If you're a frequent YouTube user you've no doubt seen, or at least heard about, the new commenting structure imposed by Google last week. You may even be a part of the small but vocal group of YouTube users who are really pissed off about it. In a nutshell, from now on you'll have to use your real name when leaving a comment on a YouTube video. There are a couple ways around it, but that's basically the deal from here on out. On top of that, YouTube comments are now driven exclusively through Google+.
At first blush this appears to be a ham-fisted attempt to force people to use Google+, but if you think that's the reason they did it, I'm here to tell you that you're wrong. The fact is that Google has been embarked on a very determined path to eliminate anonymity across their many channels for a number of years now. Up to this point, it's been all carrot: reveal your true identity in the content you create, and we'll give you a higher ranking in Google search results. But now it's veering toward the stick: use your real identity to leave comments on YouTube videos, or don't comment at all.
I honestly didn't even notice when this happened. I was an early adopter of Google+, so I've been doing things this way for two years now and the new policy didn't affect me. But when my inbox started filling up with outraged emails (I guess I'm viewed as a sort of G+ cheerleader and am therefore a reasonable target for righteous indignation) I decided to look into it to see if there was anything people should be upset about. Turns out there is.
Anonymity is one of the cornerstones of the Internet. Wall Street Oasis couldn't even exist (at least not in its present form) without it. Anonymity is crucial to our success as a community here. But there's a real downside to anonymity, too.
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading the YouTube comments section knows that it's a complete sewer. Some of the most vile hate speech I've ever seen is par for the course over there. It's so bad that more and more you see videos posted with comments disabled altogether, which is kind of a shame because discussion and collaboration are a couple of the biggest benefits of the Internet on the whole. But it was clear Google had to do something. Their answer was a pretty clever blend of capitalism and social engineering.
By forcing users to comment with their true identities, hate speech and those who traffic in it can be marginalized. Google went even further by enabling a feature that ranks comments based on their quality, so the best comments rise to the top. This has people's panites in a bunch as well, because your average YouTube idiot realizes he's never written anything of any quality and therefore his voice will be squelched entirely from now on.
YouTube trolls aren't the only ones upset about this change, however. The good folks who have managed to keep Google+ one of the Internet's best kept secrets are none too pleased as well. It's as if Google has flung open the gates to the Internet Huns, and now G+ (which is where you go for intelligent content curation) is about to be besieged on all sides. None other than the Fuhrer himself explains that side of the coin:
So basically no one is happy about the change, but here's what you need to realize: Google is not a utility. It's a private advertising company. Everything they do (and they do so many things better than anyone else ever has) is designed to sell advertising. Their advertising is far more effective if they're able to target actual people. And I'm not even talking about you. I'm talking about your friends. How much more effective is a Google ad in your buddy's inbox if it's accompanied by your face and the fact that you bought that product as well? That's what this is all about, and it has the ancillary benefit of cleaning up the cesspool that YouTube has become.
However, I believe WSO has the better model. Obviously we're not dealing with anywhere near the volume that Google is, but this site has struck a balance where we're able to offer total anonymity and a great user experience. I have to say Patrick was way ahead of the curve when he introduced Monkey Shit and Silver Bananas years before anyone else thought of it.
WSO wouldn't work if it weren't for anonymity. I remember back in 2008 this was one of the few places you could go to get the straight scoop on what was happening inside the banks during the crisis, and we never would have had that if users had to use their real names. The company database would have never been a reality, the compensation reports would have been blank, and we wouldn't have anywhere near the volume of helpful content that we have today.
Do we get the occasional troll? Of course we do. But even on that front, we're better than the Internet as a whole. At least our trolls are clever for the most part. The ban hammer eventually falls on all of them, but not before they've given us a few laughs.
Mark my words: this is going to become a big issue on the Internet over the next decade. Anonymity is something worth fighting for. I'm a huge proponent of free speech, even when it's despicable hate speech. In that case, however, I think you should be man enough to own up to what you said. But I'm not in favor of forcing people to do that.
What do you guys think? Is the accountability gained by forcing everyone to go public worth all the benefits of anonymity that we'd lose? Is using your real identity the wave of the future on the web? Can you even imagine what WSO would look like today if we forced people to use their real names?
I'll leave you with this charming (NSFW) video response to the G+ YouTube integration by a chick who clearly doesn't get that YouTube isn't hers, it's Google's: