The Impact of COVID-19 on Canadian YouTube creators and viewers

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Youtube videos have enjoyed rocketing popularity with many users increasingly looking for DIY advice or for a sense of social connection. Youtube video creators have stepped up in terms of creativity all the while experiencing challenges of their own.   

In their 2019 study, Watchtime Canada: How YouTube Connects Creators and Consumers, Irene S. Berkowitz Ph.D., Charles F. Davis, Ph.D. and Hanako Smith demonstrate how there is “nothing like YouTube in Canada’s media ecosystem”, given the platform’s unique affordances of being free, always on, and its seemingly unlimited array of topics. 

Since the start of the pandemic, YouTube’s popularity has only accelerated. There was a 15.3% increase in daily traffic on Youtube according to the New York Times. Global Web Index data shows that, in 13 surveyed countries, 50% of respondents are watching more videos on sites like YouTube, and another 23% foresee this increased usage continuing after the pandemic is over. Beyond these numbers, though, what has been the more nuanced effects COVID-19 has had on viewers and content creators in Canada?.

The Rise of Specific Genres and Hashtags 

According to YouTube itself, the pandemic has led to an explosion in self-care genres such as guided meditation and home workouts, also in trends that facilitate social connection, with the rise of the hashtag  “#withme”, and finally in videos that teach viewers new skills such as cooking, gardening, and haircutting. In Canada specifically, news clips or stories are on the rise, likely reflecting a need for up to date information, while film trailers have dipped in viewership, given the scarcity of new releases from March to August.

One genre that has benefited from people staying at home is the Do-It-Yourself or the DIY genre. JENerationDIY is a channel based in Vancouver, specializing in at-home DIY projects, from scrunchies to bathrooms. “It was pretty difficult to get my hands on new DIY materials for videos since physical stores were shut down [during the height of the lockdown], online stores had long delays for non-essential items, and a lot of popular items were sold out,” says Jennifer, the author of the channel, “However, because I was shifting my videos to cater more to quarantine and at home activities anyway, I tried to create videos surrounding DIYs and activities that people could do with the things they already had at home.” Despite production difficulties, she proved flexible in reflecting the realities many viewers faced. 

Resilient but not immune: creators also affected by the pandemic

“In many cases a lot of creators went back to their roots of ‘one person and a camera’,” according to Scott Benzie, CEO of Buffer Festival, an annual hub for curating and celebrating the world’s acclaimed digital creators. In the face of production restrictions, YouTube creators remained resilient and productive during the pandemic: “When mainstream went to the basement (Colbert, Kimmel, etc) and still had millions of dollars and crew at their disposal, the production value was not close to what a Youtube creator pulls together by themselves.”

Despite this resilience, creators have also faced financial challenges. Ad spending has dropped significantly, which meant that brand sponsorships, traditionally a central stream of revenue for digital creators, dried up quickly in the pandemic. According to OneZero, drops in ad spending has also led to declines in creators’ cost per mille (CPM), which determines how much YouTube gives the creator for every 1000 views accrued on an ad ran before or during the video. As a result, for many creators, earnings are down even when viewership is up.

For some creators, the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) also proved difficult to navigate. “CERB stated that you can’t make over X [amount of money] to receive the benefit, but creators’ income is fluid and unpredictable,” explains Scott. So in addition to the financial worries caused by ad spending, some YouTubers also faced the complex process of applying for benefits while having an unconventional income model.

Buffer Festival also had its own hardships. The 3-day showcase, originally planned for August, was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions on events and to creators having productions halted. When asked why the festival was not held virtually, Scott said, “The whole ethos of Buffer is taking something that is already normally online and bringing it to a live audience. Doing a virtual Buffer would just be YouTube”.

Looking ahead

2020 was supposed to be a big year for Buffer, as it was partnering with FanExpo to increase its size and scale. Nevertheless, the festival still has a plan for the future, which includes expanding beyond its Toronto home-base to more cities; “We are also working on starting our own fund to get creators’ projects financed, adding more content to and working with the government to recognize the world creators live in”. A world not entirely controlled by the same restrictions faced by traditional media production but also one that is not immune to limits on travel, crew size, and financial uncertainty. Scott adds that: “Online Creators are musicians, comedians, filmmakers, documentarians, actors, etc. Their concerns, challenges and opportunities are unique and really should not be solely defined by their platform as the ‘catch all’”.

With this level of variety, YouTube holds a complex position within our current media environment. As Jennifer points out, “YouTube has played a huge role in people’s lives during this time to provide information, escape, and connection. I see it only getting larger in terms of viewership as well as content creation as we continue into a post-COVID world. Unfortunately so many people have lost their jobs in these unprecedented times, but YouTube and other internet-based careers have remained relatively stable. Because of this, I think more people will see being a YouTuber as a viable job opportunity and try it out for themselves.”

Jessica Yang
Jing Xian (Jessica) Yang is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, studying the intersection between new media and fandom research. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of British Columbia, double majoring in Psychology and Film Studies. Jessica’s current work aims to harmonize quantitative methods with cultural studies and textual analysis in an effort to better capture the complexities of online trends and communities.
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