Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Wonderful World of Youtube

By Hans-Bernd Schäfer

Since 2005 you can download videos in the internet about almost everything and almost everybody and you can exchange views about them with other viewers around the world. Whatever your taste might be you find some people in the world to communicate with and share views about the uploaded video. This is really a big leap in communication, so it sounds. But there are clear signs, that youtube gets captured by intolerant users. And the youtube rules support this trend. Rule 1: Everybody who uploads a video can delete any comment. Rule2: Users can thumb down a comment as spam. And the content gets deleted after several users have marked it.

Make a try. Go to any youtube movie which attracts extremists. The “Original Panzerlied”, a German march song from World War II is a good example. Most of the posted comments are from neo-Nazis or an extreme rightist scene. That is what you expect? You should not because the youtube rules are so democratic, that comments get deleted if several users declare it as spam. Consequently you should not find such comments because for every neo-Nazi there should be at least around 10 others who report the comment as spam. Why does this not happen? Perhaps only extremists listen to old military music, undisturbed by anyone else. Youtube provides hundreds if not thousands of warm places for such extremists. You also find relatively few critical comments about these videos. Again the reason might be self selection. Only neo-Nazis themselves view and comment these videos. But it is equally possible that the person who uploaded the movie has deleted comments he did not like.

Make another try. Go to Wagner music in youtube. Siegfried’s funeral march is a good example. Here we have a different audience and a different set of comments. Music lovers, Wagner worshipers and again neo-Nazis come up with their praise of Wagner music, albeit for different reasons. But again the neo-Nazis texts are seldom eliminated. Why not? Probably because many users simply do not care or they believe they do not have a right to censorship or because it is simply too laborious to press two buttons. The rule that several uncoordinated censors can trigger a mechanism to delete a hate comment is ineffective. Some people might say that this is not so bad. Each comment can be read and speaks for or against itself. Most users of youtube are tolerant or disinterested enough not to censor extreme views.

Now comes the crucial observation. Make again another try. Post a critical comment about Siegfried’s funeral march in youtube. As long as you write something like “the tempo could be “Largo” rather than “Grave”” you are on the safe side. This might even trigger a debate and you can pride yourself with having written an upstream comment. But if you post a factual but critical and dismissive comment you get lost. Many Wagner fans around the world have been intolerant since Wagner music exists. A hundred years ago Wagnerianers had no problem with denouncing Brahms music as contradictory and Mendelssohn Bartholdy music as shallow. But if somebody criticized their master he had to be prepared that a fan gave him a hit on his head with his violin. This attitude still persists with the hard core Wagner fans. They report your comment as spam and it gets deleted. What kind of check youtube makes –if any- after it receives several spam reports remains obscure. Probably it is an automatic and programme generated decision.

These are only two examples, but such a self selection mechanism works for many topics in politics, literature, the arts or show business. A few intolerant people can agonise many other users in a group of commentators.
If you upload a video in youtube, you can censor any comment. Politicians can upload their videos and silence their critics. The latter is not likely to happen, as it becomes public and spoils the politician’s reputation. But newspapers did report such a case in the USA.

And this is what I see as a danger. Youtube gets kidnapped by people with high stakes or extreme convictions combined with low tolerance. They capture the comment spaces and delete comments they dislike. Thus youtube creates circles of like-minded and intolerant people. This is the opposite of a discourse. At the end of the day you might find thousands of fractured and like-minded communities, whose most intolerant members have kicked out all those who do not share their views.

This is mildly speaking a case of unintended consequences of a rule. It must be abolished. This does not guarantee a big change to the better as this problem has been observed for chat rooms before. But currently youtube rules support and subsidize the most intolerant of its users.

1 comment:

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