In September of 2016, YouTube unveiled their very controversial— I mean “914,000 thumbs down” controversial— program known as “YouTube Heroes.” Essentially, this is the video streaming giant’s latest attempt to crowdsource the bulk of its labour onto us, the users. This lets them eliminate unskilled data entry and moderation jobs en masse by relying on the “heroic” qualities of its user base to “make YouTube better for everyone!” Anyone who has spent a single minute reading YouTube comments knows that this is a risky proposition.
Despite the continually toxic attitude of the site’s userbase, YouTube Heroes is an awful idea in its own right. The service will let users accumulate “points” and “levels” by completing monotonous moderation tasks such as flagging inappropriate content, transcribing subtitles or populating the site’s forums with helpful tips. This strategy of “gamification”—a marketing buzzword that describes the process of attaching points to workplace activity and accomplishments—isn’t new and it’s bullshit; and it’s not just me saying that! In 2011 game designer Ian Bogost famously published “Gamification is Bullshit” in The Atlantic claiming that gamification “gets games wrong, mistaking incidental properties like points and levels for primary features like interactions with behavioral complexity.” As someone who loves video games this seems obvious, but for YouTube’s brilliant and instrumentally minded executive staff I feel that Bogost’s assertion was not seriously considered.
Sure, it sounds pretty cool to get “points” for helping to build a strong community on YouTube, but who benefits from this work? Ultimately, it’s the same people that always do—the confounded owners of the means of production, comrades— and now it doesn’t even cost them a dime. More importantly, who experiences negative consequences as a result of your eagerness to flag? Simple! The people who already make their living on YouTube. Here I’m referring to both the decentralized and outsourced support staff, working far longer hours for far less pay than you or I, and also to the creative individuals and groups that pour their blood, sweat and bandwidth into their videos for us to enjoy.
If eager little “heroes” have a gamified incentive to flag and demonetize videos en masse—just wait until you unlock the “mass flag” tool at level 3—it will ultimately be the creators who suffer. Famous vlogger Boogie2988 has already claimed that he has been stripped of compensation for discussing the difficult topic of addiction because it was not deemed “advertiser friendly.” Similar cases sprout up related to very important topics like sexual violence and racism. This process will only get worse once a horde of spiteful ten-year-olds take the reins. Since it is an open and accessible medium—dare I say “democratic”—YouTube is the exact type of place you would expect to see spirited individuals discussing what they love, what they hate, and what they hope. If these individuals are willing to spend hours upon hours doing this creative labour for us, I believe they should be making a living with as few hiccups as possible.
YouTube Heroes is one massive hiccup. It borders on a full on belch; mistaking the creatively fulfilling practice of connecting with an audience, exposing your vulnerabilities to the world, and trying to lighten someone’s day for the same lifeless drudgery we all head to YouTube to avoid thinking about.