viable.'
Despite excitement online for a foldable smartphone that nobody asked for or can afford, Samsung famously used the new catchphrase when they announced the first commercially viable foldable on the market. But in a world where billion-dollar tech companies such as Spotify, WeWork, Uber, and Snap still aren't profitable, it seems the wind of change is in the air.
Dyson famously scrapped its electric car project because it would not be commercially viable too. All of these announcements are relatively predictable in the world of business. But when they are used to describe a user's YouTube account, the online community was understandably outraged.
What is Google's "commercially viable" clause?
Under YouTube's new terms of service, it suggested that it could delete the channels of content creators if they failed to make Google or it's advertisers any money. The section caused widespread concern about how our rights are slowly being eroded by the fine print that many of us skip past when reading terms and conditions updates.
"YouTube may terminate your access, or your Google account's access to all or part of the Service if YouTube believes, in its sole discretion, that provision of the Service to you is no longer commercially viable."
YouTube quickly went into damage control and attempted to ease concerns of its content creators that the clause was not about kicking people off the platform for not making the tech behemoth enough money. By contrast, they stated that it was much more about discontinuing certain YouTube features or parts of the service, e.g., removing outdated/low usage features.
Despite what the YouTube team is saying, the wording appears to be purposely ambiguous. Could the clause easily be used to justify removing unprofitable channels in the future? The topic quickly became the focus of many heated debates on Reddit.
Even YouTube viewers have an increasing concern that their account has an uncertain future. The language used in the clause could also be interpreted to imply that users who view content but don't monetize or use ad-blocking software could also be at risk of having their account removed.
Is it time for me to delete my Google account?
YouTube is saying that they won't be terminating any accounts. But the fact that their TOS suggests that it can, should act as a wake-up call for users. It should also offer a timely reminder that when a service online is free, you're not the customer, you're the product. That is why tech companies are asking if you are commercially viable as a user.
However, deleting your account would be a knee-jerk reaction that would probably leave you worse off. There are many helpful videos online that you cannot view without a Google account. But on the flip side, Google needs your eyeballs to view their ads.
In many ways, this increasingly strained symbiotic relationship will remain the same. Many users are just waking up to the inconvenient truth that they are the product.
Is there an alternative on the horizon?
Although the early days of blockchain have often been accused of being overhyped with projects being built on future promises, there is hope. For example, LBRY is a secure, open, and community-run digital marketplace that is building a new future for creators and users.
LBRY has set its sights on becoming the first digital marketplace to be controlled by users rather than another faceless corporation that treats its community as products rather than human beings. It's early days for the platform, and it must overcome a series of challenges to encourage adoption.
However, a content platform that is owned by everyone (and no one) shows how we are beginning to think differently when building the platforms of the future. If we have learned anything from our tech past, it's that the demise of AOL, Yahoo, and MySpace is proof that no tech giant is too big to fail.
How can I protect myself and my following?
The technology landscape will continue to evolve at breakneck speed and usher in a new era of unprecedented change. Here in 2020, YouTube's commercially viable clause highlights that we are all creating content on somebody else's playground and must abide by their rules, which could change at any moment.
So-called influencers that have built huge followings on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook all run the risk of their virtual masters tweaking an algorithm and making them and their content invisible. A pay to play model to recapture the attention of your audience could also arrive or, worse still, you could be deemed no longer commercially viable.
The good news is that it has never been easier for you to create your own playground where you set the rules. A website on your own domain where you publish your podcast episodes and blog posts is a great way to start. You can quickly build your mailing list and communicate directly with your audience without hoping an algorithm will do it for you.
You don't need to delete your Google account or stop playing on other people's platforms. But try and migrate your audience to somewhere where you call the shots and make the rules. Don't rely on any free platform where you are the product. Unfortunately, changes in algorithms or TOS are as inevitable as death and taxes.