At the end of the first installment of the Game Grumps’ Super Mario Galaxy 2 playthrough the hosts, Arin Hanson and Dan Avidan, change the subject to a seeming nonsequitur: the Backstreet Boys. The two discuss the Backstreet Boys reunion tour at length, warning their fans to stay safe from it, avoid getting tickets, and send support for those recovering from the tour. Why, you might ask, are the Game Grumps taking so much time to talk about the Backstreet Boys tour, just to warn people away from it? You would be in good company. As one member of the Game Grumps fandom (called the Lovelies, located primarily on Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit) notes:
Let’s take a closer look at this strange discussion about the Backstreet Boys reunion tour [timestamp 30:01]:
Dan: Oh! and it goes without saying, um, stay home stay safe from, Backstreet Boys tour, and uh, if you already have tickets to the Backstreet Boys reunion tour-
Dan: uh, we love you and we’re sending you our best and uh, hopefully you’ll have a nice and quick recovery-
Arin: [laughing] from the-
Dan: from the tour. Okay bye [makes kissing noise]
Arin: But make sure after that tour experience, you stay inside
Dan: Yes, you’re, you’re gonna wanna really sit around-
Arin: process it
Dan: and think about what you just saw on that stage
Arin: And you really don’t wanna get anyone else excited about the Backstreet Boys tour, because the moment, if you went to that tour and you share that experience with somebody, they’re gonna get tickets.
Though opaque at first, fans quickly understood that this conversation is not about the Backstreet Boys at all, but about the coronavirus. It’s an interesting choice for a euphemism for a virus causing a global pandemic, given that it’s an incredibly niche metaphor. It’s not hyper-nationalist like the war metaphor2 various politicians have mobilized, nor is it common outside of the Game Grumps fandom. Beside Dan and Arin, Lovelies have been utilizing this strange euphemism as well. The opacity of the euphemism may be exactly their point, however. The Game Grumps’ mobilization of “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour” sheds light on a phenomenon driving the rapid innovation of euphemism and in-group terminology on social video platforms like YouTube and TikTok: demonetization. It was demonetization that led Backstreet Boys to “go viral” (forgive me) for Game Grumps.
To understand the history of the Backstreet Boys reunion tour as a euphemism, you need to understand demonetization. To understand demonetization, you must understand how regular people (“content creators”) make money by posting videos on YouTube. Most people know that creators make money on YouTube through advertising. Most people (even creators) don’t know exactly how this works.
Anyone can post videos on YouTube and create a channel to which others can subscribe. Getting advertising revenue is not as straightforward. YouTube has what is called the Youtube Partner Program (YPP), which creators can apply to once they have reached 1,000 subscribers and have “more than 4,000 valid public watch hours1 in the last 12 months” (“minimum eligibility requirements”). Membership in the YPP is required for YouTube videos to be “monetized,” which means they have targeted ads attached to them. Ad revenue is split between YouTube, the advertizer, and finally the creator.
Membership in the YPP has several requirements, one of which is a strict adherence to YouTube’s “Community Guidelines.” All videos uploaded to YouTube must technically follow these rules, but they’re especially strict for monetized content creators. If you are not a member of the YPP, violations of the guidelines may lead to your video being removed. If you are a member, stricter guidelines affect the type and amount of ads—and therefore the revenue—that your video receives.
To earn revenue, YPP content must meet the much more specific and limiting “Advertiser-friendly Content Guidelines” rather than the Community Guidelines. Both Community and Advertiser-friendly Guidelines are enforced not by humans who watch videos, but by an algorithm—an automated system triggered by certain words, phrases, images, or motifs. Videos that the YouTube algorithm determines are breaking the Advertiser-friendly Content Guidelines can be categorized as “limited ads” or “no ads,” and automatically assigned fewer ads or none at all, dramatically decreasing creators’ earnings from those videos. This system motivates YPP creators to avoid certain words, phrases, images or motifs that are known to be picked up by the algorithm and result in demonetization.
YouTube can withhold advertising (and revenue) from videos that don’t meet community guidelines because they contain sexually explicit language or hate speech, for example. But how is this tied to Game Grumps’ decision to call the coronavirus “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour”?
A specific section of the Advertiser-friendly Guidelines, entitled “controversial issues and sensitive events” (Advertiser-friendly content guidelines), suggests that the algorithm changes in an attempt to block not only offensive or pornographic content, but also content related to recent news and events. These are defined as “topics that may be unsettling for our users and are often the result of human tragedy”; content including mentions of these events will be demonetized “even if the content is purely commentary or contains no graphic imagery” (Advertiser-friendly content guidelines).
On March 11, 2020, YouTube made an official statement declaring that “the coronavirus situation is considered a ‘sensitive event’” and that they will only be “enabling ads for content discussing the coronavirus on a limited number of channels” (Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) updates). This wording, like most of YouTube’s content policy, is confusing.
The news caused extreme panic within the content creator community. After this point, no one knew exactly which words would trigger the algorithm and cause videos to get demonetized, so creators were avoiding mentioning the virus at all. As Brad Leone—a member of the popular cooking magazine turned YouTube channel “Bon Appétit”—said: “Y’know things are a little different, y’know, underneath the quarantine. I don’t know if I can say the Q-word. Are we saying the Q-word?” (The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen is Cooking at Home). Afraid of being demonetized, creators quickly developed novel ways of talking about the only thing anyone was really talking about in mid-March 2020: the pandemic and its effects on daily life. Thus, the Backstreet Boys reunion tour went viral.
The Game Grumps are only one creator who have been coming up with novel ways to talk about the coronavirus in order to ensure their videos continue to receive revenue from targeted ads. Google keeps 32% of ad revenue per video, so for every 100 dollars made on a video, the content creator receives 68 dollars (How Much Do YouTubers Make). The rate at which content creators are paid for ads varies, and they can make anywhere between 3 and 5 dollars for every 1,000 views. Given that the Game Grumps have garnered over a million views [as of June 17th, 2020] on the first installment of their Super Mario Galaxy 2 series, they made anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000+ dollars for this video alone.
The choice to use “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour” as a euphemism for the coronavirus was a choice that made the Game Grumps thousands of dollars. The revenue comes not only from the video discussed above, but also from all of the other videos they’ve published since YouTube announced its policy regarding monetization and COVID-19. YouTubers are forced to make these content decisions with every upload, and have to decide whether censoring themselves in certain circumstances is worth the money.
Since the initial March 11th announcement, YouTube has updated this policy to include monetization of COVID-19 related content for all creators on the platform, but the damage has been done. Creators are always anxious that their videos will be demonetized due to YouTube’s rigid algorithm, so even with the news that coronavirus content will no longer be demonetized, creators are hesitant to even mention it. YouTube also posted an article including examples of COVID-19 content that don’t meet their Advertiser-friendly Guidelines regarding corona.
Even with the update, YouTube continues to be deliberately vague in its language regarding content and monetization. For example, one update read that “distressing footage” such as “people visibly sick in a hospital” would be demonitized. In a note at the end of the section, they write that a “fleeting” shot of a hospital or someone coughing would not be demonitized, as long as the shot’s purpose is meant to “provide context to a story” (Monetization update on COVID-19 content).
This update begs a larger question about what the algorithm is capable of picking up on: can a computer really tell the difference between a “fleeting” shot of a hospital without sick people in it and a hospital shot showing people “visibly sick”? Can an algorithm pick up on a shot meant to “give context to a story”? No matter how many examples YouTube gives regarding monetization, they always include a note reminding creators that “this is not a complete list,” and that regardless they will always have the final say in deciding what has the capacity to be demonetized (Monetization update on COVID-19 content).
1As with the rest of Youtube’s community guidelines, there’s no definition of “valid public watch hours.” With my knowledge of Youtube’s structure and streaming policies, I assume this refers to the privacy settings on the video (whether it is public, unlisted, or private). Videos must be set to “public” in order to count toward the YPP requirement.
2Martin, E. (1990). Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 4(4), 410-426.