Netizens are lambasting YouTube for its new Google+-powered comments section, lifting the veil of anonymity that’s long shielded users and given the video platform a notorious reputation for its troll-friendly trove of rants.
Last week YouTube mandated users sign up for Google+, its social network, before commenting on a video, which links a YouTube account to an actual identity. The move touched off an outpouring of criticism, prompting a Change.org petition that’s collected more than 100,000 signatures in less than a week and a host of Reddit users to spam the Google products forum with more than 430,000 complaints. Even YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim questioned the policy on his page in the only other post visible besides his first video upload in 2005.
The new policy, which Google first announced in September, is aiming to turn the section into a conversation, a YouTube spokesperson tells TIME, ranking the comments according to “relevance” through up-votes and a user’s online profile. The strategy is likely a move to compete with Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, allowing Google+-connected comments to appear at the top of the unfiltered threads.
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The bulk of Google’s $50 billion in annual revenue still comes from search-related ads. Analysts estimate that YouTube on its own is now about a $4 billion business. But as Google builds up and diversifies the video-sharing site—it is pushing cable-like branded channels, for instance—the company has increasingly shown itself willing to experiment with the site’s fundamental parts. Integrating Google+ is not only an attempt to clean up comments, but also make parts of YouTube more search engine friendly.
Users can still control what’s visible to their Google+ profile, but the comments are nonetheless linked. With YouTube’s more than 800 million unique monthly users and 100 million people liking, sharing and commenting every week, the move is an obvious boon to Google’s social network that’s struggled to keep up with Facebook. Google has been relentless in its efforts to attract more users . Last month Google+ touted a 58% jump in users over recent months and 300 million monthly active users, but tech bloggers remain dubious about the credibility of those numbers since most of Google’s products are integrated with the platform.
Paul Colligan, author of YouTube Strategies: Making and Marketing Online Video, says the outrage over YouTube’s new policy is a waste of time. “They bet the farm on Google+ awhile ago,” he tells TIME, which means that it was inevitable that YouTube would eventually cement its connection the social media platform. In fact, YouTube began offering the option more than a year ago when a box appeared on the site urging users to link their YouTube account to Google. A lot of users clicked the box without realizing the implication. In fact, four out of five users had already connected their account prior to last week’s update, according to a YouTube spokesperson.
While the idea of promoting civil discourse by forcing accountability makes sense, it’s unlikely to happen. As Politico and TechCrunch have shown, powering a comments section through a social media platform—with users’ real-life identities—doesn’t do much for traffic. Both organizations reverted back to anonymous comments after experimenting with a Facebook-linked system. The strategy did little to foster better dialogue and even less to drive more comments. YouTube’s trolling may decrease, but it may come at great cost.
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Rather, Colligan thinks the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest will benefit from the backlash with users embedding video links on other platforms to circumvent the policy while still generating conversation. It’s too soon to tell how dramatic the policy’s impact will be, but a YouTube spokesperson says there’s always room for improvement.
However, it is unlikely Google would give up an opportunity to capture the massive YouTube audience. Colligan thinks the die has been cast. “There’s no going back,” he says. “And there can’t be.”