By now it should be exceedingly clear that YouTube has a YouTube problem. The platform has rules — well-thought-out ones, in fact — but the enforcers cannot seem to enforce them, because they’re either powerless or afraid of seeming biased according to the terms of a few bad actors acting in equally bad faith.
YouTube’s problems with moderation are how I found myself on the phone with Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, the founder of the notorious and notoriously influential blog and internet forum Something Awful. While he’s infamous online for a number of reasons, Kyanka’s opinions on moderation hold some weight, because he managed to tame what should have been an untameable community of the internet’s biggest weirdos and most prolific posters. The secret, he started to tell me, was threefold, involving administrators, mods, and a sense of humor. “You can tell a lot about somebody by their sense of humor,” he began — then paused. “And I just fell through a chair,” he said, laughing in that surprised way you do when something unfortunate but undeniably hilarious has happened to you. (Kyanka informed me that he had in fact fallen through the lawn chair he was sitting on.)
YouTube has been particularly bad about moderation lately. Earlier this month, Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, apologized to the LGBTQ community after the company didn’t take definitive action against the conservative YouTuber Steven Crowder, who had over the years been hurling a litany of homophobic slurs at Vox host Carlos Maza. (The Verge is a part of Vox Media, which owns Vox.) There was a massive outcry from everyone from creators to employees at Google itself, some of whom even signed a petition protesting YouTube’s decision.
Large internet platforms are only just starting to confront user-generated content at scale, because it’s only recently that advertisers have made it unprofitable for platforms to let their worst actors flaunt widely accepted social codes of conduct. But moderation is complex: for every Alex Jones YouTube bans, there are hundreds of others toeing the line of acceptable content according to the platform’s own rules. There’s just so much that’s borderline or open to interpretation because moderation, as a practice and art, is fundamentally subjective. Even posts that are within the letter of the rules can be grounds for a ban, for example, because of a user’s previous behavior.
There are, of course, ways to solve this problem. The first and easiest way is obviously to follow the rules, regardless of nuance. The second is to hire a competent moderating team and then empower them. That second way works in every case. And Kyanka proved it himself.
In the annals of internet history, few websites will be remembered quite like Something Awful. It is at once a home for the internet’s oddest citizens and one of the last bastions of the Old Web; it is a place that has claimed as its motto that “the internet makes you stupid” since its founding in 1999, and a place that you can reliably claim has loosed mere anarchy onto the world. Over the last two decades, Something Awful has massively transformed the way we interact online today — you can spot its influence in everything from memes (e.g. Slender Man) to the way people post online today (Weird Twitter). Something Awful was one of the (reluctant, inevitable) parents of internet culture.
Part of what made the site and its forums special was the moderation. They had all the usual rules — no doxxing or sustained harassment; no racism or discrimination — but it was their last rule that made the place innovative. “It ended with the catch-all where I just said, ‘Remember, we can ban you for any reason we like. So if something falls through the cracks here, we can still ban you for it,’” said Kyanka.
Kyanka knew there were edgelords who’d push against the stated limits and see how far they could get before being banned. In Kyanka’s recollection, one of those people was Moot, aka Chris Poole, who’d post anime girls on the forum. “I didn’t want to spend my entire day looking up anime and finding the age or supposed age of anime drawings,” Kyanka said. “I just said, ‘You know what? If it looks underage, it’s underage. Goodbye.’” (They eventually became 4chan.)
There was also the somewhat accidental discovery of a barrier to entry: every user who wants to post on Something Awful has to pay $10 to register an account, all because a user who kept getting banned and then registering new accounts to post things like triangles and magic 8 balls wouldn’t quit. “It was really funny, you know, seeing triangles and stuff, but we eventually had to ban triangle man,” said Kyanka. “I’m like, okay, fuck this. You know, I’m going to charge. If you want an account, PayPal me,” he said — and that got rid of him. If you don’t follow the rules, you lose money, which is a good way to prevent bad behavior. (As regards that bad behavior, however: it’s important to remember that there was a lot of distasteful stuff on the site. It was by no means perfect; the point is that Something Awful had its own rules that it actually enforced.)
Kyanka thinks YouTube is doing a “terrible” job of moderating their site. The way he sees it, there are three steps one should take to have a properly moderated site. The first is to have a good software platform that makes it easy for moderators to operate. The second is having a clear set of rules that everyone knows. The third piece, he says, is finding the right people for the job. The point is to make using the site as fair as possible. “Explaining why certain things happen,” he says, “but then also treating the crazy people as they deserve to be treated, which is poorly.” By that he means the people who can do real damage to your site.
“Those people need to have the proverbial heads on the pike around your site, so people know that they can’t get away with scamming people, they can’t get away with swatting people or things like that,” he says. You have to tell people what absolutely isn’t allowed. Kyanka does, however, acknowledge that with scale comes bigger problems. “It all depends on the quality of the mods, the quality of the users,” he said. “More users basically online makes more problems.”
At Something Awful, the mods were organically chosen by the administrators: they were part of the community, with the same sense of humor and priorities as the admins, but near and dear to the forum’s user base. “Because nobody knows your community better than the people who are in charge of cleaning up the community,” Kyanka told me. The mods should be the foundation of the community. Which means the site needs to have a real, firm identity. It can’t just be a play for engagement or advertising; you have to know what kind of person you want on your platform. “And hopefully, if that message is relayed properly, then it will be a much easier way to have moderators that actually do the job well and are transparent about it.”
And that’s a job for a human. Kyanka doesn’t think that any automated system can adequately police a community, because they all lack nuance. “It’ll be a while before AI can catch up to how stupid the human mind is. Because right now, it’s too smart,” he says. “But it needs to learn to be stupider.”
YouTube, for its part, does terminate a huge number of accounts for violating its policies — 2.8 million last quarter alone, according to a recent transparency report. “Our Community Guidelines apply to all creators equally and we terminate millions of accounts each quarter for repeatedly violating our policies,” a YouTube spokesperson said. In practice, however, creators often feel that the rules are selectively enforced.
Somewhere along the way, the internet lost its fear of mods. In the old days, the Something Awful days, users could be banned for anything at all. Mike Reed’s guide to Flame Warriors, an artifact from that time, accurately summarizes the types of people in a forum, and it’s perhaps best in its depiction of admins, the original mods: “Admin is the janitor, the cop, the mayor, the judge and sometimes even the forum doctor who tends to Warriors injured in battle,” Reed wrote. The person, in other words, who runs things. “Most Admins are generally fair and even handed, but the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely is as true on the internet as it is anywhere else, and it is a rare Admin who can resist bringing the hammer down if seriously pressed by a determined foe.”
That capriciousness has been lost. And a great deal has gone with it, namely the idea that a website is better off without its most annoying, rule-breaking users. YouTube’s Steven Crowder problem is emblematic of the larger problem with the site: it can’t seem to follow or enforce its own rules, or even figure out what kind of site it is or should be. Until that changes, YouTube will always be overrun by the worst people online. If you give them an inch, they’ll always take a mile.