YouTube – online video competence and flawed social software


There have been changes to YouTube since I wrote this. Commenters now have icons next to their name, giving them some investment in their handles. Pagination is gone. But the signal to noise ratio, while improved somewhat, remains low.

It's quite easy to describe the basic idea behind YouTube: a site where people can search for, and view, videos online, with social software added on as an afterthought. The latter allows users to comment on videos and rate them, as well as rating the comments attached. YouTube streams the video quite competently, unto which I have no complaints. There is a wide range of films and animations from which to choose. But the social software component is utterly flawed. Here's two personal annoyances of mine:

  • YouTube allows users to search for videos, but does not filter the results by their rating. The absence of this feature is perplexing, because implementing it seems fairly trivial – as trivial as adding an "ORDER BY" clause to the relative database queries. But absent this feature is, with expected results: users don't get the videos they want. They may be searching for videos on "tigers", and expecting a David Attenborough documentary; what they get is a flick assembled by some 14-year old from Topeka, consisting of 50 still shots of tigers each of 5 second duration, set to the soundtrack from some third player shooter game. It may be downvoted to hell and perdition, but it still appears in the bloody search results.
  • There are no real mechanisms in place to improve YouTube comments, which are among the most stupid on the Internet. A friend of mine reckons they are the most stupid. He encountered a children's animation on the site – G-rated content, as you'd expect – which was a favorite of his in his childhood. Alas, below the video raged a flame war instigated by two commenters – throwing c-words at each other like a Guy Ritchie film – because they disagreed about some trivial attribute of one of the minor characters. Moderation exists, but it's like emptying an ocean with a pipette, and there are no self-regulatory tools besides downvoting each other's comments. 

Leigh Sales beats Tony Abbott with the truth
YouTube. Choice of video has no connection to author's political opinions. Not at all. Nu-uh.

It's almost too easy to tick YouTube against the "Four Things to Design For [Social Software]" outlined by Clay Shirky, and find the site failing on each of them.

  • Handles the user can invest in: none. Users have handles consisting of lower case letters with numbers but no spaces – like a log in name for an operating system – rather than the real names people have. For example, I am on it as "peterkmurphy" rather than "Peter Murphy". There are no Gravatars, which would make one more easily identifiable, nor any concept of Karma or brownie points. There are no penalties for switching handles, because no-one would notice if one did. It doesn't help that the font size is small; it makes it hard to notice individual users. The only additional identifiers are up-votes for that particular comment, rather than the user's comments as a whole.
  • Design a way for there to be members in good standing: shouldn't people who create or upload videos automatically be given a higher "social standing"? Should there not be special signs or chevrons identifying them, or user names in special fonts larger than the 11px default? One can look up their videos easily enough, but it would be nice to have extra signifiers in the attached comments.
  • Barriers to participation: There are some barriers to participation for video uploaders; it costs extra money to upload anything beyond 10 minutes. But there is no barrier to new users coming on to the site. All one needs to do is get a new Gmail account. YouTube is owned by Google, and the company wants to integrate all of its assets using the same account system. So trolls can come and leave with impunity.
  • Spare the group from scale: there are too many comments for two-way conversation, so the tidbits users leave behind are ignored. It doesn't help that YouTube paginates comments, so someone could write something, and in five minutes their words appear on page 3, thereafter to reside in obscurity. Users could be alerted if someone up-votes their comment, but that's not exactly a conversation.

The sad thing is that the Clay Skirky wrote the piece in 2003, and he was a fairly notable character in web development circles. The first iteration of YouTube was in 2005. It would have been nice if someone had notified the inventors of the article.

I like YouTube. I was writing this to Hüsker's New Day Rising album streamed from there. Yesterday, I watched the whole of Running Man on the site - split into seven parts and streamed from there. (The Paul Verhoeven original, not the new redundant remake.) But the social software component sucks.


Currently unrated