Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

column

Fed up with feedback Add to ...

Not long ago, somebody on the Internet came up with the most fantastic invention: a little doodad that blocks out user comments on YouTube. "Trust me on this," wrote a shadowy someone in a forum, "without all the commenters, your YouTube experience will improve dramatically."

He was right: The effect was remarkable. It was like walking through streets with the litter magically removed, like breathing air with the pollution removed. Thank God, there's finally a way of getting the You out of YouTube.

The Internet is driven by commentary. The great innovation of Web 2.0 was "comments on everything." The defining requirement of a modern website is that there must be nothing on screen that wayward readers cannot leave their mark upon. Is it a photo? Then critique it! Is it a restaurant listing? Then rate it! Is it a YouTube video? Then spend a day dragging your knuckles around until you're in the right mindset, then come back and leave a comment.

It's hard to pick out examples that don't involve casual swearing.

On a music video set to images of the Manhattan Project: "Goddam right we nuked 'em! (PS) I have the deepest respect for most things Japanese."

On French president Nicolas Sarkozy's walking out of a 60 Minutes interview: "thats why France sucks and will always suck, Scumbag."

On a video called "Funny kittens do weird stuff": "OMFG!!!! Cats DO do the funnyest stuff!"

It's too easy. Making fun of YouTube comments is like shooting fish at the bottom of a barrel. But it gets at a question that, after all these years, still hasn't been pinned down: Why is it that user comments on so many parts of the Internet lead to worthwhile discussion, while on other pages, user comments provide anthropologists with heretofore unheard of access to life amongst the baboons?

Of course, the poorly adjusted have been haunting the Internet's discussion forums since the day someone connected two computers with a string and a pair of cans. They're called "trolls": people who go fishing for reaction by saying inflammatory things, or, by another definition, people who best belong under bridges. Trolls will be with us always, and on-line culture has slowly been learning to deal with them.

It takes a keen eye, a steady hand, and a great deal of patience. In discussion forums, moderators will use their powers to keep conversations on track, using a sliding scale of responses that range from asking nicely to removing offending comments to banning troublesome users altogether.

Tactics like this work in on-line communities, because even people who post under ridiculous pseudonyms care about their reputations. If "Lord Foppington" shoots his mouth off on his discussion board about Restoration drama, who's going to take him seriously next time?

Then there's the business of not making a fool of himself in front of Sir Courtly Nice (who's usually genial) and trying to impress vanbrugh1664. The vices of anonymity are oversold. Even in a faceless world of silly avatars, community standards keep people in check, because those silly avatars keep running into each other.

This is where we get into trouble with YouTube: It solicits viewer feedback, but with gazillions of people viewing gazillions of videos, it has all the community spirit of a packed shopping mall. Nobody recognizes anyone, and everyone's wandering everywhere, trying to avoid eye contact. Instead of additions to a conversation, commenters leave one-off remarks, or, at best, a one-off retort to someone else's one-off remark. The net effect is static.

Now, here's the funny thing about YouTube. This sense of entropic static doesn't apply to the whole site. There is such a thing as community on YouTube - you just have to dig for it. For instance, along with the cat photos and helicopter crashes, it hosts footage from a remarkable number of jazz performances.

Take a look at some, and see what you notice about the dialogue. After a ÖLenny Breau video, viewers are discussing his talent. "There are great geniuses in every genre of guitar, but lenny transcended genre," said omnidrone. "Indeed! Well said." replied geosochi. And on it went.

Now, you could chalk it up to demographics - Lenny Breau fans are probably more susceptible to punctuation than the kitten brigade - but also consider that jazz fans form a community of sorts, even if it's as simple as people who share a common interest.

It's a curious phenomenon: The less mainstream an on-line discussion, the more civil it seems to get. By contrast, the comment-on-everything mania promotes the notion that successful discussions can spontaneously happen anywhere, under any circumstances: on videos, on photos, on (cough) newspaper articles. It doesn't work that way. Discussion seldom flies without some kind of community to jell it together, a shared purpose to keep the parts in place.

When hordes of people are asked to spontaneously pitch in their two cents, the social dynamics that keep conversations on the rails are conspicuously absent. That's when a different set of dynamics kick in - and that's when I'm glad to have a filter that makes them go away altogether.

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories