YouTube’s comments section, that notorious bastion of hostility toward women, people of color, rational thought, empathy, and the English language, is finally getting a makeover. In a series of sweeping changes that begin rolling out today, the space below YouTube videos will transform to what Google is calling "conversations that matter to you." But they will also be tied to the commenter’s Google+ account — a step that could alienate users even as it promises to supply the social network with timely new content.
Beginning this week, the new design will start appearing on the discussions tab for existing channels. The goal for comments, say YouTube's product designers: relevance, not recency. Before now, comments appeared on YouTube in reverse chronological order, with the most recent posts appearing at the top of the feed. The result is a largely undifferentiated stack of comments that often displays the internet hive mind at its worst. On popular videos, comment threads stretch into the thousands, and getting through all of them is practically impossible. "We’ve always been excited about the opportunity that comments give us," says Nundu Janakiram, a YouTube product manager, in an interview with The Verge. "We also know we have a lot of room for improvement."
Where good discussions are buried under bad ones
Janakiram insists YouTube hosts plenty of great discussions — it’s just that they often get buried under the bad ones. The new design works to surface smarter and more interesting discussions, bringing to the top any posts from the video’s creator, people in your Google+ circles, and what the site calls "popular personalities." YouTube will also highlight more active conversations inside the comments and thread them for easier reading, as in Gmail. And if you’re a glutton for punishment, the firehose is still available — just click "all comments" on a drop-down menu where the discussion begins.
A difficult problem
So why did it take YouTube so long to try fixing comments? Janakiram says it took time to develop discussions that are truly personalized. "This is a very complex problem," he says. "Trying to surface meaningful conversations is something that takes work." It also took lots of testing as the company worked to understand which posts users found meaningful. They used both existing signals, like upvotes and downvotes, and new ones, like the level of engagement in threaded conversations.
It’s also the case that Google couldn’t attempt to personalize the comment feed until it knew who was commenting — and that wasn’t really possible until Google+, which brought a unified identity to all of Google. Before the social network launched in June 2011, users had different logins for different Google services. You’d have one identity on YouTube, another on Gmail, and another on Blogger. The company could have enabled logins through another social network, like Facebook or Twitter, but that would hand some of Google’s most valuable data to its rivals. Google+ was conceived as a layer of social interaction that spans the company’s entire range of products, for better and for worse. The new design for YouTube comments shows that mission in action.
Surfacing meaningful conversations
If the new design works as planned, YouTube comments will lead to better discussions that are personalized to individual users, the company says. "At a high level, what we’re trying to do is to surface meaningful conversations for a particular viewer," Janakiram says. That means that if you’re logged into YouTube, the comments you see may be very different than the comments another person sees. If your friends are discussing a particular video, the comment feed could feel compelling in a way it hasn’t before.
Clamoring for change
Video creators have lobbied YouTube to fix its comments for years. Benny and Rafi Fine, whose popular "Kids React" and "Teens React" videos have helped them accumulate more than 500 million views, started asking YouTube for help almost three years ago. They found that their videos, which often involve minors expressing strong opinions, generated torrents of hatred in the comments. "It has forced a huge part of our company to be dedicated to curbing hate-filled, bullying comments for far too long," the brothers wrote in an email to The Verge. They say they are cautiously optimistic that the changes will improve discussions.
But YouTube risks alienating some users by requiring them to use their Google+ identity to comment on the site. The move has been more than a year in the making; in June 2012, Google began asking YouTube users to switch their usernames to their Google+ handles, part of a relentless push to herd users onto the social network. With the change, users can now choose to post their YouTube comments to Google+. It’s a creative way of supplying Google+ with fresh content — YouTube draws comments by the millions. Still, it may upset people who preferred to comment anonymously. (Google says you can still comment on YouTube using a pseudonym, if you use one when you create a Google+ account.)
Jordan Maron, who makes gaming videos under the name Captain Sparklez and has attracted more than 1 billion views, says he expects a backlash to the news that commenting will require a Google+ account. But he says he welcomes the move in the hopes that it will cut down on the number of spammers who use the comments section of his videos to advertise their videos and products. "The only people who will be truly upset at the new system into the distant future will be the people who were abusing the current one," he says.
It may upset people who preferred to comment anonymously
The redesign won’t come to all videos until later this year. For now, you will start seeing them in the discussion tab of video creators who have linked their accounts to Google+ and enabled discussions on their channel page. (You can see the discussion tab for Machinima, a popular YouTube channel focused on gaming, here.) Meanwhile, Google will be tweaking the new ranking algorithm that decides which comments appear in your feed.
It’s a radical change for one of the most visited sites on the internet, and it might well reduce the number of comments on YouTube. But it might also make the comments YouTube does receive better — and for anyone who has spent any time reading them, that’s welcome news.