Long considered home to the worst commenters on the internet â€” racist, cruel, idiotic, nonsensical, and barely literate â€” 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 hubâ€™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.Â Dror Shimshowitz, a YouTube â€œhead of product,â€ replied that â€œcomments are kind of the Wild West of videoâ€ and can be turned off. But Google doesnâ€™t like it when people do that, he said, because it cuts off the community. So the company is working on fixing the system.
â€œWeâ€™re working on some improvements to the comment system, so hopefully weâ€™ll have an update on that in the next few months,â€ 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. â€œWeâ€™re working to improve comments as much as weâ€™re working to improve all parts of the site and YouTube experience,â€ a Google spokesman said, adding that the company would not comment further.
Thereâ€™s no question YouTube has its work cut out for it; its comment sections are widely regarded as cesspools. Meme harvester BuzzFeed called YouTube â€œa comment disaster on an unprecedented scaleâ€ with â€œthe worst commenters on the internet;â€ online entrepreneur (and Wired contributor) Andy Baio Â called them â€œhistorically pretty bad;â€ and the online comic XKCD in 2006 imagined the moon landing being broadcast â€” and moronically heckled â€” on YouTube. â€œThe internet has always had loud dumb people,â€ XKCD illustrator Randall Munroe wrote in an accompanying caption,Â â€but Iâ€™ve never seen anything quite as bad as the people who comment on YouTube videos.â€
YouTube improved the situation two years ago, when it introduced a â€œhighlights view,â€ the predecessor to todayâ€™s â€œtop commentsâ€ section, which features the comments most highly rated by other YouTube commenters. (It, too Â 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.
â€œYouTube comments are a potentially fantastic engagement point that is unfortunately the most common go-to example for trolls,â€ says Huffington Post community managerÂ Justin Isaf. â€œThese 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? Itâ€™s a loss of an amazing opportunity.
â€œI 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.â€
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 YouTubeâ€™s advertisers target ads more narrowly, since Google+ collects information about peopleâ€™s location, gender, occupation, likes and interests.
If YouTube isnâ€™t interested in integrating more deeply with Google+,Â BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti offers a Plan B: â€œYouTube should use Facebook comments,â€ Peretti tells us, referring to Googleâ€™s archrival. â€œYouTube would benefit from extra distribution in [Facebook’s]Â News Feed so their videos would spread even faster. And people useÂ their true identity on Facebook so it would help make YouTube commentsÂ more civil.â€
Thatâ€™s a long shot, given Googleâ€™s competitive position with Facebook, but still, itâ€™s better than being subjected to â€œU SUCK, SERIOUSLY GO BACK TO DORK SCHOOL, ANONYOUTUBE 4-EVA. LOL,â€ and whatever else the YouTube chorus usually has to say.