Google is finally rolling out new tools for cleaning up one of the worst places ever to exist online—the YouTube comments section—and all we can say is: It’s about time.
Recently, so many online citizens, pundits, and publications (including WIRED) have called on internet companies to address rampant harassment on their platforms. And with YouTube, Google is the latest to heed the call.
In the spring, Reddit introduced a new blocking tool for users. Then Microsoft launched tools for reporting hate speech online. And Instagram unveiled a way for users to be able to automatically block comments if they include certain abusive words.
The big holdout is Twitter. The company has been consistently criticized for its failure to address harassment, and dozens of high-profile users have left the platform. But although Twitter has made some changes, including a quality filter and a new way to limit notifications, it hasn’t been enough. And last month, both Salesforce and Disney—two companies that were reportedly vetting whether Twitter would be a good acquisition—reportedly declined because of concerns about bullying and other abusive behavior on the network.
Courtney Lessard, a YouTube product manager, says that YouTube new tools are designed to give video creators new ways of shaping the tone of conversations on the service. Video creators will be able to pin comments to the top of video feeds—which can bury comments from trolls—and they can show appreciation for their favorite comments by marking them with heart symbols. When creators comment on their channel, their usernames will be highlighted with an extra-bright color, so that viewers can easily tell the note is coming from them. The video platform has already implemented word blacklisting, user blocking, and the ability for creators to hold all new comments for their review since 2013.
James Grimmelmann, a professor of law who studies social networks and online communities at Cornell University, questions whether Google’s moves are enough. “A lot of these are subtle design nudges,” Grimmelmann says. He believes they could “help set a better tone for comments sections by making the things users see more positive,” but he also points out that these tools don’t address the big problems of harassment or brigading on YouTube. Yes, they could help with channels that aren’t under active attack—but what about those that are? “The big challenge is that YouTube comments have been a sea of laziness and meh for so long that they’re a punchline,” Grimmelmann says.
But Nathan Matias, a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, as a more positive outlook on YouTube’s changes. He says one idea could be to use pinned comments listing rules for a channel at the top of a comments section. Matias, who has extensively studied online communities on Reddit, says his research shows that newcomer commenters were more likely to both participate and follow the rules when a pinned comment existed atop a forum. The changes can “shape people’s beliefs about what other people find acceptable or unacceptable,” Matias says. “For YouTubers who invest time in moderating comments, this may give them more time to focus” on troublemakers who pointedly want to break the rules, Matias says.
Whatever the longterm effect of its changes, YouTube is trying move the needle toward a more productive comments section. At the very least, the new tools can’t hurt—and the company says it will unveil more in the coming months.
Update 11/03/2016 3:30 PM ET: Updated with additional comments from Nathan Matias.