When Google revealed that it was rebuilding YouTube for its new Daydream virtual reality initiative, I began wondering what would happen to one of the platform's notorious weak spots: the comments, often vitriolic or racist or generally incoherent, that cluster under videos. The answer, apparently, is that Google doesn't know.
"A lot of those things are still coming together, so I can't give you a concrete answer right now," Google's VR czar Clay Bavor told me. "I think we're learning a lot about what's interesting and what works in VR, and so certainly many of the familiar elements — I don't know that those all will be there." For a second opinion, I turned to YouTube product manager Kurt Wilms, whose response was just as noncommittal. "We're still working through exactly what we'll do related to comments," he said. "But we're trying to bring as much of the functionality that makes sense to interact [with] in this experience."
The first Daydream phones aren't coming out until this fall, so Google still has months to make a call on including comments. But it will be dealing with what is, at this point, a very familiar question: are comments worth saving? And if they are, what should they look like in an experience that encompasses the viewer's entire world?
VR platform creators are desperate to avoid unpleasant experiences
YouTube comments are notoriously bad, and fixing them has never seemed high on Google's priority list. But Daydream could change that. Like many VR platforms, its creators are desperate to create a welcoming environment for users. Web services are so entrenched that there's no real incentive to make things better: if you hate YouTube, you still probably can't avoid it. But if Google can't actively draw people into things like YouTube for Daydream, then Daydream — and possibly virtual reality itself — dies. That threat has already gotten Google to lock down specs for Android phones and curate Play Store apps in a way it's never done before, and it wouldn't be surprising to see it crack down on content as well.
The simplest answer would be to just kill the comment. VR is a rich, attention-focusing medium, so the ideal method of reading comments — scrolling for a few seconds to scan the occasional sentence for something interesting — no longer works in quite the same way. At the very least, comments would need to be hidden behind a menu, and even then Google's going to have to decide whether there's enough signal in there to justify putting the noise on full blast. Do you want to pause your fully immersive virtual travel experience to see someone rant about the international Jewish conspiracy?
But while I wouldn't exactly mourn the loss of YouTube comments, just doing away with them would feel like a missed opportunity to explore what online interactions should look like in VR. Right now, social VR overwhelmingly refers to live virtual meetings, whether that's a one-on-one call or a group event. There's very little of what we think of as social networking: posting communications that people can view and respond to at their leisure. And there's even less interaction with actual content inside VR, whether that's sharing it, commenting on it, or responding to it with your own work. Facebook announced a few months ago that it would add liking and sharing to videos in the Gear VR, but that's just a first step. Right now, we've got lots of virtual chat rooms and virtual TV channels, and not a whole lot in between.
Social VR right now is mostly about live communication
Oculus and Facebook are putting real effort into figuring out what kind of social interactions we can have in VR, and so are many independent companies. But Google is right in the middle of overhauling a massive platform that's ripe for experimentation. Nobody is in a better position to figure out how we can communicate with each other in VR, beyond mimicking face-to-face meetings. And Google's messaging service Allo, which it announced at I/O, is already leaning heavily into messages that rely on doodles and emoji — things that could translate well into VR — instead of pure text.
The catch, of course, is that virtual reality won't fix people. That requires a trial-and-error process of creating incentives for good behavior and moderating bad actors, something that online games are getting better at but social platforms either ignore or simply can't manage at a huge scale. And it's going to be a bigger deal than ever before in virtual reality, not because VR is more "realistic," but because we've still got a chance to decide what kind of spaces we want.
So far, the VR online community has mostly been small enough to patch problems when they crop up. But if Google has its way, Daydream will change that very quickly — and whoever builds the bones of the system will determine what grows out of it.