Youtube as a Social Network: The workings of an online community

This paper argues that YouTube is a social network and to do so, it is imperative to first understand what a social network is. A social network is where a service or platform allows for a group of individuals to create or sustain personal and business connections through comments and posts shared on the platform. (Mclean, 2014) In the 21st century however, the term social network is used for services or platforms that reside ‘online’ and that require an internet connection to access. With them being online, users can expand their connections and relationships with people they may have never met face to face, but it has been recommended they be connected.

These recommendations come from algorithms within the social networking platforms that look at your behaviour while on the platform and who you are already connected with and suggest who they believe you could benefit from knowing. The concept of ‘six degrees of separation’ also comes into play here with social networking platforms enforcing that often, there are only five mediators between yourself and someone you may have spontaneously met. Is it possible that it was not that spontaneous?

Social networking platforms have come in all shapes, sizes, and colours over the last ten years and some have thrived while others have become defunct. Leading the pack is Facebook, started in 2004 has 2.167 billion active users as of January 2018 and is growing daily. Other honourable mentions are that of Instagram (800 million), Twitter (330 million), LinkedIn (260 million) and Reddit (250 million) (“Global social media ranking 2018 | Statistic”, 2018).

All these platforms allow users to create an account, follow friends, family, famous personalities, share posts and comment of the posts of those the follow. Each has their own unique way of doing so making them all successful in their own way and attracting different types of users. These differences are also why you don’t find all who interact on social network platforms on only one platform.

YouTube, like many other social platforms has its own unique way that users interact with it. YouTube is a video sharing platform where users can browse and view videos but also upload their own and then comment on them if they wish. Until recently, mid 2016 YouTube had no other element of sharing content. Users can create videos or any length and upload them to the platform. This makes the foundation of an online community difficult as there are minimal forms of interaction on the platform. Videos can be made private, semi-private and public. Private videos can only be seen by the user, semi-private videos are only able to be seen or shared if users pass on the direct link and public videos are available for anyone to see. Users can put restrictions on their videos around age and geo-location as well for mature content or content with licensing in specific countries.

In mid-2016, YouTube released the ‘Community’ tab which allows those who upload content through their channel, known as creators, to share photos and text posts to those who follow them, known as subscribers. These posts show in the ‘Subscribed’ tab of the website/app alongside a creator’s main videos and users do have the option to activate notifications for them or turn them off entirely from showing on the page. These posts that the creators share allow users another area of the platform to comment and communicate with the creators and other users and are very similar to posts that can be found on the social networking platform, Facebook.

Creators could share as many videos as they wish, some also sort them into Playlists to encourage continued watching as Playlists have an autoplay feature. Commonly channels also choose to have a theme to their channel so that a user who finds their channel known what sort of content they create and creators, to attract subscribers continue creating similar content they see users enjoy. Popular types of channels include video blogging, knows as vlogging or vlogs, gaming or ‘Let’s Play’ channels where creators record themselves playing a video game as a single video or series completing the whole game sometimes accompanied by commentary, and there is news and educational channels. Some of these channels have millions of followers with PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg), a Swedish gamer having the most subscribed channel with over 61 million subscribers.

Creators choosing a specific theme for their channel can create a sub-community in itself as creators gain a following seen through the amount of subscribers. This collective group if users can be given a name by the creator, i.e. PewDiePie subscribers are his bros and the bonds between the creator and subscribers can be strong. However, if a scandal arises surrounding a creator, the community behind that creator can begin to harm ties in other communities as news channels like the Philip DeFranco Show who report on the scandal, not always in a positive light begin to receive death threats because of the way they spoke about the creator they believe to have a bond with.

As YouTube is so different in how users interact with its platform, it may not always be seen as a social network similar to Facebook and Twitter. A team of researchers from Google and EHT in Zurich researched the trends in users behaviour on YouTube find that ‘the content-driven nature of the YouTube social network differentiates itself from traditional social networks in terms of user linking and interaction behaviours’ (Wattenhofer, Wattenhofer & Zhu, 2012). I agree that YouTube is a social network as it allows users to create an account to subscribe users channels and vice versa. Users can also comment on, like (or dislike) content posted and share with others by uploading their own content making the platform content based. (McGowan, 2018)

The recent launch of the Community tab also enforces this platform’s ability to communicate with each other as instead of having to always post a video to make an announcement, creators can make a short text post where before they still had to record a 30 – 45 second video that may not reach as many subscribers due to its length. This addition to the platform however does allow for some similarity to Facebook and Twitter as the posts can be text only.

Videos users watch can also be added to a ‘Watch Later’ queue if needed allowing for the platform to remember what the users wanted to watch but may not have had time to. They can also add videos to playlists of their own with various creators mentioned. The use of playlists is common with music as users can have the website running in the background while you listen, and you can also send link of playlists to other users as a suggestion of music to listen to.

With each video posted to YouTube, the amount of content found on the site grows by the minute but is all the content things that we want to be sharing? YouTube allows users to upload anything and everything but does reserve the right to remove videos that go against their Community Guidelines. As YouTube is a globally accessible and free to use site, unfortunately not all Users and Creator adhere to these guidelines and try to bend around them.

With upwards of 300 hours of video being uploaded to YouTube every minute, it is extremely difficult for the team at YouTube to monitor what is being uploaded. The experts behind the scenes have created algorithms, known as Bots, to help filter through some of the recently uploaded content and deem if it has breached guidelines. Creators can appeal any video that is marked, known as a Flag, which means it will be watched by a human moderator and they will have the final say (“Policies – YouTube”, 2018).

These guidelines are assisting YouTube in staying a neutral space for all voices to join the online community at large or some of the sub-communities previously mentioned. However, the use of bots by the managers of the online platform are weakening some of the sub-communities due to the genres of videos that are targeted.

Throughout YouTube’s history, there have been many times YouTube has had to crack down on content being uploaded by creators surrounding hateful or misleading content, nudity or sexual content and violent and graphic content. While this has at times been successful, often other videos who only briefly mention or some who don’t mention these categories at all get flagged and the Creator receives a strike if the video needs to be removed or it is flagged and could be demonetized. Some other content that is sometimes targeted is what can be deemed ‘controversial’ in nature to some communities of people. However, as the platform is shared globally this targeting has been received negatively in some sub-communities such as the LGBT community after many ‘coming-out’ videos were flagged or removed.

The demonetisation of a video is the removing of a creator’s ability to receive funds through the ads featured on the page when a User is viewing the video or ads playing before the video. This can be a major complication for some creators as they have dedicated their working life to creating content for their channel and the ad revenue becomes their income. Demonetisation of videos has been an issue previously, back in 2016 but is still an underlying issue for many creators and their communities.

The ad revenue from the videos is generated from 3rd Party Companies Ads that are placed across video categories the companies opts in to. Companies can also specifically sponsor channels that they would like to go into partnership with allowing creators to have a bigger income for that video. Towards the end of 2017, creators across YouTube were noticing a decrease in ads playing on their videos and the amount of ad revenue that was accumulating. (DeFranco, 2016) Companies advertising on YouTube were discovering that their ads were being played on videos that were against their views and about tragic events, so they began to pull their ads. As the quantity of companies pulling their ads from YouTube grew, YouTube implemented some drastic changes to the way videos are selected to have ads put before them. This however did not help the creators as some found that they were still finding a decrease in ads across their channel and the phenomenon became affectionately known as the ‘Adpocalypse’ (vlogbrothers, 2017).

The removal of ads combined with the demonetisation of videos saw creators on YouTube who rely on it as a source of income not sure what to do and how they would be able to continue using YouTube as their primary source of income. While the sub-communities behind creators were mad for what YouTube was doing to the creator they followed, they were also showing their support for the creator by banding together in a show of support and offering monetary support. Some of the broader YouTube community however saw that certain channels that were still receiving ads and were not being demonetized despite going against the community guidelines that others had been stung for. This led to the many of the sub-communities questioning YouTube as a company and when the replies that YouTube responded with, the community ties weakened as users decided whether or not they would stay on the platform.

Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter all allow users to share videos whether it be original content the user has made or something the user found interesting, but their main aspect is not the video sharing. YouTube differs from them by solely marketing itself as a video sharing platform with the ability to comment on other users videos. The additional features added recently, the ability to write text posts as creators on the Community tab is an underlying feature at this time because it is not yet widely received.

The platform is categorically a social network like Facebook but stands out from the crowd due to its content base nature, not social base as discovered by Wattenhofer, Wattenhofer and Zhu. YouTube does still have its complications with creators relying on it for income and their internal processes not always working in the companies’ favour, but when 1.5 billion users enjoy it globally, there is something there that companies need to be investigating. Ads on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are effective, but users commonly scroll straight past them, often not stopping to look at them. (Jeffries, 2014)

The community found on YouTube and the sub-communities within are similar to those who follow a world renowned artist, they follow a content creator who shares their life, their interest or an unbiased view of the world. This in turn gives users entertainment, a way to meet other who have the same interests and engage in a conversation that may not be found on Facebook because of the nature of the platform itself. It also gives creators a form/source of revenue should they chose to pursue it and a community surrounding them who have a tight bond over everything that is shared through something as simple as a video.


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Jeffries, C. (2014). Which is the biggest social network? [Clue – it’s not Facebook any longer] | Smart Insights. Smart Insights. Retrieved 1 April 2018, from

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5 thoughts on “Youtube as a Social Network: The workings of an online community

  1. Hi Johanna,
    I had not considered YouTube as a full social media site until I read your paper. I did consider that it was a social media platform with limited two way conversation. You made me revisit YouTube and my channels to have a closer look at the format and the changes. The new tab does indeed create the ability for subscribers to discuss a topic away from the posted video.

    My use for YouTube has always been to store and post videos links on websites and social media. I will now review my use of it.

    Thank you for directing me to this change.


  2. Reply to Johanna Raymond – YouTube as a Social Network
    I guess the thing with YouTube that is often overlooked is how it ties in with every other Google product such as Gmail, Google Maps, search, its Android OS, etc and what effect our YouTube interactions has on everything we do when acting within Google’s ecosystem(s). An interesting aspect of YouTube is how it decides what is objectionable content and how it acts as a gatekeeper.

  3. Hi Johanna,

    Interesting topic.

    Youtube is definitely, in my opinion, a social network. As you mentioned in your paper, the content creators that do “Let’s Play” of games and upload them to their viewers, many of them have a large audience following.

    While there may not be as direct communication as say Facebook where by we interact mostly within a close circle of friends and family etc. YouTube, in regards to the aforementioned content creators, still have a social network whereby they are tied together through the content creator themselves., By this I mean that as the viewers are viewing the content of their favourite creator, they are doing so out of a shared interest with others they do not know, and the support and following the creator obtains generates a social network based on their content.

    Very interesting stuff.

    – Nathan

  4. Hi Johanna
    I really enjoyed your paper particularly when you have extensively demonstrate how YouTube works.
    I also personally consider YouTube as a social media platform for some reasons: first of all it is free to join, users can create, share, publish and discuss media materials with others. Individuals can also make friends, much like, users can send out friend request. Users can also like respond to comments.
    Again I believe it is a very informative paper, and you have done a great work Johanna

  5. Hi Johanna,

    You touch on the “Community” section of a YouTube account as a point where YouTube can be fairly smoothly compared to other, more standard social networks. However, you also point out that this is a feature with fairly minimal uptake. Indeed, despite being a heavy user of the platform myself I had never even noticed its existence, and upon checking it for an account I follow that has over 700,000 subscribers, there was absolutely no content there. This seems to be a fairly common theme, where YouTubers tend to use YouTube solely for content, and use other platforms (Twitter, Reddit, etc) for actually communicating with their fans.

    In your paper you mention many other social networks, and cite their number of users: all in the hundreds of millions (or in Facebook’s case, billions). While we know that YouTube itself is overwhelmingly popular, do you have any numbers showing the usage or engagement rates of the community feature to compare YouTube to these other networks through the same content type?

    I think it would be uncontroversial to suggest that YouTube’s community feature would not be shown kindly by that comparison, but I am curious as to just how far behind it might be.


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