Oh YouTube, I was ready to let it go. I’d said my piece. You probably hadn’t listened but that was okay, because plenty of people with higher profiles than I were busy nailing you to the wall with the same arguments. Our point was made, and as far as I was concerned, we were ready to go our separate ways, and for me to move on to, I don’t know… attempting to comment as a white man with little to no experience of Polynesian culture on whether a children’s costume for an upcoming Disney film was racist or not? Yeah, that sounds like something I’d have probably been doing right now.
What happened? I’m genuinely interested. Did the interns get loose? Was it Larry the Office Gibbon’s turn to chair the weekly pitch meeting? Is somebody trying to inflate the fund of the Terrible Ideas Jar so you can really splash out on the Christmas party this year? I want to know YouTube, and you Google, what it takes to turn such monolithic organisations, employing a staff of thousands upon thousands of what I have to assume are adult human beings, in an industry lead by people we’re always being told are so clever, so breathlessly, window-licking, arse-from-elbow moronic with such regularity. The rest of us need to know so we can find you a cure for your stupidity, because it’s almost not funny anymore. You guys are responsible for a ridiculously large portion of online discourse, and I have to live here!
You may have heard about YouTube’s new ‘Heroes’ initiative. If not, it goes a little something like this: In a minute-and-a-half long video uploaded this week, YouTube announced its intention to mobilise its own user-base to monitor and moderate content on the site. Those volunteering to be a “YouTube Hero” (and can you not just picture the kind of over-inflated Little Hitler who would actually put themselves forward for such a duty), will then ascend through ‘levels’ of power to police content in accordance with their performance, from subtitling videos to mass flagging them for takedown, along with certain ‘perks’. This is, again, a likely well-intentioned approach to addressing the very real image problems some areas of the site have been garnering in recent years (‘Don’t Read The Comments’ has practically been YouTube’s unofficial motto going on a decade now). However, if you’re already raising your hand to ask who on Earth thought it was a good idea to turn to the community who’ve made YouTube such a wretched place to be in the first place and ask them to fix it… then you obviously have more common sense than whoever had final approval over this hare-brained scheme.
So how is this plan going so far? Well, at time of writing, YouTube has had to disable comments on its own announcement video, due to the tide of very negative feedback it’s received, as well as mass down-voting.
In case this initial response hasn’t convinced the architects of this lunacy that their idea is dead on arrival, let me try to cover, as succinctly as I am able, all the rotten, nonsensical bases of this initiative…
Firstly, being on online moderator, or a translator, or any of the other duties our new Heroes are expected to cover, is in most places considered a real, sometimes full-time job. A company as wealthy as Google should not be asking its own customers to do its job for it for free. That’s the sort of thing that last week I would have assumed was obvious. Remember those ‘perks’ I mentioned before? None of them are paid. In fact, from what I can see they seem to almost entirely consist of ‘opportunities’ to attend seminars to advance your skills as a moderator. So, even assuming a Hero actually does a good job and doesn’t abuse their position, their prize will be… more unpaid work to do. We’ve barely started but that alone should be enough to kill this idea in its crib. I mean really! Who thought this was okay?! If you want people to act like professionals (and God knows in this case you need them to), then you have to actually treat them like professionals.
Also, just as a matter of interest, if you want good law enforcement, the first thing you need is good laws. While YouTube has a terms of service agreement, naturally, it’s so vaguely written, poorly visible and inconsistently enforced as to be essentially meaningless, and doesn’t even begin to cover a lot of the site’s most recent problems. Even if you believe that a citizen’s militia is a good way to establish order (it isn’t, by the way), without a meaningful rule of law to enforce in the first place, they’re just gangs of people with proverbial nightsticks.
Assuming YouTube bother to address that little snag, what assurance do both viewers and content creators have that these rules and their enforcers will work for the community? Despite YouTube faux-casual presentation of the idea, ‘Heroes’ will stop being ordinary users the moment they are given power over the rest of us. Will they then be forced to give up their anonymity, so they’ll be visible to the people they’re accusing, and so people with accusations to make can engage directly with them? For their sake I hope not; but then doesn’t that present a bit of an ethical problem if the people responsible for ruling the community are anonymous and therefore unaccountable? Say I wanted to appeal a decision (assuming I even can), will I be allowed to see who I’m appealing against? Will I be able to talk to an actual person, such as their supervisor, or will my complaint just be entered into an automated, behind-the-scenes labyrinth as happens with Content ID claims? Hell, would I even be informed if I was penalised at all; or, as was the case with their recent ad-friendly initiatives, would posts/videos be removed without warning or notice of any kind, giving the offender no opportunity whatsoever to defend themselves?
One last question: Why am I even asking? This is YouTube, I think we all know how this is going to work. This move has been compared to giving everyone in town a gun and a badge because the Mayor couldn’t be bothered to organise a proper police force; and… well yes that’s exactly what it’s like. I would go further though. I would say that this is creating a town full of deputies with no Sheriff, and the town charter is written on the back of a napkin… that’s had coffee spilled all over it… and been buried down a local mine-shaft.
‘But David!’ I hear the bootlickers cry ‘It’s too soon to judge. The Heroes will obviously be supervised. They say Hero levels will only be increased on merit after all, and Wikipedia has managed with volunteer curation for years!’
Okay well, supervised by who; a higher level of invisible moderators, free to interpret propriety as they wish, or by more bots? Neither inspires me with confidence. Also, that raises the obvious question: If volunteer moderators need to be moderated by higher, presumably employed moderators, why can’t YouTube do the bloody job themselves, you twits!
Oh, and Wikipedia? Seriously? What kind of fever dream have I slipped into where people are sincerely holding up Wikipedia as an example of sensible curation? Wikipedia, which is known far and wide for having the exact opposite of that; where feuds between users frequently ruin articles; where corrections of their mistakes are unforgivably slow; and where the general volume of shoddy work has left the brand with less than zero credibility. Wikipedia? Spare me!
It’s clear to me at this point that YouTube is in dire need of new direction. A complete rethink of its managerial philosophy is what’s required. Its bosses obviously don’t want YouTube to be the Wild West anymore. They have too many corporate sponsors to afford to let their community run rampant; and yet, somewhere deep down I think they still see YouTube as ‘new media’, an outsider free of constraints where anything is possible. I’m sorry, but that’s just not how it works anymore, if it ever did. YouTube is big, it’s corporate, and it has the attention of the entire world, so meek half measures when it comes to managing its image won’t cut it. You need moderation? Hire an actual moderation team! Make them visible and easily contactable by the community at large, and make the rules that they are responsible for clear and well published. Enforce those rules strictly and consistently, but give the opportunity for those accused to defend themselves before they are punished out of hand.
None of this is impossible. It’s not even complicated. It’s common sense, and what websites with good reputations with their communities have been doing for years. If YouTube wants to clean up its act, first it has to get its hands dirty.