Elevating the Civility of Comments on YouTube

800 million unique users visit YouTube each month. In that time, they watch 4 billion hours of video, leaving over 100 million comments.

Looking at my YouTube history, most of the videos I watch are technical lectures on computer science, math, or programming topics, some lectures on philosophy, history, and politics, and a few documentaries here and there. And yet, even on these videos that would conceptually attract a more educated audience, you still get racist and sexist comments that with just a couple of sentences manage to produce a Pollock-like “masterpiece” of stupidity, hatred, and bad grammar. Here’s an example that (I think) blames the Jews for controlling the media:


This is pretty common on videos related in some way to the Israeli Palestine conflict, but really the content of the comment often has nothing to do with the content of the video. The video just has to be popular and it will attract the rare but bright exploding stars of anonymous hatred.

Another more subtle example is one I just yesterday saw in a top comment on an informative video from the Stanford Center for Internet and Society:

The comment starts with: “This is fucking ridiculous…” As of now, this comment has received 18 positive votes. This comment is a bigger problem in my mind than the racist and sexist comments, because hate gets downvoted on YouTube and so if you just read the top comments, you can safely avoid the moronic rantings of bigots from ruinng your faith in humanity. However the “This is fucking ridiculous” comment that gets upvoted is a sign that YouTube has developed a culture that lacks the basic civility of rational discussion. There are times when saying “fuck” works perfectly even when giving a speech to an auditorium full of PhD’s. I think people like Christopher Hitchens do it best:

But when used carelessly, language has the power to disrespect the reader to a degree where they are no longer interested in hearing the point you are making but are more interested in responding to the personal attack nature of the commentary.

Unfortunately, there are no good ideas on how to elevate civility on YouTube. You can’t enforce it from on high. Google is trying to get people to connect their real identity to their  YouTube accounts, but of course anyone who enjoys throwing up hateful or even just dismissive comments will not want to remove the mask of anonymity.

The only path to civility it seems is the hard one like with everything else in society: We have to make the change in our own life, and hope others follow our example. In the case of YouTube, that means leaving well-thought-out comments on videos without carelessly disrespecting the intelligence and viewpoints of others, and up-voting comments that do the same (even if you disagree with them). It takes effort to be blunt and yet respectful, but that’s the kind of effort that’s required for any kind of productive discourse. YouTube is a uniquely global stage on which we can exchange ideas, if only we exercise the patience required for the exchange to happen.

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