Thursday, September 10, 2009

Criteria for moderating comments on a viral video

Two days ago, my nine year old daughter recorded a two minute video response to President Obama's September 8th speech to students and I posted it to YouTube. Since then, in a little over 48 hours, the video has been viewed over 70,000 times, received thousands of comments and ratings, and on the first day received "YouTube Honors" as a top education video in over twenty different countries. Neither my daughter or I anticipated this type of viral response to the video. I am thankful I chose to enable comment moderation at the time I published it, but this entire experience has raised some big issues with which I'm still grappling. Marco Torres talks about how our students today have the opportunity to share their ideas and publish on "the global stage." Although I've used that phrase previously and think it about it often, few experiences have driven home the reality of our new media landscape as forcefully as these experiences moderating YouTube comments on Sarah's video the past two days.

One of the first issues which immediately arose, after I realized the video was receiving thousands of views and hundreds of comments on Tuesday, was to decide on a personal criteria for comment moderation. Initially, I decided to remove comments which contained profanity or which were disparaging / demeaning to my daughter, Sarah. While I was tempted to just approve comments which were positive and supportive of Sarah, it is true that she made some factual errors in her video which commenters were quick to highlight. Commenters also criticized her delivery, speculated on whether she was reading a script, debated whether she was being brainwashed by her parents, wrote supportive comments for President Obama, and frequently lashed out against the President or one of our main political parties. I did not keep detailed statistics, but I'd estimate about 10% of submitted comments included profanity. A much smaller percentage, probably 1 - 2 percent, were personal attacks on Sarah that were vulgar, cruel, hateful, and sexually explicit. I estimate about 25 percent of all comments have been anger-filled comments directed at other commenters, our President, or particular political parties. About 25 percent have been very positive, supportive comments for Sarah, which she has found very encouraging as well as inspiring.

Being thrust into the role of moderating hundreds of YouTube video comments like this has been challenging. Not only has this consumed several hours of time over the past two days, since I've individually read each submitted comment and decided whether or not to approve or delete it, it's also been psychologically draining. This experience has been analogous to holding up a large mirror to our society in general. While there have been MANY submitted comments which were very supportive and edifying of Sarah, there have been an approximately equal number (which I have removed so they have not been made public) which were highly disparaging. That language, in fact, is likely too tactful to be accurate. Many comments have been filthy beyond imagining. It is difficult to understand how human beings could be so filled with hate and contempt for others that they would write such words of condemnation. By simply reading them, I felt defiled. Thankfully, my daughter has been spared the brunt of those nasty comments, but she did see some this morning on my computer which I had not yet moderated. This situation brought forth an acute and personal sense of how we want and need to protect our children from the sometimes cruel nature of the world, but at the same time need to prepare them to have tough skins and to be able to survive (eventually) independently in it. This experience has at times been agonizing, but it has also been very instructive.

As the moderator of comments surrounding Sarah's video, I felt it would not be a good idea to remove / filter out every single critical comment. Not only was I concerned that only approving comments with a positive / supportive tone would invite direct contact and criticism of me via YouTube's mail service and possibly my own email, I also became aware of the open dialog into which I was cast as a controlling moderator. While my desire to protect my daughter from cruel and profane comments is difficult to question, what about a desire to only approve / permit comments with which I personally agreed? Would it be correct to make the video's comment forum into an echo chamber of support, devoid of critiques? I didn't think so, therefore I approved many comments which were not strictly positive or supportive of Sarah.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have filtered out all the comments in which a person made a personal attack on another commenter? Frequently, those types of exchanges build on each other. In the case of comments which have been critical of Sarah, like those who suggested a nine year old has no business watching a political speech or making comments about it, it has been good to see many people rise to Sarah's defense and the defense of young people more generally in being civic minded and active.

One of the most common themes commenters have addressed is Sarah's opening story, regarding a student in her class who declared he was "not allowed to watch the speech because we're Republicans." I definitely agree with those who take issue with a closed-minded approach like that, and I am proud of Sarah for being willing to share that story and bring it to light. While it can be depressing at times to hold a mirror up to our society, seeing the hate and ill-will which is there in the hearts of some, it also is valuable to hold a mirror up and reflect attitudes like this one which are unfortunately common. This is an important role of journalists in our society, and today we can all become citizen journalists. In this context, Sarah is serving as a storychaser, and I think the window into our schools, homes, and communities which she tried to open is important to consider.

Looking back, if I was to re-live the past forty-eight hours and again moderate all the comments being shared on this video, I think I would make one change: I'd remove all comments which included any type of personal attack on someone else, in addition to removing those with profanity and those disparaging to Sarah. I would again remove comments which were inflammatory, racist, and disparaging to our President -- not all of those which are critical, but certainly all those which step over a line of respect and disrespect.

These YouTube comment moderating experiences reflect how much individuals in our society want to discuss, to debate, and to be social. Many, many people want to be RECOGNIZED. As Michael Goldhaber noted in 1987, we live in an "attention economy." YouTube is many things to many people, but predominant among those is a space to seek and vie for attention, not only with shared videos but also with posted comments. Many comments are clearly written with an intent to provoke. The same can be said of some blog posts as well, I suppose, but this is even more common in the world of YouTube commenting. Whether good or bad, it seems to be a fact: We want recognition. I'm reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who addressed "recognition" in the context of becoming a servant. Visit the homepage of the King Center to see these words and hear them in his own voice.

Is it dangerous and undesirable to garner worldwide attention via YouTube, even if it is fleeting, when you are nine years old? I have had some close acquaintances suggest that it is.

Is it amazing and positive for a nine year old to be able to share her perspectives and ideas with tens of thousands of people around our globe, all within the space of 48 hours? I'm inclined to think it is.

How would you establish a personal criteria for moderating comments submitted to a politically-charged viral video, like Sarah's? I could close off comments at any time to the video, but for now I'm keeping them open and still moderating. If you have suggestions and guidance for me, I'm all ears.

The global stage is here, and while we may not like everything we see and hear on it, it reflects our society as we are. Are we doing our best to help our children as well as ourselves to not only remain SAFE, but also thrive in this opportunity-rich environment? If not, it's time for us to BECOME the change we want to see, to quote another leader I deeply admire.

Cross posted to my blog, "Moving at the Speed of Creativity."