YouTube tries to fix its comments

YouTube is trying to fight trolls with a new comment system that surfaces relevant and personalized conversations.

Story highlights

  • YouTube is trying to fix its comments with a new system that ties all accounts to Google+
  • Video creators will have the power to block specific users and offensive words
  • Previously, the best fix when comments got out of control was to turn them off completely
  • The update will roll out in the coming months
YouTube comments are rough. They dabble in all forms of trolling, bullying, racism, sexism and other offensive -isms, interspersed with endless spurts of nonsensical chatter. Any thoughtful comments are typically lost in a roiling sea of "LOLs," insults and spam.
Thousands of these comments can follow a popular video, in order of when they were posted but with a handful of the most upvoted comments on top.
"If some of these comments were spray-painted on homes, buildings or at schools, there would be consequences. But online there are almost none," said Benny and Rafi Fine, the filmmakers behind the popular Fine Brothers YouTube channel.
Now YouTube has a new plan to pull its infamous comments out of the muck and make them more constructive and personalized.
"When it comes to the conversations happening on YouTube, recent does not necessarily mean relevant. So, comments will soon become conversations that matter to you," said the company in a blog post. "In the coming months, comments from people you care about will rise up where you can see them, while new tools will help video creators moderate conversations for welcome and unwelcome voices."
Since YouTube is a Google property, it will start by integrating its existing commenting system into Google+, the identification platform and social network Google has been tirelessly trying to make happen since 2011. YouTube commenters will now have to tie their current accounts to a Google+ account.
The first major difference is that relevant comments will now automatically float to the top. If the maker of a video posts something in the comments, or even just on their Google+ page, it will automatically be highlighted and placed right under the video. The new system also will automatically surface comments from popular personalities and quality threaded discussions.
"We're moving from comments to actual conversations," said YouTube product manager Nundu Janakiram, who compared the new nested comments to a conversation in Gmail.
YouTube also is using Google+ to customize what each person sees based on who their friends are and which other commenters they interact with the most. Conversations can be made private, so you and your three best friends can analyze the latest Beyoncé video on YouTube without anyone else seeing.
The site's final new weapon is a collection of powerful comment-screening tools for video creators. There are new filters that will automatically show comments from approved users or entire Google+ circles and never show comments from blocked users. Content creators can make a blacklist of any offending words or phrases they don't want appearing in comments under their videos, and all comments that dare use said words will be held for review.
"This new feature will allow us to prevent the disturbing comments from ever appearing versus having to moderate every single comment that comes in, so it has the potential to be a huge positive for our company," said the Fine Brothers.
Of course, the problem of nasty comments is not unique to YouTube. It can be found to differing degrees in any online commenting system, especially where there's anonymity.
Video creators say these types of comment controls are long overdue on all sharing and social media sites. Previously, if a YouTube thread got out of hand the best option was to turn off comments. But this can be especially tricky for children's content, such as the Fine Brothers' "Kids React" series.
"Cyberbullying and hate speech in the YouTube comments have been a major issue for far too long," said Benny and Rafi Fine. "Across nearly every video on the site involving race or young children, the uploader has always been pushed into a corner to have to turn comments off entirely or ... (screen them) to not let such horrible hatred come through."
While some commenters on websites are truly racist or sexist, others are "trolls" who say hateful things just to incite a reaction from others for their own amusement. YouTube recognizes that the new changes won't eliminate trolls completely because many people are more than willing to say horrible things under their real names, and anonymity is still an option in the new commenting system.
YouTube says the majority of YouTube commenter accounts are already linked to Google+ identities, which should minimize backlash. Anonymity is important for many YouTube users, such as political dissidents around the world who fear reprisals by their governments. To keep people protected, Google will not force them to post under their real names. And anyone can choose to continue posting under their current YouTube handle.
To test the waters, YouTube will roll out the commenting system on channel discussion pages this week. It will show up on all videos in the coming months. For anyone who prefers the current system, there's still an option to view all comments in chronological order.