Long considered home to the worst commenters on the internet — racist, cruel, idiotic, nonsensical, and barely literate — YouTube is in the process of upgrading its comment system in order to better tame its most loathsome members.
Word of the overhaul slipped out during the Q&A portion of a YouTube developer session at Google I/O, the annual developers conference from the video-upload hub’s owner, Google.
A member of the audience, which was stocked heavily with online video publishers, asked for advice on handling negative comments within his YouTube channel. Dror Shimshowitz, a YouTube “head of product,” replied that “comments are kind of the Wild West of video” and can be turned off. But Google doesn’t like it when people do that, he said, because it cuts off the community. So the company is working on fixing the system.
“We’re working on some improvements to the comment system, so hopefully we’ll have an update on that in the next few months,” Shimshowitz said.
Shimshowitz declined to elaborate further in a follow-up interview, in which he was asked about the scope and nature of the planned changes. “We’re working to improve comments as much as we’re working to improve all parts of the site and YouTube experience,” a Google spokesman said, adding that the company would not comment further.
There’s no question YouTube has its work cut out for it; its comment sections are widely regarded as cesspools. Meme harvester BuzzFeed called YouTube “a comment disaster on an unprecedented scale” with “the worst commenters on the internet;” online entrepreneur (and Wired contributor) Andy Baio called them “historically pretty bad;” and the online comic XKCD in 2006 imagined the moon landing being broadcast — and moronically heckled — on YouTube. “The internet has always had loud dumb people,” XKCD illustrator Randall Munroe wrote in an accompanying caption, ”but I’ve never seen anything quite as bad as the people who comment on YouTube videos.”
YouTube improved the situation two years ago, when it introduced a “highlights view,” the predecessor to today’s “top comments” section, which features the comments most highly rated by other YouTube commenters. (It, too was eventually parodied online.)
But YouTube needs to go much further, to kick the worst vulgarians out from under its videos. The site is trying to build a glossier future for itself, one with smarter videos produced by businesses, Hollywood studios and independent creatives. Better production values, in turn, make the site more attractive to advertisers. Vicious commenters break that virtuous cycle.
“YouTube comments are a potentially fantastic engagement point that is unfortunately the most common go-to example for trolls,” says Huffington Post community manager Justin Isaf. “These are real people who are opening themselves to what is often ridicule and overt abuse. How many people would put themselves out there again after reading comments that belittle, insult, malign or otherwise hurt them? It’s a loss of an amazing opportunity.
“I would love to see Google put their search and algorithm know-how to use to create a more safe space where people can engage in a meaningful conversation and be themselves on video without worry of needing therapy afterward.”
One obvious direction for YouTube is to ask users for more information about themselves. Many members use anonymous handles since YouTube, unlike other Google sites, allows people to create distinct accounts. At other Google sites, users must use their Google+ identity, linked to a real name. As a general rule, people are far less likely to troll under their real name.
Requiring Google+ identities could also help YouTube’s advertisers target ads more narrowly, since Google+ collects information about people’s location, gender, occupation, likes and interests.
If YouTube isn’t interested in integrating more deeply with Google+, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti offers a Plan B: “YouTube should use Facebook comments,” Peretti tells us, referring to Google’s archrival. “YouTube would benefit from extra distribution in [Facebook's] News Feed so their videos would spread even faster. And people use their true identity on Facebook so it would help make YouTube comments more civil.”