Tech, Now + Beyond

Here’s the awful way Youtube’s taking advantage of people everywhere

But this isn't some upstart young tech startup run out of some guy's garage we're talking about here, this is a Google owned company.

Youtube has introduced a new program called “Youtube Heroes” which incentivizes users to perform tasks like add subtitles to videos and flag inappropriate content. The system is being presented as a kind of game, where certain jobs get your points and when you rise to another level you can do new things and get new perks. Most of these supposed perks are only vague statements, or promises like “direct contact with youtube staff” that will likely not be worth the work to get them.

Youtube has long had a moderation problem due to under staffing, and as a result it has notoriously horrible comment sections. With so much content going out it would be hard even for Google to hire enough people to keep track of it. Let’s not forget subtitles, which are an important feature that makes content easier for the hearing impaired and those who don’t speak English or other more dominant languages to engage with and enjoy. It’s work that needs doing, but there isn’t much incentive for Youtube creators, the vast vast majority of which make little to no money from their content, to write them themselves.

One problem that has been brought up by some more high profile Youtubers is how easily this power could be abused. There’s no system in place to stop trolls from joining the system to flag videos they don’t like en masse, or misusing the system just to make it more of a headache for Youtube. Granted, it’s already so easy to troll on Youtube with little to no protection in place for content makers, there probably won’t be a flood of harassment that’s different from what users already put up with. Heroes will be an easy program to abuse, but not in a way that’s new or different, and not in a way that’s particularly easier for stalkers than what they have available already. Anyone can flag a comment or video on Youtube as it is. But it is worrisome that Youtube Heroes wants to reward flagging content. An official employee will still need to confirm that the content needs to be flagged, but Heroes could gum up the works.

What Youtube wants here is for volunteers to do their busy work. Writing subtitles, flagging inappropriate videos, it’s all tedious grunt work that exists in massive volumes with no one to get it done. And if Youtube refuses to make it easier for creators to moderate their own comments (Twitch, WordPress, and other platforms allow channel owners to outsource comment moderators without giving up the full account information, unlike Youtube) at least they’re trying to figure out some way to get it done. It’s a messy, flawed plan that isn’t even that clearly defined by its own introduction video, but it’s a system.

But this isn’t some upstart young tech startup run out of some guy’s garage we’re talking about here, this is a Google owned company. Are vague non-perks the best they’re offering for people to do their job for them? If they’re not going to hire more full-time staff to get this work done, couldn’t they offer something more befitting compensation for labor? If not money, maybe if you do enough work, you get Youtube Red for free, or maybe you don’t have to see as many ads. I’m just spit balling here, I don’t know what is or is not possible, but I have a hard time believing a company with as much cash as Google really can’t do better than an invitation to some party that will probably be in California and probably won’t include travel or housing.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that Youtube gets a handle on its harassment problems. Content creators, especially the women and people of color who are most often the targets of cyber harassment, deserve support from the company that they make so much money for. But Youtube Heroes is convoluted (and likely ineffective) at best, and exploitative at worst. You can give us points and levels all you want, but labor isn’t a game and shouldn’t be treated as such.