On the 20th of September 2016, YouTube released a video to its official channel entitled Getting Started with YouTube Heroes, a guide to their newly launched community moderation programme of the same name. At the time of writing, that video is the 11th most ‘disliked’ in the site’s history, and the Heroes programme itself remains a point of controversy among content creators and the YouTube community.
In short, YouTube Heroes is a scheme whereby anyone who signs up is given basic moderation tools to perform tasks such as captioning videos or answering questions. As you use these tools you are awarded points, which allow you to ‘level up’ within the Heroes system, unlocking special perks such as the ability to mass flag videos for breaking community guidelines, or directly communicating with YouTube staff. The idea is to help make YouTube a safer, more accessible platform through mass participation, removing or drawing attention to content that is either infringing copyright or ‘inappropriate’. Nothing is intrinsically wrong about these intentions, and an effective change to address YouTube’s huge amount of unregulated content would be welcome, but the proposed Heroes system is fundamentally flawed.
Perhaps most noticeably, the Heroes programme provides YouTube with free labour through the ‘gamification’ of work, turning the laborious process of captioning and flagging content into a potentially addictive activity with points and levelling up. The minimum age you have to be to apply to become a Hero is 13, with a guardian’s permission, and using an unpaid 13-year-old to monitor graphic content by framing it as a competitive game seems morally dubious at best. While the idea of allowing the community to moderate itself initially appears like a noble gesture, letting the users control the environment they interact with, it is indicative of either greed or laziness on YouTube’s part. They are not encouraging freedom of expression, or handing control over to the masses. They are forcing the masses to do the work of paid employees without the effort or expense of hiring them or compensating them financially for their work.
IT IS INDICATIVE OF EITHER GREED OR LAZINESS ON YOUTUBE’S PART
The actual system of rewarding the Heroes is equally dubious, specifically the practice of doling out more points depending on how many videos you flag for breaking relatively vague community guidelines. Awarding censors with ever-increasing powers of censorship seems like an effective way of attracting the exact sort of people who should not be moderators. Suppression and censorship should not be seen as a reward, nor should it be treated as something than in and of itself deserves praise. Each individual’s definition of ‘hateful content’, ‘misleading descriptions’ or ‘sexual content’ can vary considerably. What’s to prevent groups of people from mass-flagging political or social content they disagree with? What’s to prevent these same people from mass flagging the videos of a content creator they dislike, many of whom rely on YouTube as their sole source of income? At best this will lead to an agonising waiting period as YouTube staff analyse each and every one of your videos to ensure they conform to the community guidelines. At worst it creates an atmosphere of fear, whereby content creators refuse to discuss controversial topics due to the threat of their livelihood being removed by an army of anonymous ‘Heroes’. It might not be a truly Orwellian threat that genuinely threatens the fabric of society, but it does stifle the atmosphere of free discussion and expression that a creative platform such as YouTube needs in order to thrive.
Suppression and censorship should not be seen as a reward
YouTube Heroes is a sign of YouTube wanting too much, and not being willing to put in the effort. They recognised that violent, sexual and offensive content permeates a platform that is trying to present itself as a socially acceptable, ad-friendly environment. They went on to refuse to play any active part in fixing that platform, and have implemented an easily exploitable system that rewards censorship, punishes free expression, and appears to have little or no repercussions for those who abuse it. YouTube needs better moderation, but it doesn’t need Heroes. They are neither the Heroes we deserve, nor the ones we need.