Within the next three months, YouTube will change the way it publicly displays channel subscriber counts: It will provide only rounded figures instead of actual follower numbers.
For example, under the change, T-Series — the Indian music-video channel that recently surpassed PewDiePie to become the most-subscribed channel on the platform — would be listed in all public counts as having “99M” subscribers. In some places, YouTube reports the exact count: 99,240,165, as of noon ET Wednesday.
The question is: Why is YouTube doing this?
YouTube’s official explanation is that it wants to “create more consistency everywhere that we publicly display subscriber counts,” according to a blog post Tuesday announcing the change. Currently, all channels with more than 1,000 subscribers have their subscriber counts displayed differently in different places across YouTube desktop and mobile apps.
But YouTube likely has another motive: to discourage obsessive comparisons of certain creators’ subscriber counts — something that has become a spectator sport of late in the YouTube world.
The PewDiePie vs. T-Series phenomenon is a case in point. Fans of PewDiePie, the popular gaming/comedy vlogger, rallied in a months-long campaign to keep his channel ahead of T-Series. That inflated PewDiePie’s subscriber count by millions, and the horse race became a meme unto itself (which PewDiePie used in his own videos to generate hundreds of millions of views).
More recently, a spat between beauty vloggers James Charles (CoverGirl’s first male brand ambassador) and Tati Westbrook earlier this month drew headlines in mainstream outlets after Charles’ YouTube subscriber count plummeted. His channel dropped from 16.6 million to less than 13.5 million in less than a week, after Westbrook accused him unacceptable behavior including being sexually aggressive toward men. (Westbrook’s channel gained 5 million subs.) The two have since called a cease-fire.
Broadly speaking, YouTube wants the narrative to be about how it’s a great place for creators to distribute content and reach fans — not about the hour-to-hour fluctuations in subscriber numbers.
And for YouTube, the focus on sub counts — as a proxy for approval or disapproval of a YouTuber — distorts real user interest and engagement. By rounding off the reported subscriber numbers, it hopes to minimize unintended consequences of providing real-time running tallies. In a horrific example of this, the perpetrator of the New Zealand terrorist attacks reportedly urged people to “subscribe to PewDiePie” in a Facebook live-stream of the massacre; PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, responded, “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person.”
YouTube said it will begin displaying the rounded subscriber counts beginning in August 2019 across all device platforms. It noted that creators will still be able to see their exact number of subscribers in YouTube Studio.
Once the change takes effect, channels will have their subscriber counts displayed on a sliding scale. Up until 1,000 subscribers, the full tally will be shown. After that it will begin rounding them off. For example, if a channel has 133,017 subscribers, the public subscriber count will read “133K” until the channel reaches 134,000 (when the counter will tick over to “134K”). Channels with under 52 million will have their public subscriber count read “51M” until it hits 52,000,000.
YouTube’s change has implications for third-party measurement firms, including Tubular Labs and Social Blade. According to YouTube, third parties that use its application programming interface (API) services will have access to the same public-facing subscriber counts rather than the actual numbers.
Social Blade, which aggregates real-time rankings of YouTube channels and other platforms based on followers, acknowledged in a tweet that the change “might affect our data display, but only time will tell” and added that it had reached out to the video service for clarification.
Subscriber count is just one signal to gauge video creator popularity, and it’s “far from the end-all, be-all,” said Allison Stern, chief strategy officer at Tubular Labs. “In the broader context of understanding audience attention, understanding who is watching and engaging with video content is just as important — if not more so — than subscriber size.”