YouTube as Conversational Space

As a conversational space, to use NYU Professor Clay Shirky’s coinage, YouTube is often a disaster. Shirky himself has used the example of “Charlie bit my finger – again !” to demonstrate this disaster in action. “Charlie”, which has received an astonishing (and growing) 380 million views (the final episode of MASH, by contrast, got a paltry 50 million), has a virtually unreadable comments section; of the 600,000+ comments, what isn’t spam is either inane (“Charlie is so cute!”) or generally unintelligible vulgarity (“this video sucks”).

Based on “Charlie”, one could be forgiven for seeing YouTube as a hopeless space for facilitating meaningful conversation. Fortunately, “Charlie” is in fact an exceptional case: few videos get that many views, or even close to it, and while the video is entertaining, there is not much intellectual space for users to contribute in the comments. “Charlie” the video is too simple and “Charlie” the space is too crowded to maintain any sort of interesting momentum in the comments below.

Even so, the YouTube comment system is turning out to be something new that cannot be modeled as a traditional conversation. It may be more fruitful to study it as a feedback system instead. Most of the time, conversation on YouTube is not happening, in the sense of a coherent written back-and-forth among a group of commenters. YouTube’s specific commenting features, considered below, actually make conversation in this sense virtually impossible, so that even a small group of well-meaning, mature, and amiable commenters will have trouble carrying a real conversation. But as we’ll see, what emerges instead can be fascinating.

The YouTube commenting interface is straightforward: each video gets its own page, with the video itself dead center. Around the video is basic metadata (title, description, uploader handle). Below, towards the bottom of the page, are user comments on the video. There is a single thread in the comments: the video. YouTube has a basic crowd-sourced feedback system: users can vote up or down (i.e. Like or Dislike) both videos and comments. If there are enough positive votes on a comment, it becomes a “Top Comment”, and appears prominently above all other comments (even above the new comment form). Uploader comments have an especially elevated status: they always appear at the top. With enough negative votes, a comment is suppressed: it is hidden by default, and requires an additional click to read.

In addition to the interface itself, YouTube’s commenting system has some unique features that distinguish it as a forum.

1) YouTube is an anonymous forum. True, usernames are probably tracked by Google, but in the context of an actual discussion, the identities of the commenters among themselves is by default unknown. The only real hints to most commenters’ identities are the videos they choose to watch and what they write, which can be fairly substantive.

2) YouTube comments are uncensored. There seem to be no designated moderators (at least not public ones) appointed by YouTube/Google. Uploaders themselves have only one moderation option: Off. Any and all comments are allowed, or no comments at all. Other than that, comment moderation is completely user-driven, based on the simple Like/Dislike voting system, where each user gets one vote.

3) YouTube comments are always organized around a specific video. There is no other comment taxonomy, such as forums or threads. Comments are always supposed to be about The Video, and they generally are, or are quickly voted down by other users. This structure, together with the anonymous nature of the forum, keeps the video itself as the focus of conversation.

4) The ability to vote on individual comments creates a secondary feedback system (feedback on the feedback), and has a marked effect on how comments are constructed. As mentioned above, with enough Likes, a comment can be raised up to “Top Comment” status, making it much more prominent than those left at the bottom. This usually has the immediate layout effect of ripping a popular comment out of context and putting it onto a pedestal (a transfer that can be highly disruptive to what would have been a conversation).

It also creates a new incentive structure. Comments want to be read, and since being promoted to Top Comment results in many more readings, comments on YouTube want to be Liked as a result. Instead of the “rat race” of actual conversation, the commenter aims for the Top by trying to one-up other commenters by writing the funniest, wittiest, or most insightful comment – a pressure cooker of artificial selection. The end result is that Top Comments are typically pithy and quotable, like sound bites, constructed to solicit immediate positive feedback from other anonymous visitors. At its best, what replaces conversation is a feedback space full of sharp one-liners annotating the video: a pure meritocracy.

5) The scale of the YouTube landscape is vast, and growing rapidly. According to YouTube’s official blog, “more than 48 hours (two days worth) of video are uploaded to the site every minute” (over 4 million minutes of video per day). A related, and even more important, number is the quantity of videos: the diversity of subjects, styles, and qualities, each with the potential to foster a unique discussion. That number was not released, but assuming a long-ish 5 minutes per video, about 13,000 videos are uploaded every day. YouTube also has a massive audience up to the task of watching all this stuff: the site receives 3 billion video views daily (ibid). That means that, over a period of a year, YouTube handles over 1,000 trillion views. These incredible numbers have increased 100% and 50% since last year, respectively, and are likely to continue to increase.

Taking these features together, we begin to see each YouTube video as a bit like an island with a port, full of strangers, surrounded by open sea. Islands are of many different sizes. Commenters and Likers are drifters and vagrants: sailors who travel from port to port, briefly visiting and moving on, rather than settling down. At each port, The Video is the island’s shrine which centers all discussion. Some islands are friendlier than others (usually based on the tone of the shrine). When an island becomes hostile (or boring), a visitor can simply raise anchor and sail away, perhaps to visit another day. There are, from the sailor’s perspective, endless islands to see next.

The key question then is, how active is YouTube’s feedback space? How many viewers are also participants, leaving some sort of feedback? The video “Hit the road Jack!”, featuring Ray Charles performing live, is well-known, well-liked, and mainstream, making it a reasonable benchmark. “Hit the road Jack!” has been viewed over 30 million times, and Liked by users over 100,000 times [1]. So in this case, 0.333% of YouTube viewers had accounts, were logged in, and voted on the video. In lieu of hard numbers, a reasonable low-ball estimate is that 0.3% of viewers participate by giving their feedback (this turns out to be a fairly consistent ratio of votes to views).

Well, 0.3% of 1,000 trillion views is 3 billion votes per year. “Hit the Road, Jack!” also has over 20,000 comments. Visitors may post multiple comments (but not multiple votes), so let’s assume 10,000 actual participants. That is one tenth of the voter population, or about 0.04% of the viewer population. This much smaller number still implies 300 million comments per year on YouTube. To put this in perspective, Amazon claims 10 million product reviews, total [source].

Possibly the most significant feature of YouTube’s numbers is the statistical distribution of views, which has not yet been released by Google. The most watched video on YouTube history is “Justin Bieber – Baby ft. Ludacris”, with over 630 million views and rising. This may seem like a large number, but it is dwarfed by the 1,000 trillion views distributed across less popular videos. In fact, “Baby” has received less than 0.1% of the total YouTube view share, demonstrating that on YouTube, big ratings and tiny share are not mutually exclusive, a feature that is characteristic of a Long Tail system.

The relative handful of behemoths like “Charlie” and “Baby” cannot compete with the sum total of thousands of videos with a million views each, or tens of thousands of videos with 100 thousand views each, etc*. Those videos comprise the smaller scale multitude; the nooks and crannies of YouTube; the shadows. And participation has a much better chance in the shadows. “Charlie” and “Baby” are tough places to have a discussion, but with “only” 190,000 views, a geology animation called “650 Million Years in 1 Min and 20 Sec” might not be. The video itself has 430+ Likes (~ 0.2% participation rate), and with 700+ comments, a fairly lively and on topic discussion of tectonic plates, the future of earth, and yes, religion. Since the video predicts where the continents will be in 150 million years, there is some humor, like “ZOMG, we’ll all´╗┐ be neighbors. 8’D” (by iDinoroars).

As YouTube, one of the fastest and most successfully scaling websites in history, continues to inflate, the number of participants represented by the 0.3% will grow with it. And as the viewer base becomes savvier, the 0.3% participation rate has a good chance of growing as well, perhaps to 3%, perhaps to 93%.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless parade of both videos and participants is creating a rich and diverse feedback space, constantly growing and evolving, especially in the shadows.

UPDATE: added on 11/6/2011

I would be remiss if I did not address the so-called problem of trolls on YouTube. The answer is that because the YouTube forums are completely driven, and managed, by the user base of YouTube, which includes, well, anyone who feels like commenting, since there are few barriers to entry. In any case, trolls are treated in various ways: they may be isolated with down votes on their comments, ignored, or actually, in not-so-rare cases, voted up by others, if the comment is witty or amusing enough.

A Curtis Mayfield music video has 3,365 likes and 44 dislikes. That’s a 98.7% Like voting rate, virtually unanimous by internet standards. The 44 dislikes may be genuine dislikes, or merely trolling (ensuring things are never quite unanimous). Either way, even if every one of the dislikes were trolls (which I doubt), that leaves 1.3% of the vote. Not much. My reasoning is that even the worst trolls probably don’t click “Like” on videos, and if they do, that could be because they actually like the video.

Anyway, 98.7% is nothing (Sorry, Curtis). Neither is 98.52% (“Andy Williams – Moon River 1960’s performance”), or 98.99% (“Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive [Version 1] (Video)”). And forget about “Tallest Man – Guinness World Record”, with a measly 94.36% vote up rate.

“Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine” has 87,506 likes, and 679 dislikes. That’s 99.23% of voters who agree that they like this video (I’m one of them). That 0.77% almost seems like noise – the video seems impossible to dislike, just from the numbers. Interestingly, the comments seem surprisingly trollish, perhaps a reaction to the near unanimous approval the video has. There are videos with 100% Like rates, but typically they need to stay under a certain view threshold.

One other related observation: reading the comments, there’s often a “NN dislikes” meme. That is, many of the comments are responses to how many dislikes there are. It usually is a variation on the video itself. A contrived example might be “42 people think the world is flat.” This may be of interest since it seems to be almost a kind of double vote. “Not only do I like this video, I’m going to call out people who didn’t like it!” The “NN Dislikes” meme seems to be popular, based on the number of likes the comment usually gets.

–Daniel Tsadok

* I strongly suspect that YouTube videos follow a Power Law distribution for number of views, but I don’t have numbers to back that up (yet).

UPDATE: I changed the title from “On the Feedback Shadows of Youtube” on October 23, 2011.
UPDATE: I changed the title from “YouTube, Disruptive YouTube” (ugh) on November 27, 2011.