Why Google Is at a Communications Crossroads Critical to Its Survival

As always when I talk about Google’s YouTube, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. I love YouTube. I consider it to be a gem in Google’s pantheon and one of the most important sites on the Internet. If YouTube vanished tomorrow I’d be devastated. And I’m a big fan of the many folks in the teams at Google (quite a few of whom I know personally) who keep the incredibly complex systems and machinery of YouTube running.

That all said, I fear for YouTube’s future — and what this could mean overall for Google and its users in the long run, since in many ways YouTube’s issues are representative of Google’s issues more broadly.

I’ve written a lot about various matters regarding YouTube before, of course. I’ve lauded the sublime educational and entertainment content, but have been deeply critical of hate speech; dangerous pranks, dares, and stunts; and user interface issues that I believe suppress users from easily reporting videos that are believed to be in violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service.

Lately YouTube has been under fire from an array of quarters, including various pandering politicians associated with national governments — some of whom have passed laws imposing potentially impractical “moderation” and takedown requirements, along with massive fine structures for infractions, that may ultimately threaten the entire YouTube model in significant ways.

Some aspects of this unfortunate dilemma are indeed of Google’s own making. Google has long tried to keep as much of a “hands-off” attitude regarding YouTube content as possible, for a variety of reasons — some very valid, others significantly less so. 

But there’s no question that Google has a right and duty to enforce YouTube’s published terms of service regarding acceptable content, and the uneven manner in which this has typically occurred has left gaping openings for Google haters to leverage. This is certainly not to suggest that applying their terms of service is easy at the massive scale of YouTube — but even taking scale into account and looking only at specific highly publicized incidents involving videos and YouTube creators with enormous numbers of subscribers and video views, the issues persist.

Another aspect of YouTube’s problems is also intrinsic to Google itself, in terms of how they choose to communicate with the public at large. 

Google’s public communications apparatus has always been much more focused on dealing with tech media than with ordinary non-tech forms of media that are more likely to reach relatively non-techie users in ways that those users and the broader community will genuinely understand. Nowadays, with the many powerful forces aligning against Google, especially at the government level, this just isn’t good enough.

Google tends to communicate policy issues mostly through blog posts and emails with the tech trade press, and rarely offline. In the case of a YouTube controversy over the last few days, Google used a series of Twitter tweets to apologize for a long delay in addressing a very controversial issue — already an international story — involving a highly-ranked YouTube star. More than a bit ironic, to say the least.

Except mainly in terms of technical developer liaisons, Google hasn’t really had representatives of their own out in the “real world” with the specific role of interacting directly with the ordinary public regarding everyday and more controversial Google-related policy issues through the wide array of both online and offline discussion forums or mainstream media like radio and television (though Google’s recent hiring of Danny Sullivan as a search division adviser/liaison is indeed a welcome move in the specific context of search issues).

But in the broader scope of YouTube and Google more generally, the lack of effective ongoing public communications outside the boundaries of Google’s traditionally limited “comfort zone” risks costing Google and its users dearly in the long run. 

Google is full of great people in every respect — but they are now facing escalating adversarial relationships with governments and others — including competitors and the outright Google haters — who are exceedingly skilled at political and mass media public communications of the cutthroat variety — and unless Google significantly improves their game in this sphere they could very well come out on the losing end.

And that would likely be a disaster for Google, for the Internet, and for billions of individuals around the world, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to the “tender mercies” of government and other forces hellbent on remaking the Net in their own images of government-dictated censorship and politically-motivated, government-mandated information control.

It’s a battle that neither Google — nor the rest of us — can afford to lose.


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