1 YouTube tries to rescue its terrible commenters from themselves on Sun Dec 01, 2013 3:08 am
YouTube has announced plans to reformat its presentation of comments below its videos to turn them from some of the Internet’s worst dreck to relevant and—even more daringly—useful content. Rather than the chronological organization that the site has always used, comments will now consist of a mix of comments from YouTube personalities, “engaged conversations,” and friends on Google+.
I originally set out to start this article by summing up the most recent slate of YouTube comments on the latest Miley Cyrus video (NSFW) to demonstrate how irrelevant and unnecessarily vitriolic most YouTube comments are. Now having looked at them, I can attest that trying to summarize them would be a waste of everyone’s time. Suffice it to say that there's a big problem with broadly structured comment systems, and YouTube, one of the worst offenders, is taking steps to rectify it.
The Internet’s comment problem is not a secret; most large online publications are dealing with it daily one way or another. Where some see a system for encouraging discussion and surfacing new perspectives and information, others see an echo chamber of bad grammar, unchecked stupidity, and the constructive interference of emotions that blow up “problems” like whether a camel is funnier than the E-Trade baby or whether a commenter is a lesbian.
Gawker developed its own system, Kinja, that recasts each commenter’s contributions in the form of a blog. Its comments are also integrated with a voting system. Popular Science recently announced that it was doing away with comments altogether, arguing that comments are “undermining bedrock scientific doctrine." Comments that may advance the discussion aren't worth the ones that derail it, PopSci says.
Comments as we used to know them—unprocessed, uncurated, largely unmoderated—certainly aren’t fit for what the Internet has grown up into. They were born into a world of small online communities that didn’t cross paths with each other for the most part. Now, we have big melting-pot websites, complete with all of the culture-clash (and maturity) of a typical high school, generally with none of the community-defined reputational stakes. Comments need less high school, more college.
What YouTube’s system will do, effectively, is return comments to that small-community feel of yore. The “YouTube personalities” comments will lend a little more of a broader flavor, but it sounds like the bulk of them are intended to be made up of all of those super-engaged Google+ users you know.
Ranking “engaged conversations” high on the comment totem pole seems like YouTube’s riskiest move—the site’s most spirited debates are far more likely to be a barrage of personal insults between two commenters than anything to do with the video they’re under. This feature would work best if Google gives itself some way to assess relevancy, either algorithmically or using moderators. For now, we know that the comment update will include a tool that blocks certain terms and will prevent comments containing them from appearing at all.
The study that Popular Science uses to justify doing away with comments proves that hostile and polemic comments negatively affect the reader’s perception of the article they appear under. But the study doesn’t address how civil or informed comments might improve a reader’s perception of an article. The New York Times coverage of this study said that readers of civil comments “continued to feel the same way after reading the comments,” but this is not stated explicitly anywhere in the body of the study itself. A footnote in the study says that it "looks only at the effects of incivility (the other manipulations are controlled for in our analysis)."
Hence, it’s hard to say washing hands of the former is worth foregoing the possibility of the latter. Until scientists carry out that experiment, we’ll all keep reading and commenting, even if it's occasionally against our better judgment.]