If YouTube comments stink, and they do, then YouTube live stream chats are positively radioactive in their toxicity. You can pick the most innocent of topics, like say kittens napping in a wicker basket on a sunny day, and it won’t take you long to find a prodigiously persistent troll spamming the chat with Nazi insignia, racist abuse, or anything else designed to shock and offend the greatest number of people. So yes, YouTube chats need a remedy, but Google’s Super Chat idea is the worst possible solution to the problem.
What is a Super Chat? It’s a method to amplify the visibility of your chat message on a live stream by making it larger, giving it some color, and pinning it atop the chat window for a period of time. Oh, and it costs you money. That’s right, in Google’s vision of the future, you get the special privilege of paying to be noticed.
Got something clever to say? Better shake out a few shekels from your coin purse to make sure your fellow viewers note and appreciate your incisive wit. Want your favorite YouTuber to know you’re supporting them in their artistic endeavors? Pay up and they will feel the warm glow of your appreciation.
During its big Google I/O keynote this week, Google highlighted Super Chats in a lengthy segment built around the Slo Mo Guys, a YouTube duo with a penchant for recording things in super slow-motion. The Google presenter paid $500 for a Super Chat, which not only made her message big and bold, but it also triggered a horn that signaled to a group surrounding the Slo Mo Guys to pelt them with a bunch of water balloons. Now, I’m only academically familiar with live porn cams, but isn’t this practically their entire business model? When you pay to have another person perform your twisted little fantasies, the end result is usually a loss of dignity on all sides.
Google’s I/O update for paid chats is the introduction of the Super Chat API, which lets creators script events in the real world that are triggered by the purchase of a Super Chat. It could be the sdtudio lights turning on or off, a drone being launched, or, as in the example above, a loud horn blasting an alert.
The vectors for abuse and deleterious effects with something like Super Chats are simply too numerous. It allows trolls to automate the process of harassing a streamer by just buying a Super Chat and leaving an abusive message pinned. (Google has some spam blocking mechanisms, but no amount of word filtering will completely circumvent things like, say, an ASCII representation of a middle finger). And even when the intent might not be malevolent, the whole "pay the monkey on screen to dance" thing is just distasteful and exploitative.
As with most live streaming things, Twitch is ahead of YouTube on this. You can already pay money to Twitch for animated "cheers," which direct some of the revenue toward the streamers you follow. Or, if you want more prominence for your comment à la Super Chat, you can also donate money and have your comment displayed on an overlay of the stream. The underlying premise, both for Twitch and YouTube, is that you’re supporting the creators of your favorite online content.
YouTube, however, is fundamentally different from Twitch. It is vastly larger and more influential, and its users are not a monoculture of gamers and gaming fans. People do a much wider range of things on camera for YouTube, which makes them more vulnerable to being abused or taken advantage of.
The practical implications of putting the Super Chat monetary mechanics in place are that the relatively better off will be able to dictate what the relatively worse off will do for them. As with most popularity contests, what’s likely to happen with paid chats of this kind is a race to the bottom among creators looking to do more extreme and shocking things to earn a higher Super Chat income. "Super Chat me $100, and I’ll eat rotten food. $200 and I’ll do dessert as well." "Hey, I’ll drink stale milk for $20." "What about me? I’ll eat an entire onion for five bucks."
And what does the existence of Super Chat say to people without the disposable income to spend on manipulating YouTube streams? That their voices don’t matter? Only the wealthy will be able to speak with the added volume of color and a pin. That’s a dangerous cultural message to be promoting among impressionable young people, who make up a large chunk of YouTube’s audience, even if the intended users of this particular feature are an older crowd.
YouTube is a pretty cool place, but the way many of us act on it is far from cool. To improve human communication on a social platform like YouTube, Google needs to craft intelligent social engineering structures that foster a spirit of community and solidarity — and last year’s YouTube Community is a venture in precisely that direction. YouTube creators also deserve to be paid for their effort, absolutely.
But this Super Chat abomination? It’s as ill-conceived as 2016’s abortive Google Spaces, but I see it as more pernicious because there’s a danger of people actually using Super Chats.
Photography by Vlad Savov