A Comment on YouTube Comments: It’s About Social, Not Spam

YoutubeOn Nov. 6, YouTube rocked a pretty serious boat when it changed its commenting policy for the entire video sharing service.

In short, YouTube turned off all anonymous comments and now requires users to link to a Google+ account if they want to leave a comment. There were some other updates as well, such as moving more relevant comments to the top of the thread, grouping comment threads by conversation, and giving channel owners the ability to moderate comments. But the biggest and most important change is the Google+ linking element.

Reaction was as swift as it was negative. The main point of contention is that forcing away anonymity won’t clean up the cesspool of vulgar vitriol, homophobic, and racist hate that YouTube’s commenting system too often devolves into. YouTube attracts more than a billion users a month, so the fact that a portion of them are up in arms at the change is hardly a surprise. But they’re not seeing the bigger picture, nor are they zeroing in on the real opportunity for the commenting policy shift.

Yes, cleaning up the commenting cesspool is a necessary move. YouTube is trying to attract advertisers, and just as dodgy content won’t achieve that goal, neither will an uncouth comment thread. But that’s not the primary motivation. While some may contest its effectiveness, attaching comments to a real person and real account is a step towards solving this issue. It also supports better data collection and analysis of user engagement across the service. Of course, it’s possible to create a fake Google+ account to circumvent real identity, but this is an extra step I’d argue most wouldn’t bother with.

But this is really about social networking. In the face of the success that Facebook and Twitter have achieved in social networking, Google is in danger of becoming an also-ran in the social land grab. Google+ has yet to make a meaningful impact or pose any kind of a significant challenge to these rivals. Yet YouTube has presence. YouTube has reach; as mentioned, it has a billion visitors a month. Upsetting a portion of this base with a new commenting policy designed to convert the rest to a legitimate social network isn’t a bad move. Time will tell if it works or not, but when evaluating whether the comments move was a good idea, let’s at least consider the full context of the decision before passing judgment.

As for the comments issue, it’s certainly understandable for content owners to have some concern over the tone of comments left under their videos. We tried addressing this ourselves at Beachfront by creating our own commenting system for video apps, to give publishers a greater level of control over the commenting threads tied to their video channels. That process requires commenters to login using their Facebook profile or email (and soon, Google+).

I bring this up because we’re using established social networks to address the commenting issue, rather than trying establish our own social network. For us, it’s not about encouraging censorship, but rather moderating the more egregious spam, trolls, and just plain offensive comments that bother not only content owners, but the majority of fans who would prefer a more civilized discussion. It’s particularly effective at combating bot spam as well.

That Google is driving users only towards Google+ and not other social networks shows how its approach is much different. Yes, it’s about comments. But social is the bigger game here.

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