In conversation with author Chris Stokel-Walker on how to fix YouTube

Over the past couple of years, YouTube’s been in hot water over a myriad of issues that would give any CEO sleepless nights. The list of offenses includes failing to police problematic videos appearing on its platform, toxic comments that have pushed it to disable the feature for some content, and troubling recommendations delivered to unwitting users, including children.

Naturally, the company has been lambasted over these shortcomings – rightly so, many people would argue. I’ve been on that side of the debate too, having written about the platform’s mistakes over the past few years.

That said, I began to wonder if we weren’t collectively being too harsh on a platform that does something impossibly remarkable. It lets more than two billion people around the world watch video that’s uploaded at a rate of 500 hours’ worth of content per minute, on demand.

To get to the bottom of this, I spoke to Chris Stokel-Walker, who’s literally written the book on the subject. YouTubers, which hit shelves in May, looks at the lives of prominent content creators who make a living on the platform, as well as its impact on society at large. Stokel-Walker decided to write it after covering YouTube for years as a freelance reporter, and coming up empty in his search for an authoritative source of information on the site’s 14 year-long history.

Stokel-Walker had a lot to say about the platform, and how it’s viewed in the media. In a conversation that began on Twitter and then expanded into a full-blown interview, I started with a simple question: how realistic is it to expect that a company can consistently and efficiently enforce its content guidelines for all its users?

“Obviously they’re not going to be perfect ever,” Stokel-Walker said. “That’s part of the challenge. But The Guardian’s UK technology editor, Alex Hern, made a really good point some time ago (click for full-size image). He basically asked, why can’t Youtube actually just hire more human staff?”

In now-deleted tweets (he does that often), Hern did a back-of-the-napkin calculation that took into account about 100,000 people working eight-hour shifts to moderate 400 hours of YouTube content being uploaded every minute. Given London’s living wage of about £20,000 ($25,000) a year, that works out to roughly £2 billion ($2.5 billion) a year, which isn’t terrible considering that YouTube‘s parent company, Alphabet, made profits of about $30 billion last year.

“You know, they talk about the fact that they have 10,000 human moderators and they have an automated monitoring monitoring system that represents the collective brain power of another 180,000 people, which is fair enough. But the ultimate fact is that we are seeing a shift in terms of governments’ response to this, where they want to see platforms become far more interventionists and proactive,” said Stokel-Walker.

The author noted that he’s still a tech journalist, and still believes there is good in tech, and  interventionists can be troublesome. “But YouTube gives a platform to a lot of extremists who could radicalize others, and enables them to reach many people. So there does need to be, I think, some responsibility from the platforms to kind of be aware of their power into what impact they can have on people’s mindsets,” he said.

Chris Stokel-Walker, author of'YouTubers'