July 23, 2007

Why I Joined the Smackdown

"Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed. If your video shows someone getting hurt, attacked, or humiliated, don't post it."

"YouTube is not a shock site. Don't post gross-out videos of accidents, dead bodies and stuff like that." - from YouTube Community Guidelines

"In an e-mail message, Ms. Supan [senior director of marketing for YouTube] said that among the videos removed were those that 'display graphic depictions of violence in addition to any war footage (U.S. or other) displayed with intent to shock or disgust, or graphic war footage with implied death (of U.S. troops or otherwise).'" - NY Times, Oct. 6, 2006

When I was a teenage bookworm I once came across a library book on the Holocaust. It had pictures. Lots of them, and they didn’t pull any punches. I literally became light-headed and sick to my stomach. I can still picture some of them in my mind, now over 25 years later. I still haven’t found words suitable to convey how much changed for me That Day. It wasn’t that I’d pretended evil wasn’t real, or that humanity had put all that behind itself, or that proper education would be enough to solve all our problems. I didn’t really believe any of that before the book. But how I thought about those notions still changed. I was much less willing to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who argued that way. Make that argument while thumbing thru those pictures, and if you can do it with a straight face and without turning your eyes away, maybe then I’ll listen.

YouTube wants to get good PR by posting nice words in their community guidelines, or in interviews with the NY Times. They want to convey the image their website is a place where you, the people, can put up videos just like you see on TV. Your garage band can make it’s own demo and give Motown, Nashville, Austin, Seattle, and all of California a run for it’s money. You can be the next Steven Spielberg. Bob Saget’s funniest home videos have got nothing compared to the stuff you have on your hard drive from last year’s family reunion. You’re a citizen in a democracy; you can editorialize about the latest political scandal as well as any talking head on CNN or Fox. You can call for the death of all infidels and glory in disembowelments and decapitations just as well as any Imam preaching a Friday Sermon.

Oh, wait. Maybe YouTube hasn’t thought this through. I’ll say it again, I tend to lean on the side of free speech, trusting to the free marketplace of ideas more than any authoritative source telling us what we can and cannot be trusted to see, hear, or read. But YouTube isn’t setting itself up as the wild, wild west that is so much of the Internet. It’s setting itself up as a grassroots broadcasting network. And it wants to get credit for all the good, funny, insightful, talented things people put up there. It wants to be politically correct. And it wants to make money doing so. But it doesn’t want to be responsible for how people actually use the service. Well YouTube, make up your mind.

Nobody is paying me to help you enforce your own policies, and it seems certain that if ‘we the people’ won’t help you, you’re not going to do it yourself. Several countries around the world have blocked access to YouTube because dissident and separationist factions have used it to incite unrest in those countries. But apparently, YouTube doesn’t care to make a distinction. They might be dissidents crying out for free elections denied them by their government. You know, like Muslim women. They might be separatists crying out for the blood of heretics and infidels. You know, like the heretic, infidel Muslim women who want the right to vote.

Why has it become such a cliché already to ask why Google’s ‘Don’t be Evil’ motto doesn’t apply to YouTube videos? Another cliché is the term ‘viral video.’ Well, videos are only viral if the ideas and images they contain are, and YouTube’s policies like to make a distinction between good, catchy and bad, catching viral videos. But I’m starting to get the impression that YouTube’s ‘medicinal’ approach to content is the moral equivalent of claiming you have the cleanest operating rooms around while all your patients are out dying in the waiting room.

Maybe YouTube would really like to declare itself free and open for anyone to post anything for any reason. And maybe YouTube would like to declare itself the online video equivalent of radio’s Air America and only give voice to people they agree with. And maybe their lawyers and marketing guys have told them that’s a recipe for economic disaster. And maybe YouTube thinks it can have the best of both worlds. Claim to have high, and fairly enforced standards. Make sure all the fine print absolves you from any responsibility for the content you’re trying to make money off of. Then do whatever you feel like, or think you can get away with.

Ya, there’s no possible way that could lead to Unintended Consequences. Unless you stop and, I don’t know, think about it for a minute.

I remember my Econ 101 class where I read about externalities. An externality happens when the cost of economic activity is shifted to parties ‘external’ to the circle of those deriving economic benefit from the activity. A factory dumping toxic waste into a nearby river is a classic example. The factory doesn’t pay the costs of cleaning it up. Nor do they face the health risks the people living downstream do. Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion dollars last year. They subsidize the spread of propaganda by individuals and groups whose ultimate aim is to deny those same free speech rights to others, if not kill them outright. Someone watches the video and gets inspired to kill, or just send money to killers, and YouTube’s hands are clean? They only delete videos once enough people complain. Why should we bear the costs of slogging through YouTube’s sewers, trying to clean out the muck? Externality.

It’s been said that in the modern politically correct climate, hypocrisy is the only remaining public sin. Attempting to hold people to a common set of standards has been ‘de-legitimized’ as nothing but the power plays of Insert-Your-Favorite-Oppressors-Here, masking their intentions in lofty but meaningless rhetoric (like, say, this very argument?). But if you can point out someone failing to live up to their own standards, then you can get your self-righteousness on, and go to town. Ok, so YouTube has a history of removing conservative bloggers’ videos and leaving jihadi videos online. I guess I missed that paragraph in their Terms of Use and Community guidelines.

Now, I’d be content arguing that YouTube shouldn’t post videos of terrorists glorying in the death of civilians or Coalition soldiers in Iraq because their entire worldview is evil, and, well, Don’t Be Evil. You know, because the left only deals in high ideals, and reasoned argument, never stooping to blatant emotional manipulation. Like, say, uploading to YouTube a snuff film full of dead Iraqi children set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Of course, if it comes down to it, I guess I’ll settle for asking YouTube to stop being a hypocrite.

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