On the YouTube Comment System

This last week has seen the biggest shakeup in terms of how YouTube works since, well, since we started making YouTube videos. They’ve integrated Google+ with YouTube’s account system and now to comment you need a Google+ account.

The reaction, as you’re probably well aware, has been overwhelmingly negative.

Those familiar with the history of the site might be reminded of similar shakeups during the numerous front page redesigns, or subscription box changes, or even player design and styling (as hard to believe as that is). The difference this time is that while those examples were primarily decried by the creators, the comment system overhaul has attracted the ire of the site’s users as a whole.

How we got here

Let’s step back a bit and take a look at how we got here. From what we’ve seen, the push to an integration of Google+ with YouTube has been going on for at least a year now. While some think that this is simply ruining something that works by unnecessarily tying it to something else, I’d argue that from Google’s point of view, as well as a technical perspective, this is something that actually makes a lot of sense.

Face it – the YouTube account system sucks. Subscriptions disappear from people you’ve subscribed to. The messaging system is arduous to use. Earlier this year, they had to issue gigantic subscriber number corrections to fix some of the problems of dead or broken accounts. As creators, we’ve been complaining about the YouTube account system’s deficiencies for as long as I remember.

So Google has Gmail, Google+, Picasa, Google Play, Google Wallet, Google Calendar, Blogger, and so and and so forth, and all these services tie to a single account and it works and it’s clean. Then over here, you have YouTube. You have millions of accounts, some dead, some active, some bots. This account system’s foundation was laid before you even got there by people who may not have necessarily built it for scale, but boy oh boy did it get big, and it’s been patched up dozens of times to fix things here and there.

YouTube’s infrastructure is like a giant crumbly house built in the 20s that every owner has gone in and fixed up little things here and there. It would’ve been better to tear it all down and start over again, but the problem is you can’t really tear it down because it’s the biggest video site in the world (analogy break!). You can turn off bits of it for a few hours at a time to fix things during planned maintenance periods, but even that has everyone up in arms.

So if you were Google and had a bunch of people using one account system for your other services, why would you have a whole different team of engineers working to maintain a different account database? Wouldn’t it make life easier to simply have one master database of accounts?

This seems to be the biggest impetus behind the integration – it’s not about forcing people to use Google+ (after all, they don’t really need to because tons of people use some of their numerous services already, and remember – the idea is to have one master account across all their products): It’s about trying to fix YouTube’s broken and scattered account system.

What went wrong?

So looking at the user response, it’s clear that there’s one huge fundamental thing people are reacting to – bigger than the convenience issue, or being forced to do something: People don’t like to associate their YouTube habits with their real names.

I’ve seen this sentiment expressed on numerous offsite online forum communities as well as on YouTube itself. It makes sense – I’m ok with my name being sent out on my email or on my photo galleries. But commenting on videos, and more importantly watching videos is a much more personal, private experience, and something that people might not want to associate with their real names.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with anime music videos – but maybe I don’t need my coworkers knowing that.

The only solution right now is that you can use a secondary account, but that’s massively inconvenient and becomes arduous for the end user. Remember – we’re coming from something that was convenient to the only available alternative which is super inconvenient.

It would seem that the solution to this would be to obfuscate the username or have a user-selectable username, but another one of their stated goals is about trying to clean up the quality of comments by putting accountability behind it.

But… how good were comments anyway?

A lot of the complaints wax poetic about what’s been lost, but let’s be realistic here – the old comment system were also crappy. The only reason why they didn’t seem that way is because people aggressively policed bad comments (something which isn’t happening right now, but more on that later).

ASCII dicks? Check. Spam accounts? Check. Advertisements? Check. All these were present in the old comment system. It’s really the same thing – instead of “First!” we have Google+ Rage ASCII art.

I guess what it comes down to is this – what’s the point of comments? Is it for substantive, threaded discussion about a video? Is it a gathering place for reactions and a sounding board for people’s favorite moments? Is it a place to find feedback?

Accountability with usernames is a much bigger discussion overall when it comes to communities on the internet. But at the very least – the system of comments as previously implemented on YouTube was really good for only one thing – to find out what the top upvoted one-liner joke associated with the video might be.  Having threaded comments and the ability to track reply chains is a big step towards having actual substantive discussion.

So what now?

Google is not going to revert back to the old way of doing things. No amount of screamers, spam links, stick figure, or dick figure comments is going to cause them to throw out what’s likely been millions of dollars worth of engineer hours.  What will happen is this – they will take their reams upon reams of data and fix things.

In the past, people reported spam and inappropriate posts. Right now, it seems everyone who would do that is busy copying and pasting ASCII art – everyone’s united in trying to spam Google into changing. But they’re not going to change. And the comment system in its current iteration will not improve until people realize their online petitions won’t do anything and they get back to tagging stupid posts as spam or inappropriate.

The only reason the comment system is unusable and unreadable is because the very userbase that used to police that comment system is not doing so. The chilling effect of effective community moderation is significant, but that effect is being ignored in favor of raging against the machine. In short – the reason the comments suck is that the people who normally police those comments are busy virtually rioting in the streets.

This of course doesn’t begin to address the issues people have with convenience and associating their real names with their online commenting activity. But I see that push away from fake avatars as a much larger tide that’s beginning to affect many different parts of the online experience – from Facebook Connect allowing you to log in to associating Google+ accounts with YouTube comments. Whether or not this is a net positive thing remains to be seen, but it’s definitely not just something isolated to YouTube.

The fact is, it’s a totally different internet than the one we grew up with – we’ve gone from “never tell anybody any personal information ever online!” to “yeah go ahead use your real name, real photo, credit card, and heck, tell everyone where you are with Foursquare Check-Ins.”

What are we doing?

We here at RocketJump haven’t passed any real judgment on the comment system, and will withhold judgment until the backlash (and the associated lack of moderation as a result) dies down and we can really evaluate what the effect of these changes have on substantive comment-based discussion. We understand people might prefer a different comment system so we’re using our website and Disqus as that alternative – you’ll be able to engage in discussion here on RocketJump (and often directly with us!)

But the last thing we’d ever do is limit your options as an audience member – if you prefer Disqus, come on over to our site. If you don’t mind the Google+ integration that’s an option for you too. Wherever you find yourself, we look forward to engaging with all of you in as substantive a discussion as that platform enables.