Reading time: 7 minutes

Introduction

A month ago today, video content platform YouTube made an announcement. It caught many users off-guard and immediately caused a stir in the wider disability community.

YouTube’s announcement has big implications for creators and consumers, both those with and without disabilities. Yet none of their excuses are particularly convincing. Therefore my gut reaction is that YouTube aren’t really saying what they mean.

Loyal users are left wondering what YouTube’s real agenda is. On the surface, the platform’s decision appears to signal a breakdown in values. It undermines the foundations of a popular community based on collaboration and respect.

YouTube’s announcement

This is the announcement from YouTube:

Community contributions going away soon

Community contributions will be discontinued across all channels after September 28, 2020. Community contributions allowed viewers to add closed captions, subtitles, and title/descriptions to videos. This feature was rarely used and had problems with spam/abuse so we’re removing them to focus on other creator tools. You can still use your own captions, automatic captions, and third-party tools and services. You have until September 28, 2020 to publish your community contributions before they’re removed.

YouTube: Turn on & manage community contributions

The implications for content and community

YouTube’s definition of “community contributions” categorises them as secondary or ‘meta’ content, as opposed to the platform’s staples of video and comments. This meta content includes:

  1. Closed captions (text-based dialogue and sound effects, useful to those temporarily or permanently unable to hear)
  2. Subtitles (text-based translation, useful to speakers of a different language)
  3. Titles (useful to aid content discovery and filtering)
  4. Descriptions (useful to aid content discovery and filtering)

Interestingly, YouTube’s own definition of “community” includes anyone that uses the platform:

When you use YouTube, you join a community of people from all over the world.

YouTube’s Community Guidelines

This means that the community includes both viewers and creators – and makes little distinction between them. Yes, one “owns” the content. But both care about it. There’s active discussion about the content and when a viewer sees a way to improve the content, they make a contribution.

Therefore, the feature in question enriches both the content and the community:

  • It enriches content through visitor-contributed fixes for content accessibility, discovery and filtering.
  • It enriches the community by expanding the content’s potential audience.
  • And it enriches the community by allowing creators and viewers to collaborate in that process.

YouTube’s three arguments

According to YouTube, this feature, which enriches both content and community, is a liability because:

  1. It is rarely used
  2. It is open to abuse
  3. Maintaining it takes resources away from other features

I’ll review each of these arguments.

1. This feature was rarely used

YouTube’s first argument is that this feature was rarely used.

Change.org’s “Don’t remove community captions from YouTube” petition has almost 500,000 signatures. And this is only one of several petitions doing the rounds.

There are two main ways to interpret this huge number:

  1. There are tons of people who use this feature, love and appreciate it
  2. There are tons of people who don’t use this feature, yet appreciate that it exists because they know that others use, love and appreciate it

I’m sure that, in reality, there are appreciaters on both sides (I’m on the latter side). But, for argument’s sake, let’s put that huge number in perspective.

According to Statista, YouTube has 2 billion users worldwide. That’s 2,000,000,000 people.

That means that despite 500,000 being a huge number, only 0.025% of YouTube’s statistical user base actually care about this feature.

Or does it? What does “rarely used” mean anyway? Well, it could mean several things:

  • Not enough visitors contributed captions/subtitles/titles/descriptions
  • Not enough people watched the videos that used visitor-contributed captions/subtitles/titles/descriptions
  • Visitor-contributed captions/subtitles/titles/descriptions were less popular than owner or professionally authored captions/subtitles/titles/descriptions
  • Less videos with visitor-contributed captions/subtitles/titles/descriptions went viral, attracting less new users to the YouTube platform and thus representing less overall value
  • And so on

To be fair, I’m the one citing statistics, not YouTube. But the fact that they can ignore user’s pleas and the rapid growth of a ~500,000 signature petition speaks for itself. They clearly don’t warrant these kinds of statistical aberrations as cause for alarm in the first place.

Verdict: It’s not clear what “rarely”, “used”, or “rarely used” really mean.

2. This feature had problems with spam/abuse

YouTube’s second argument is that this feature had problems with spam/abuse.

An unmoderated system would give a visitor-contributor free rein to change a video’s title or embed advertising messages (or worse) in the closed captions and associated transcript.

However, YouTube already have a system to deal with this. It’s called moderation. Moderation is how they reduce spam and abuse in comments:

YouTube can hold potentially inappropriate comments for review in over 100 languages.

As you review comments, the system gets better at finding comments to hold for review.

If there are more words or phrases you want to hold for review, add them to your blocked words list.

YouTube: Learn about comment settings

The burden of moderation is shared between YouTube and content creators. Alternatively, all comments can be held for review by the creator, reducing their dependence on machines.

If this system works well enough for comments, why not use something similar for community contributions? Oh wait, they already do:

To prevent spam and abuse, we’ve turned off auto-publishing of community contributions. Learn how to review and publish contributions on your video.

YouTube: Manage spam on community contributions

So there are three ways that content is moderated on the YouTube platform:

  1. Creators and consumers flag inappropriate content
  2. Automated algorithms (aka machines) flag inappropriate content
  3. Creators review content which has been flagged as inappropriate

Isn’t this enough?

Verdict: Moderation of (community) comment spam/abuse has always been the ultimate responsibility of the content creator. What’s so different about “community contributions”?

3. This feature takes resources away from other features

When heartfelt user requests are ignored, it’s easy to view a wildly successful company like YouTube as a rich kid not wanting to share their toys.

But as a developer myself, I’m well aware that all companies have limited resources. Limited budgets, limited developer hours and a limited number of key strokes left in our lives.

And yet, I would be more easily persuaded if YouTube could clarify exactly which other features it would rather focus on.

What business is that of mine? Well if their roadmap is radically different from what users expect, then maybe those users need a heads-up to start looking elsewhere.

Verdict: YouTube are cutting features valuable to the existing user base. Perhaps they have plans to target a different user base and/or put profit above user’s needs.

What do YouTube suggest instead?

Contrary to what some commenters are saying, YouTube isn’t trying to do away with captions altogether (although this isn’t just about captions).

They offer three alternatives for caption generation. These are:

  1. Author your own captions
  2. Use automatic captions
  3. Use third-party tools and services

1. Author your own captions

Making your own captions means that you take control of the narrative. That’s important if your message is controversial or specific.

However this assumes that captioning technologies are accessible and users have time to do the captioning. I’ve authored captions both for myself and for paying clients, and have found that accuracy and placement can be very tricky and time-consuming to get right.

2. Use automatic captions

YouTube already provides an automatic captioning service:

Captions are a great way to make content accessible for viewers. YouTube can use speech recognition technology to automatically create captions for your videos.

However, automatic captions might misrepresent the spoken content due to mispronunciations, accents, dialects, or background noise. You should always review automatic captions and edit any parts that haven’t been properly transcribed.

YouTube: Use automatic captioning

YouTube themselves admit that their automatic captions are prone to error. I’ve personally witnessed a number of inappropriate words in their machine translations. In other words, machine-contributions are also guilty of abuse. I don’t think that they’re the answer.

3. Use (pay for) third-party tools and services

YouTube suggests four solutions, all of which cost the content creator something:

  1. 3Play Media: USD 1.75 per minute (English), USD 3.50 per minute (Spanish)
  2. Amara: USD 12 per month (Community platform), USD 1.88 per minute (Amara OnDemand)
  3. Cielo24: USD 1.00 per minute (English)
  4. Rev: USD 1.10 per minute (English)

If you have money to pay, maybe this a good option. But it’s still an unreliable human doing the translation. That unreliable human is expected to deliver total accuracy, while being paid peanuts. Content owners will still need to invest time to review their work to ensure that it is up to scratch.

The realist in me says that the cost of a human translation has little bearing on its accuracy. So why not just let users choose the free resource that they already have?

Outsourcing is not the answer

A large part of YouTube’s popularity is due to the fact that it houses many services under one roof.

Content hosting services, check. Stream to desktop and mobile, check. Embeddable players, check. A robust commenting system, check. Accessibility features, check.

Bundling all of this functionality under the YouTube brand creates a consistent experience for creators and consumers alike. Imagine if creators had to upload video to Website X, then log in to Website Y to manage comments and subscriptions, and users had to go to Website Z to embed a player on their site or download a specific Accessibility Overlay. It just wouldn’t be as convenient – and convenience is king.

YouTube seems to be intent on outsourcing some parts of its business. But passing on the cost and complexity to users is not the answer. If they’re convinced that Amara or 3Play offer the best captioning service, they should buy a stake in those businesses and fund it through their subscription model. Then they can brand the service and make it available through the same interface and login.

YouTube is the default choice for many, specifically because it’s free and it’s easy. Yes, they have the audience numbers, but how many hoops are you willing to jump through just to gain a few more views?

Of course, there’s also a very slim possibility that a “focus on other creator tools” could lead YouTube to eventually bring these 3rd party solutions back in-house. But if that’s the case, then why not retain the existing system until the new one is ready to go?

Summary

YouTube’s decision undermines community efforts to enrich content and increase its appeal.

It undermines the community itself by reducing opportunities for collaboration. It pushes content creators to a user-pays model. And it makes accessibility is a choice.

If you can’t afford to pay, then that’s ok. Because at the end of the day it’s ok to exclude some people.

This attitude is well past its use-by date and ignores the fact that stigmas around disability prevent some people from earning enough money in the first place.

There’s a lot at stake here, and certainly a lot more than YouTube’s weak excuses stand up to.

So, YouTube, for the benefit of everyone that invests their precious time in your platform, what are you really saying with this decision? And where exactly are you going with this?

You can sign the petition here.

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