Twenty years ago, a troll was widely believed to be short stubby creature that lived under bridges in fairytales. Today, trolls are a whole other beast entirely. TenEighty examines our modern day internet trolls through taking a closer look at the comment sections and finding out how YouTubers monitor them.
At its conception, YouTube was a platform crafted to help society easily find the infamous ‘Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction’ video (right?). From there, it grew into a metropolis of cat videos and British babies biting each other. As it further evolved, more and more individuals began to upload on a weekly basis creating an online presence for themselves; and with them came haters and trolls.
For as long as YouTubers have existed, haters have been right there beside them, lurking in the comment section. One skim through the comments of a popular channel and you’ll be exposed to countless examples of the unsolicited aggression these faceless trolls emit. However, as subscriber numbers seem to double daily and video views reach unprecedented heights, the conversation about the role of the audience becomes more and more ubiquitous.
While channels of well-known YouTube stars technically remain in the hand of the content creator, how much (if any) influence does the audience have in what gets put online? Furthermore, how far does the uncalled-for antagonism really reach?
Dodie Clark, Lucy Moon, and Hazel Hayes all regularly check the comments of every video that they upload, admitting that interacting with their engaging, critical, and attentive audiences can be the best part of uploading.
Using the responses to her video It’s A Girl Thing as an example, Hazel affirms that nasty comments don’t bother her. There were of course comments from “misogynistic assholes” simply hating on her purely because she’s a female standing up for women’s rights, but overall the warmth from her audience shone through.“It’s amazing to see my community jump in with intelligent, articulate responses to anyone being hateful or rude,” she says.
Dodie admits that at times she is anxious about her videos, but feels that what she has to say is far too important to not upload – regardless of the reaction it will potentially receive. In particular, she points out the reception to her video about sexual abuse within the YouTube community. “I was a little worried, and I suppose I was right to be – it’s the most hate I’ve ever had,” she says. “But I only put out what I feel is right, so I wasn’t going to let a little bit of backlash stop an important message.”
While content creators such as Dodie feel brave enough to discuss such controversial topics, it is still true that many are put off due to the prospect of negative and nasty comments. Although YouTube is thought of as a platform built on expression and a space to speak openly, some creators find the pressure too intimidating to fully take advantage of.
Lucy admits to this. “I’m not very good at arguing when I’m put on the spot so I don’t feel like I have it in me to defend myself in the comments,” she says. “When I’ve done enough research, I’ll upload slightly controversial content.”
And this sometimes extends to trying out new content styles. YouTubers are people too – as we found out during the YouTube culture debate – and sometimes the unfiltered opinions of the audience can seem too daunting to allow oneself to experiment with a new style or topic for a video. “I’m afraid to make videos about non-controversial topics, like fashion or beauty, even though I’m genuinely interested in those things,” reveals Hazel. “People might see it as ‘selling out’ or something.”
Lucy on the other hand, feels that with her audience, she has the freedom to experiment – as seen in her most recent video. “168 Hours was really well-received. From reading the comments, I get the impression that people were happy to see what they interpreted as a high-quality daily vlog,” she says. “My audience noticed that it was different to anything I’d done before but I don’t really have a ‘typical’ video so they haven’t come to expect a certain thing from me every time.”
Many hate comments are vague and impersonal; their sole intention is to get a rise out of people. Others, however, bear more malice towards the creator.
Hazel observes that hate comments which target a woman’s appearance are a prevalent issue both in the YouTube community and beyond. While it’s true that a person’s worth is rooted in their actions and who they are on the inside, it’s unquestionable that a comment directed at a personal insecurity is going to hurt.
Dodie agrees. “In my last video I tried putting on lipstick. I knew it didn’t suit me and I just looked like a monster but I tried to work it anyway,” she says. “I got a comment saying something like ‘AAGH SCARE MAKE UP!!’ and I half laughed, half hurt. Not wearing lipstick for a while!”
As YouTube continues to expand, haters are inevitably attracted to the site, offending both the creator and other viewers alike. “You’re always going to get trolls and idiots who send hate and stupid things for fun or whatever, online and offline,” continues Dodie. “But, there are things put in place to help with that, like blocking, reporting, muting, etc.”
Earlier this year, BBC Radio 1 hosted a conversation with popular YouTubers in support of the Nicer Internet campaign.
On the subject of comment curation, Jim Chapman suggested that the best way to handle haters is to ignore them instead of adding fuel to the fire. “The next thing you know its top comment and then people are either defending you or supporting them and the whole thing escalates,” he explained.
“It makes your video a negative place. My videos, for the most part, are about positivity. I want to make people smile. I don’t want negative things under it.”
YouTubers and viewers both have the power to block and report those who actively seek to aggravate. However, doing this too frequently is often thought of as censoring people’s right to comment. Is it really just a matter of learning how to deal with hateful comments personally? Or, is it something that YouTubers need to control further?
Felix Kjellberg famously disabled the comments on his videos, igniting an interesting debate within the YouTube community. In Goodbye Forever Comments, he explained that the comment section used to be a place for him to interact with his audience. But now that his audience is so large, he observes that it’s flooded with spam, self-promotion and individuals trying to provoke others.
“It doesn’t mean anything. I don’t care about it. I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I want to see what you bros say or what’s going on with you bros but I don’t see that because it gets blocked out by all of these things.”
“I hope you understand my decision and that I wouldn’t say this as we lose something,” he continued. “I would say it’s taking the next step in the right direction because it’s been going on too long.” He concluded his video by thanking his audience for helping him to hit 30 million subscribers as well as encouraging them to interact with him on other forms of social media.
Though his intentions were well thought-out, it could be argued that this decision was unfair on his subscribers. Did Felix have a right to turn off the comment section? Or should he have worked to ignore, block, and report those who were being malicious? Furthermore, is disabling the comments imposing a limitation on the freedom of speech the audience has to express their opinions on the content?
Dodie believes it’s totally up to the creator whether or not they have a comment section. “It’s their channel, and their video,” she says. “If they’re making it for themselves, which is what YouTube is for, they shouldn’t have to feel pressured to open something up for discussion.”
Lucy agrees, permitting that sometimes the comment section does need to be turned off. She believes, however, that it has to be all or nothing; if you leave the comment section open then all opinions – as long as they are not intentionally destructive or disrespectful – are valid.
“I’m not a big fan of YouTubers who heavily curate their comments as that is censoring those who have intelligent criticism,” she says. “But am I being elitist? Where do we draw the line between intelligent and stupid? Comment curating is a slippery slope.”
“There is definitely a case for curating hate speech and bullying though,” continues Lucy. “I guess that as a controller of the comments section, your role is oddly like a parent; nurturing everyone’s thoughts but telling off those who are mean or rude to the others.”
Having previously worked at Google, Hazel has a unique perspective on the issue. She believes that YouTube’s integration with Google+ has already made things a little better. “I know it’s a controversial topic, but genuinely making the comments less anonymous has helped rein people in a bit,” she insists.
There, in the word anonymous, is the core of this entire conflict.
As is the case with any typical schoolyard bully, a lot of the time the abuse they are expending has nothing to do with the person that it is aimed at. In most cases, the aggressor is feeling a negative emotion and works to project that feeling onto someone else in the hopes that it will personally make them feel better – even at the cost of someone else.
But in the case of an ‘offline’ bully it will (most likely) lead to the bully feeling bad about what they’ve done as they see the reaction first hand. The internet, due to it’s lack of face to face contact, is of course different.
In his video The Internet is Mean, Dan Howell addressed this issue succinctly. “In real life, people tend not to be assholes all the time because then no one will like you and you might be punished,” he said. “But on the internet, it feels like you don’t have to worry about those consequences.”
“When you’re talking shit on the internet not only does it remove the reality of the effect you are having on others because they are not there physically to trigger your empathy. But because you are hiding your real identity behind a screen it feels like you won’t be held accountable.”
In the end, there is no immaculate strategy on how to eliminate hate on this massive of a scale. YouTubers can block, mute, and report venomous comments, but that is only a short-term solution. Realistically, it comes down to the individual behind the screen and whether or not they chose to promote positivity rather than hostility.
Why not check out the other ways YouTube is being affected by the site’s continued growth? Learn more about how YouTube’s search algorithm is affecting animators. Alternatively, you could read about the rise of Vessel and how it’s challenging the online video landscape.