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Censorship of Youtube is not the answer

October 3, 2013

I’ve been reading and hearing a lot lately about Youtube and What Is To Be Done about the trolls and cyber bullies and menaces. None of them are impartial and almost all are negatively skewed. A more suspicious person might be inclined to think that this is a high profile gag order on Youtube by “the fourth estate” – after all, social media is starting to eclipse traditional media, particularly in news and current affairs. Just last week, another story broke on Twitter before any news got hold of it, including all the electronic newspapers and Twitter feeds from each of them.

Let’s be honest, some of the reason for this is because the news reporters have to check their sources for accuracy in a way that Joe Bloggs does not, since as a non-professional he is unlikely to be held accountable, particularly if he cannot be identified, let alone associated with any supposedly objective publication. Though the regulations on traditional news are an obvious advantage for ethical reporting, your average person will pay more credence to something they find interesting or sensational over something dull or uncomfortable to acknowledge, regardless of the source. Hence, we live in an era rife with urban myths and outrageous rumours.

This is not as current as it appears. The world wide web is just an extension of the village. When we lived in small groups, we swapped stories just like this – some true and some not, some grossly exaggerated The internet has given that back tenfold, which is why I don’t understand why people say the internet is the death of community. Television or video games I understand; they are usually singular activities. The addition of the internet to both those mediums (online gaming, trending on Twitter) made them sociable again, even with people you know in real life. A great way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know that well face-to-face can be something which you or they mentioned on Facebook. I’m not the first person to harp on about this, but the internet is about usage, not platforms.

Which is why I get annoyed when people slam Youtube and the Youtube comment system. Youtube has succumbed to these complaints and has (once again) decided to make some changes. The Metro reports that the comment section will place more emphasis on the comments of “popular personalities” and, somewhat ambiguously, “people you know”. They could have meant one of two things: I the viewer or I the uploader. Either way, I face-palmed when I read it. This is exactly what Youtube was never supposed to do; placing emphasis on people who already have clout is what the fourth estate is for. Youtube is the everyman’s platform. If you only give credence to people you already know, before long you are getting all your information / feedback from only a handful of sources, making it not a free medium at all, but rather as restricted and biased as the next.

I can see the future. People will pay these “personalities” to posit particular points of view on certain videos, particularly one that might concern a product, company or service. Youtube is made up of rants, some of which against particular corporations. Rich and connected as they are, it would not be hard for them in this new system to discredit someone’s criticism under the guise of free speech. The wonderful thing about Youtube as it stands is that you couldn’t do that; with the exception of the spam problem (whereby spam messages selling services are given fake “thumbs up” to make viewers pay attention to them) the thumbs-up, thumbs-down system works perfectly. It is a simple voting system, where Youtube viewers decide for themselves which comments are worth reading and which aren’t.

It leaves to democracy the decision of what is acceptable to say and what isn’t, and anyone who has been paying attention is encouraged by the results; depending on what video you see, the “top comment” will usually be funny, original, well reasoned and intelligent. People are not idiots, they know what they want to see and they know what is worth seeing. If we didn’t, we would make poor consumers. The criticism from journalists essentially insults and patronises its own customers.

I did say “depending on what video you see”. Indeed, if all you ever see of Youtube is the Annoying Orange, no wonder you have a dim view of the internet. The wittiest person in the world would have trouble (and indeed, would be loathed to try) donating a slice of their wit to a video that is so shrill and piercing, it sucks the wit out of the air itself. It is true that the vast majority of what you get on Youtube is absolute crap. But then again, the vast majority of what you get in other mediums is also on the poor side of average We hesitate to call them “crap” because they are professionally and expensively produced.

All those films you’ve never heard of because they flopped; all those books that got pulped; all those pilots that were instantly thrown out – these are all attempts made by people to be creative, just like Youtube videos. And all of them got through the net of the committee – a group of people whose job it is to decide what the public would like based on research and statistics gathered from yesterday. They gave the go ahead to these pieces of utter rubbish, then have the cheek to complain when we start deciding for ourselves what to consume based on our own preferences. With the wonderful use of algorithms, tailored to our specific interests, TV can’t possibly keep up with what Youtube has to offer. For free, no less. Perhaps what is making the professionals nervous is that there is obviously far more talent in the world than can ever be tapped, and we are waking up to the fact that the power is at our fingertips, not the corporate filter. Well, you know what they say: if you can’t beat ’em, run a smear campaign against ’em.

Here’s the reality of the situation People like me – let’s say, 16-25 year olds – get a good proportion of their education from Youtube. If you judge us for that, you’re a fool. If you think that’s a severe indictment on our education system, I’m right behind you. I was not offered education in matters of grave importance from the standard education system and had to wait until I was 18 (that was when Youtube started to kick off, but it was still a nerdy site in those days) to find out about them. I’m talking primarily about matters of sexual health, mental health and social justice.

Vlogging (“video web logging”) is simply the act of filming oneself talking about one’s experiences. Once again, since all factual media relies on the personal experiences of the public, it is hard to imagine why any self-respecting journalist would view this as a negative aspect of 21st century culture – perhaps because it negates the need for reporting and investigation. Nonetheless, this is exactly what The Culture Show was guilty of when it hosted a special focussed on Youtube. Jacques Peretti made some attempt to paint the phenomenon as something other than “teenagers mucking about in their bedroom”, but failed, because the final cut contained nothing but clips of teenagers mucking about in their bedroom.

My favourite vloggers, are indeed young and occasionally muck about, but usually have a social point to make by means of entertainment and mockery. That’s right: satire. Youtube is the go-to place for (albeit not always very subtle) social satire. Of course it is. It’s made up of people like you and me who live in the real world and observe it, along with all its everyday frustrations. It’s not class based, because even people in relative poverty can usually get hold of a cheap webcam and an internet connection on occasion. Those who are entertaining do well regardless of the professional quality of their work, bringing back the lost idea of the talented amateur.

Now that they have a platform for it other than stand-up comedy or some other incredibly restrictive career path, talented people can make money from their work easily from advertising revenue, provided only that they acquire an audience. Thus, they increase the production quality of their work. The result is a wide range of professionally produced videos from all across the globe – for what is a professional if not a once amateur, now paid and experienced? If you haven’t found something you like on Youtube, you haven’t looked hard enough, especially not now that its linked with and assimilates to TV so much. It isn’t a hard place to find your way around, what with the onslaught of related and recommended videos. Youtube is so effective a talent scout, some individuals are picked up by more professional organisations to kick-start a more traditional entertainment career. More and more people are attempting to gain from what Youtube offers, while secretly grumbling about it. Those members of the public with little experience on the subject are heeding the grumbling rather than the actions, which are yelling loud enough to break your ear drums.

Nevertheless, people are coming round to the positive aspects of video sharing itself. Less willing are they to accept that the comment system on Youtube is also positive, complaining (inaccurately) about “trolls” and how they are overtaking the site. It is peculiar behaviour to speak of “trolls”, like they’re something that popped up out of the ether. Let me tell you something about trolls: they’re people. Just people, that’s all. If they are offensive and odious, that is because their opinions in real life are offensive and odious.

We speak of trolls as though there’s something inherent in the internet that brings out their bad side. OK, so there’s good research to suggest that anonymity and group culture can bring out the worst in people, but the story doesn’t stop there. If it did, then every comment on Youtube should be a troll comment. I’m a frequent user of Youtube and I have never once made a racist comment just for the hell of it, for the simple reason that I am not racist. Sometimes during an altercation, someone will use language that is not typical of them to win an argument. That’s a separate issue about maturity and integrity Most of the time though, you do not utter racist comments (or suchlike) unless there is racist feeling already present within you. Youtube is not this magician that conjures up prejudice as soon as you sign your name over to the devil… Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the Login box. So, the question is not “Why are people making racist comments on the internet?” The question is “Why are people racist?”

My problem with casually blaming Youtube is because it ignores the wider problem – a problem that is only now being exposed by Youtube. The internet has not created an insurgence of racists, it has simply allowed a platform for people who are prejudiced to blithely express their views in a more vehement way than they would if they could see the consequences of their actions. The typeface also obscures some of the emotion, so comments only marginally offensive under their own steam are read as much more virulent than is intended.

In short, like any medium, Youtube can exacerbate a problem. However, it does not cause it. It is an inevitable part of truth-telling that the problem will be exacerbated as a side effect; it is evident in reporting, when witch hunts start as a result of a report of some wrong-doing, which only backs problematic people into a corner and makes them panic, perhaps making yet more bad decisions. Yet, not so many people criticise this mode of information sharing. Rather, anything new makes us uneasy because it throws up new challenges we feel unequipped to deal with. It is the same old story; as onlookers, we assume that because we can now see the problem, the problem must be worse than it once was. We’re seeing now, in this odd time period when apparently everyone is a paedophile.

More likely, the problems are getting solved because they have exposure. To start with, the news picks up readily on any major controversy that occurs online (yet another reason not to eye Youtube with such suspicion, since any establishment that slams its own source has a lot to answer for). It is highly newsworthy, food for its audience, who are then free to debate it. On top of that, there are plenty of perfectly reasonable people online who correct those who are uneducated and misguided. Provided you scroll down below the top comments, you may have to wade through a tidal wave of “lol”s and “wtf”s to find them, but they are worth looking for.

These who take it upon themselves to provide and education in the comment section of Youtube, and some of them even maintain their diplomacy. Rather than paint Youtube as some kind of hotbed of prejudice and irresponsibility, we should encourage people who know better to be using it as a means of getting across what they want to say. There is nothing like direct interaction to allow you to accurately unpick the faults of an offensive comment, and most “trolls” do not need much persuasion to elaborate on their point. These are people with strong views that they want seen, after all. They may not be the most eloquent of people, but they will talk. And you absolutely can win an argument with a troll, or at the very least, have your opinions seen by people who are on the fringes of prejudice but ready to accept new modes of thinking.

The problem with branding people as “trolls” is that we assume they have no motivations outside of derailment tactics and unpleasantness We are wrong. Their aim is to have their say, sometimes to convince. Ignoring them solves no problems. What happens to the “trolls” under the new system that silences them, and silences the people that “feed” them (i.e., respond to them)? Their comments are never seen, never challenged and their views are never changed. We all get to pretend the problem has gone away because we can’t see it any more, which is much more comfortable for all of use good, moral normal people who never ever make any ignorant comments, ever. *Cough*.

I feel for the people who have had to put filters up in their inbox and comment feed because they are receiving abuse and I agree there should be regulation for that kind of direct assault and harassment. That is what the Youtube staff need to work on, but the authoritarian blanket restrictions are contrary to their original ethos, and stinks of Google. They have decided that anonymity has no value, forgetting that anonymity through the ages has served the very great purpose of allowing people to be honest about issues they would otherwise have difficulty discussing.

Without anonymity, everything from crisis lines and police tip-offs to websites like the Everyday Sexism Project could not exist. 4chan could not exist, and for the record, however horrible you might find 4chan, if you are a journalist interested in finding out information on responses to child sexual abuse in adulthood, the porn section of 4chan is a boundless source of information. Why? Anonymity. People who are open about their sexual preferences will also be honest about the reasons for them, however unpleasant those reasons. They are in the mindset of anonymity and the culture of anonymity, the basis of which is to remove personal judgement from comments, since there is no associating with a particular individual. A clean slate every time you type. Not to say that you can’t be banned – you IP address is still yours and the moderators can find it. Even in anonymity there are ways of finding the real trouble makers. Just not the people who are employing the use of freedom of speech.

Putting the gag on comments doesn’t allow for any conversation, and will also restrict the supportive comments needed by the Youtubers themselves to keep up their morale. These make up a substantial proportion of any comment section for a Youtube personality, they being the people most likely to be on the receiving end of personally abusive language (like any celebrity, really). Sadly, people who wish to be unpleasant can always find means to do so, even if it means finding that person’s address and sending them threatening messages straight through the door. People who do not wish to be threatening use the usual channels to communicate, so they are the ones who will find themselves restricted. There may be a drop in the number of accessible supportive comments which may hinder Youtubers rather than help them.

As I said, I can understand why Youtubers may be afraid to receive unkind or disturbing comments but if they even so much as ban comments from their own particular video (a feature that has been available for some time) they do themselves out of an amazing support network as well. Moreover, comments like the ones in response to women are so extreme they have catapulted and publicised a third wave of feminism, much overdue. Such a thing could not have happened if the trolls were gagged.

Additionally, we have a tendency to confuse criticism with trolling if we don’t like the tone. Youtubers who do not leave themselves open to direct criticism may find their work becomes less popular as it refuses to change and reflect the viewer mood. One of the virtues of Youtube over television is the interactiveness of it, and how viewers can have a say about what they want to see – yet, at the end of the day, the producer-director-actor that makes the video has the final word, in a way that television does not allow for, being far too preoccupied with markets and target demographics than actual quality.

It is my hope that Youtube will be the site that shows this, because it demonstrates that an individual with a particular target audience (say, their own sex and age group) may end up with a widespread audience well outside this range. The more accessible the medium, the more likely this is. Youtube is fast becoming accessible the world over, even in countries where you wouldn’t think people had the technology. It has become culturally important.

One other positive aspect of Youtube, compared to television, is its representativeness is completely genuine. If your Vlogger is a black woman, she is a black woman. She is not a white-male representation of a black woman. That means that she can speak as herself and express what she likes about her experiences and culture and any criticism about the lack of accuracy would be ludicrous because she is not trying to represent a group of people outside of one she is part of. She is not trying to represent a group at all. She simply is, by existing, and not being silenced indirectly by people’s nervousness about representation.

Until we have more variation in the top echelons, the best those parts of the media can hope to do is give a faint shadow of realism to what can be some very tricky sociological issues. I don’t need to lecture anyone about how Education is Everything, but this is a perfect example of how the freedom of Youtube is its virtue; there is nothing more educational than simply listening to the personal experiences of a smart and engaging individual.

By comparison, television (both fiction and non-fiction) seems quaint; a white man’s pet project. I see little difference between current documentaries and the old British Pathé travelogues that spoke of “dusky maidens”. We still have people who are culturally ignorant of the place and the subject matter going abroad and receiving an education, condescendingly complimenting the resourcefulness of the indigenous people going about their business In a hole in the ground. The idea is that the presenter’s education is our education He is just like us, so we can empathise with him and use him as a means to understand these Strange Lands and Stranger People – to the extent that the presenter will ask, for our benefit, truly daft questions to which he almost certainly knows the answers.

So much better is a documentary driven by people who are from the place being looked at, perhaps with an education of other cultures to give them that perspective Else, they could simply be intelligent enough to realise what is wrong and what is right about they world they see. Youtube offers us this, particularly with the new introduction of subtitles for foreign language videos. There is no better way to learn than by that direct connection – if you can care about the person, you can care about their situation. If you can connect directly to the person speaking and like what you hear, you are more likely to care about them. This is why travel is usually an effective way to get an education, as it involves meeting other people who do not seem so far away, or Other. Youtube, and the internet in general, is closing that gap.

I am all in favour of more moderation on the site, but I think it should be community moderation – and even that should be kept in check by more considered application of the platform’s technological capabilities. The addition of the “mark as spam” command on a comment is a disaster, as it is completely misused It is not used to hide spam, since spam is clever and knows how to get around it, but instead is used by viewers to quickly hide a comment they disagree with, rather than using the thumbs-up, thumbs-down system designed for the purpose.

For those who don’t know, that system automatically hides a comment that receives a point score of minus six; that is to say, if six people mark it down and no one marks it up, it is hidden. You can still see the comment if you wish, but it is covered by a warning in regards to the number of thumbs-down, in case any of you sensitive little cupcakes are afraid of the big bad trolls. The system works well because it is a voting system, essentially a democracy. Spam flags are misused by the over-sensitive or conceited to force their evaluation on the rest of the viewing community, since only one person has to mark a comment as spam for it to be flagged.

Because of the thumb-up, thumb down system – a system so effective it has been numerously copied by other sites – Youtube is the very platform that has led me to think that most people are reasonable, though it has clearly had the opposite effect on other, older (dare I say more naïve?) people. Having set moderators not only requires paid staff which might change the face of Youtube and make it more ad-ridden, or simply not free of charge at all, but also is subject to whatever biases exist in the selective community that Google hires. I am also wary of Google having a monopoly on the entire information world. It sounds hyperbolic, but common sense could tell you that a free sharing site like Youtube could not be greatly improved if seized by a corporation and all the vested interests that come with them, yet it is happening more and more.

By the way, that Google+ system is a pile of balls. It is supposed to remove anonymity by requiring you to have a Google+ profile to sign into Youtube (as if a Google+ profile differ greatly from a Youtube one). I now have three separate profiles that I can’t merge and don’t use just so I can have my bloody handle back, rather than my actual name, which I don’t want to use and shouldn’t be forced to. I’ve been using it for five years and that is what people know me as on Youtube. It is my name. It is not even as if the names that appear to be real have an guarantee of being so, since it’s not like we’ve been asked for our social security numbers to check (perish the thought). So, it is an easy system to get round, just another added and useless inconvenience

It is ironic that the system that is supposed to be making me less of a threat by making me seem more familiar is actually making me appear more of a threat by rendering me unknown to people who do actually know me – well enough to know for a fact that I am not a threat. This is what I meant when I spoke of “community” on Youtube – people know each other by sight and can remember the unique usernames and avatars, quite different from the general sense of community you get from complete anonymity on sites like 4chan, where the connection comes from knowing what you’re all there for (usually porn) and that you’re all about the same in that respect. I’m not the only person who has noticed that year by year, with more and more Google influence, Youtube gets a little tidier, a little more corporate, and a little less like Youtube.


From → Internet Culture

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