There have been many attempts for Internet giants to pick up the slack when it comes to managing communities. AOL attempted it with their Community Leader program…which opened them up to lawsuits.
AOL was sued several times and was investigated by the Department of Labor due to claims that the volunteers, which were to moderate chat rooms and message boards, were doing the same amount of work as actual employees yet weren’t being paid. The result was a class action lawsuit against AOL that resulted in the company settling with all the former Community Leaders totaling 15 million dollars. The program as it was no longer exists.
Volunteer moderators, however, are nothing foreign in the modern internet. From forums to community game servers to subreddits, ordinary people still take the time out of their day to make their own corners of the internet more friendly and stable for the members they serve. However, these are always in small capacity, and volunteer moderators almost never do as much work as the actual maintainers of the websites they moderate. This is the critical difference between AOL and internet forums today: AOL ruled the internet, so their chat rooms and forums were ubiquitous. Moderators would often have to do a lot of work to keep up with the users. Internet forums today are nowhere near as popular as they were and are often not owned by companies. In the event of a forum owned by an established entity, such as the Ubuntu forums or Bethesda.net, the parent company can often hire their own moderators in addition to community moderators.
But it seems that another company isn’t heeding what happened to AOL back in the day; the video giant YouTube has announced its community moderator program: YouTube Heroes.
On the surface, this seems like a good idea. It is estimated that 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. No matter how many employees YouTube hired, they could almost never keep up with the volume. Volunteer moderators seems like the logical solution. Off the bat, becoming a YouTube Hero allows you to do some pretty cool stuff. You can add closed captions and subtitles to videos, help report inappropriate content, help out YouTubers, and YouTube gamifies it by giving you points. This is a common business model across crowdsourced apps/companies. The #1 travel app on the Google Play store, Waze, rewards users points for reporting accidents, hazards, closures, and other issues to make driving easier. However, there’s a humongous problem with YouTube Heroes that will certainly be its downfall.
The practice of flagging videos is sending it to workers at YouTube for review for a myriad of reasons. They can range from copyright infringement to gore and child pornography. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a problem, but it makes a grand assumption about the YouTube Hero volunteers: they can be non-biased. I admin servers for Valve’s Counter-Strike and Team Fortress games, and while I pride myself in taking a Spock-like approach to situations, letting logic rule over emotion, it is very hard to remain free of bias. YouTube is one of the most polarizing places on the internet as we know it. While writing this post, I was watching the Game Grumps, a popular channel centering around two guys playing video games with funny commentary, and I noticed they made a joke with the punchline being that God isn’t real. As a Christian and a level-headed human being, I carried on, but YouTuber Lorenz Jefferson decided that it was too much, and felt the need to comment “did they say god is not real wow f*ck you guys” on the video. I wish I could say this wasn’t common, but YouTube comment sections tend to be full of just mean people. The bigger the channel is, the worse the comments become. While I don’t doubt YouTube will screen comment histories when people apply to be Heroes, I don’t think YouTube fully thought out who it could be giving the power to mass-flag videos.
YouTube drama runs deep. There are several channels, such as Keemstar and h3h3, dedicated to reporting about YouTube drama. These channels tend to have irrational, even rabid fanbases. Say a fan of one of these channels gets promoted to Level 3 in the YouTube Heroes game, allowing them to mass flag. They can now mass flag all the videos belonging to a person that the channel they idolize spoke against for any reason. If YouTube were simply a hobbyist’s site, this wouldn’t be a problem, but a surprising amount of people make their livelihoods from YouTube. Someone’s source of income shouldn’t be toyed with in such a manner. YouTube’s screening system could be very sophisticated, being sure to weed out bias quickly, but as it stands right now, bias will be a bad issue and we don’t know what YouTube will do about it.
The inherent problem with this model is that the tiers of a YouTube Hero are completely out of order. Levels 1 and 2 make sense, allowing for easier reporting of videos and adding closed captions. They also reward Heroes by allowing exclusive workshops to make them better Heroes. However, level 3 (out of 5) is when mass-flagging and comment moderating is unlocked. To me, this feels way too early and is putting too much trust in users too early into the program. Remember the bias I mentioned earlier? YouTube Heroes that are biased against a channel/ideology/race/sex/religion/social movement can easily take advantage of this system to silence dissent. These should be level 5 privileges. Ironically, I can’t think of a reason to go past level 3. Level 4 introduces early access to new products and direct communication with YouTube staff. Level 5 gives you beta testing and eligibility to apply for the Heroes Summit, whatever that is. Simply, these rewards are lame. Exclusive workshops, beta testing, and the Heroes Summit aren’t reasonable incentives. Waze gives you points and map editing privileges and Google Opinion Rewards, an app that gives you Google Play credit for answering random surveys, give you at least some form of satisfaction or compensation, and while YouTube Heroes does reward points, the only worthwhile thing about them is getting the privilege to mass-flag and remove YouTube comments. YouTube could reward free subscriptions to YouTube Red and things of a similar nature, but since the rewards are pandering towards the most die-hard, lawful good YouTube enthusiasts, the only attraction to YouTube Heroes is the ability to silence others.
Looking further into the system, they do have some rules and regulations of being a hero. All of these can be read here, but there are some specific sections that were of interest. Specifically, sections B and D. Section D defines “appropriate conduct and participation” in the Heroes program. If you become a Hero, you agree that you will not:
- defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (including the rights of privacy and publicity) of others;
- upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available any unlawful, inappropriate, defamatory or obscene content or message;
- impersonate another person or entity;
- transmit any viruses, worms, defects, Trojan horses, or any items of a destructive nature; or
- submit fake, falsified, misleading, or inappropriate contributions.
On the surface, these seem fine, but like the video advertising the offending program, I found these rules to be rather vague. Specifically, the first, second, and fifth points. Like it or not, we live in a society where people get offended at the silliest things in existence. Many remember YouTube’s new advertising rules which made it so that any video that could even remotely offend someone could no longer be monetized, cutting off the income stream of many people who make YouTube videos as their job. The same people who get offended at everything work tirelessly to expose the personal information of people they don’t like (a practice known as “doxxing”) or harass them off of the internet. I can predict that the first and second rules will be applied selectively, since some of the more infamous doxxers have actually spoken with Google to implement anti-harassment protocols (such as YouTube Heroes) and even had a meeting with the UN. The fifth rule is very alarming, though. What is defined as an “inappropriate” or “misleading” contribution? A rule left this vague is a rule that is enforced whenever the enforcer feels like it. YouTube will determine what is a misleading or inappropriate contribution through some rule that only they know. I am certain my definition and their definition won’t mesh.
Looking at section B of the Heroes rules, which details the earning of points in the system, had a couple of interesting statements. It seems that YouTube will be overseeing those who use the Heroes program and will punish people who abuse it. The employees of a multibillion dollar company will be monitoring the unpaid volunteers who monitor their website. It seems that YouTube could spend more time listening to the wants of their users instead of developing systems that no one wants. YouTube/Google/Alphabet could be opening themselves up to labor disputes over this situation, which is exactly what happened to AOL back in the day. The wheel truly does just keep turning.
Taking a step back, let’s take a realistic approach: Will this program be abused? Yes. Will the abusers outnumber the good people? Absolutely not. Crowdsourced systems have proven time and time again that poor contributors get weeded out by the serious users who don’t want to pervert the system. In general, the people who don’t want to silence people they don’t like or push political and ideological agendas vastly outnumber those who do. Radical feminists, doxxers, and other cyberbullies who claimed the new Ghostbusters was the crowning achievement of neofeminism were surprised to find that the official trailer got over 1 million dislikes on YouTube, compared to only just under 293 thousand likes. People who believe in genuine good and manage to be level-headed and sensible will likely be the vast majority in the YouTube Heroes system. Another possible approach is that the entire thing blows over and YouTube quietly shelves the Heroes program and pretends it never happened. No one knows for sure, but one thing is certain: YouTube is on a losing streak. I wait in quiet anticipation to see what fantastic mishap they’ll find themselves in next.
See you next time.