YouTube is a very big platform that serves a lot of needs of a lot of people. I understand that I am only one person and, indeed, my community is only one community. YouTube needs to ensure that the site continues growing and is accessible to the next generation of YouTube users. They need to build a site that encourages interaction and diversification so it becomes a vital, long-term part of our content mix. 

But despite the fact that YouTube and Google are very careful with their rollouts and their testing, a number of breakdowns made the switch-over to the new G+ based comment system not go well. It continues to not go well, and there are some things we all should learn from that. 

  1. If you’re going to force a change…don’t ask first. If you ask me if I’d like to do something for six months and I keep saying “no” then I will expect, eventually, to get my way. It’s actually far less frustrating if you just force the change.
  2. Not all users are created equal. Something I heard from people who work at YouTube pretty consistently was “The vast majority of users are fine with it and have already switched over.” That’s fine, except that those users include a huge number who have signed up in the last year and were, thus, never aware of another way to use the site. The dedicated, hardcore users…the ones that made your place cool in the first place, the ones who have invested a huge amount of their time and energy into your platform…they need to be treated differently. You owe them…don’t forget that.
  3. You are not a technology company, you are a culture company. G+ and YouTube have distinctly different cultures. They are used in very different ways by very different people. This switch is a little like merging New York City and Houston, Texas. There is a cultural difference there, and the fact that we’re surprised by the conflict indicates that we are thinking about these platforms as distribution systems, not as communities…which is a problem.
  4. Just because a community understands a platform does not mean that the platform understands the community. This is said behind the scenes constantly, but not publicly because people don’t want to piss YouTube off, but YouTube does not understand YouTube. They may understand some of the metrics and can do A/B testing to see which change results in more time-on-site, but they do not understand how users and creators use the platform. And maybe no one does, because there are a LOT of different ways to use the platform.
  5. Just because a product works well in one place doesn’t mean it will work well elsewhere. The G+ comment system works very well on G+ and on Blogspot. I think that Google assumed that guaranteed that it would work well on YouTube. That is, of course, insane. YouTube is a much bigger community and regularly has videos with tens of thousands of comments. The commenters on those videos are much more diverse (not just friends or in interest-based silos) and the impression-based return on spam is much higher. I also think, to some extent, YouTube thought that attaching real names to people would make them less likely to post ASCII dicks in the comments but, of course, that isn’t how it works. And the system that promotes comments based on how they spur conversation sounds nice but, in practice, only promotes comments that spur hatred and rebuttal. 
  6. Communicate with your users honestly. You don’t have to communicate with all of them, but make the communication available to people looking for it. Don’t couch it in PR language “YouTube Comments Just Got Better!” because people are aware of the smell of bullshit. Discuss the actual goals and the problems you hope to solve. Walk users through the different options available to them and what they mean and what they do and don’t need to worry about.
  7. It’s more than just an account. A user account, for many people, is a project they’ve been working on for many hours per week for YEARS! Many people feel about their online accounts today the way I felt about my first car. It was an expression of who I was, an extension of the story of me. In that car I had good times and bad times and it took me to places I didn’t even know existed. Threatening to modify or alter or mess with that with minimal communication about what that change means can be terrifying to users. 

Now, I don’t blame Google for not figuring all of this out before beginning this integration project, but I will blame them if they don’t learn from it. No one (literally) has ever done anything like YouTube before. Making it function as well as grow is a tremendous challenge. They have many parallel goals that they thought could be accomplished with minimal friction and product problems. They were wrong, of course, but they’re engineers, not sociologists, so I’m not too shocked.

I encourage everyone to begin using the YouTube comments the way you want to use them. They need to see how our culture will adapt to this new thing. They need users using it so they can fix it. It might be a little bit frustrating at first, but I think, in the end, it will be OK…and we’ll have learned a thing or seven.