As Google’s YouTube Battles Evil, YouTube Creators Are at a Crossroads

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UPDATE (February 28, 2019): More updates on our actions related to the safety of minors on YouTube

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For vast numbers of persons around the globe, YouTube represents one of the three foundational “must have” aspects of a core Google services triad, with the other two being Google Search and Gmail. There are many other Google services of course, but these three are central to most of our lives, and I’d bet that for many users of these services the loss of YouTube would be felt even more deeply than the loss of either or both of the other two!

The assertion that a video service would mean so much to so many people might seem odd in some respects, but on reflection it’s notable that YouTube very much represents the Internet — and our lives — in a kind of microcosm.

YouTube is search, it’s entertainment, it’s education. YouTube is emotion, nostalgia, and music. YouTube is news, and community, and … well the list is almost literally endless.

And the operations of YouTube encompass a long list of complicated and controversial issues also affecting the rest of the Internet — decisions regarding content, copyright, fair use, monetization and ads, access and appeals, and … yet another very long list.

YouTube’s scope in terms of numbers of videos and amounts of Internet traffic is vast beyond the imagination of any mere mortal beings, with the exception of Googlers like the YouTube SREs themselves who keep the wheels spinning for the entire massive mechanism.

In the process of growing from a single short video about elephants at the zoo (more about that 2005 video in a moment) into a service that I personally can’t imagine living without, YouTube has increasingly intersected with the entire array of human social issues, from the most beatific, wondrous, and sublime — to the most crass, horrific, and evil.

I’ve discussed all of these aspects of YouTube — and my both positive and negative critiques regarding how Google has dealt with them over time — in numerous past posts over the years. I won’t even bother listing them here — they’re easy to find via search.

I will note again though that — especially of late — Google has become very serious about dealing with inappropriate content on YouTube, including taking some steps that I and others have long been calling for, such as removal of dangerous “prank and dare” videos, demonetization and general form de-recommendation of false “conspiracy” videos, and just announced, demonetization and other utterly appropriate actions against dangerous “anti-vaccine” (aka “anti-vaxx”) videos. 

This must be an even more intense time than usual for the YouTube policy folks up in San Bruno at YouTube HQ — because over the last few days yet another massive controversy regarding YouTube has erupted, this time one that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time, and suddenly burst forth dramatically and rather confusingly as well, involving the “hijacking” of innocent YouTube videos’ comments by pedophiles.

YouTube comments are a fascinating example of often stark contrasts in action. Many YouTube viewers just watch the videos and ignore comments completely. Other viewers consider the comments to be at least as important as the videos themselves. Many YouTube uploaders — I’ll refer to them as creators going forward in this post — are effectively oblivious to comments even on their own videos — which, given that the default setting for YouTube videos is to permit comments without any moderation — has become an increasingly problematic issue.

My own policy (started as soon as the functionality to do so became available) has always been to set my own YouTube videos to “moderated” mode — I must approve individual comments before they can appear publicly. But that takes considerable work, even with relatively low viewership videos like mine. Most YouTube creators likely never change the default comments setting, so comments of all sorts can appear and accumulate largely unnoticed by most creators.

In fact, a few minutes ago when I took another look at that first YouTube video (“Me at the zoo”) to make sure that I had the date correct, I noticed that it now has (as I type this) about 1.64 million comments. Every 5 or 10 seconds a new comment pops up on there, virtually all of them either requests for viewers to subscribe to other YouTube channels, or various kinds of more traditional spams and scams.

Obviously, nobody is curating the comments on this historic video. And this is the same kind of situation that has led to the new controversy about pedophiles establishing a virtual “comments network” of innocent videos involving children. It’s safe to assume that the creators of those videos haven’t been paying attention to the evil comments accumulating on those videos, or might not even know how to remove or otherwise control them.

There have already been a bunch of rather wild claims made about this situation. Some have argued that YouTube’s suggestion engine is at fault for suggesting more similar videos that have then in turn had their own comments subverted. I disagree. The suggestion algorithm is merely recommending more innocent videos of the same type. These videos are not themselves at fault, the commenters are the problem. In fact, if YouTube videos didn’t have comments at all, evil persons could simply create comments on other (non-Google) sites that provided links to specific YouTube videos. 

It’s easy for some to suggest simply banning or massively restricting the use of comments on YouTube videos as a “quick fix” for this dilemma. But that would drastically curtail the usefulness of many righteous videos.

I’ve seen YouTube entertainment videos with fascinating comment threads from persons who worked on historic movies and television programs or were related to such persons. For “how-to” videos on YouTube — one of the most important and valuable categories of videos as far as I’m concerned — the comment threads often add enormous value to the videos themselves, as viewers interact about the videos and describe their own related ideas and experiences. The same can be said for many other categories of YouTube videos as well — comments can be part and parcel of what makes YouTube wonderful.

To deal with the current, highly publicized crisis involving comment abuse — which has seen some major advertisers pulling their ads from YouTube as a result — Google has been disabling comments on large numbers of videos, and is warning that if comments are turned back on by these video creators and comment abuse occurs again, demonetization and perhaps other actions against those videos may occur.

The result is an enormously complex situation, given that in this context we are talking almost entirely about innocent videos where the creators are themselves the victims of comment abuse, not the perpetrators of abuse.

While I’d anticipate that Google is working on methods to algorithmically better filter comments at scale to try help avoid these comment abuses going forward, this still likely creates a situation where comment abuse could in many cases be “weaponized” to target innocent individual YouTube creators and videos, to try trigger YouTube enforcement actions against those innocent parties.

This could easily create a terrible kind of Hobson’s choice. For safety’s sake, these innocent creators may be forced to disable comments completely, in the process eliminating much of the value of their videos to their viewers. On the other hand, many creators of high viewership videos simply don’t have the time or other resources to individually moderate every comment before it appears.

A significant restructuring of the YouTube comments ecosystem may be in order, to permit the valuable aspects of comments to continue on legitimate videos, while still reducing the probabilities of comment abuse as much as possible. 

Perhaps it might be necessary to consider the permanent changing of the default comments settings away from “allowed” — to either “not allowed” or “moderated” — for new uploads (at least for certain categories of videos), especially for new YouTube creators. But given that so many creators never change the defaults, the ultimate ramifications and possible unintended negative consequences of such a significant policy alteration appear difficult to predict. 

Improved tools to aid creators in moderating comments on high viewership videos would also seem to be in focus — perhaps by leveraging third-party services or trusted viewer communities.

There are a variety of other possible approaches as well.

It appears certain that both YouTube itself and YouTube creators have reached a critical crossroads, a junction that successfully navigating will likely require some significant changes going forward, if the greatness of YouTube and its vast positive possibilities for creators are to be maintained or grow.

–Lauren–