Rhodri Marsden: Just want we needed - a way to make YouTube comments even loonier

You can give your Google+ account any name, so cue dozens of angry ‘Adolf Hitlers’

"We hear you," began an official Google blog post back in September. "Better commenting coming to YouTube," it continued, and we threw our hats in the air in celebration, because we'd become weary of watching videos of spectacular fireworks or domino rallies and then glancing down to see some white supremacist banging on about eugenics without being able to spell eugenics, and someone else telling him to "suck balls". Yes, it gave comedian Adam Buxton excellent material for his Bug stage show, but most of the time it chipped away at our faith in humanity.

The accepted way to rein in the sexist, racist or papist excesses of online comments is to cut out the ability to comment anonymously, and Google had a ready-made solution to hand. Google+, its tumbleweed-infested social network, obliges you to sign up with your real name, and while hardly anyone I know uses it, some 540m people have signed up after having their arms digitally twisted at some point. All Google had to do was integrate YouTube comments with Google+. Everyone would post under their own name, become more accountable for their disturbed rants, and candy bars would rain lightly from the heavens.  In theory.

In practice, it's been a misconceived plan comparable with Google Wave, Google Buzz or the Charge Of The Light Brigade. First of all, it's forced us back into the hairy arms of Google+. Back in 2011 you could find a privacy page on YouTube that offered quick tips for peace of mind, the first of which was, "Never post things like your name, phone number or where you live." Today, when signing up to comment on YouTube, you're asked for your real name, then invited to add your birthdate, where you work, where you live and your contact details. If you manage your online life by juggling multiple Google accounts, you're also faced with a confusing melée of pages, profiles, accounts and channels that seems preposterously interwoven.

Meanwhile, on YouTube itself, things are a bit chaotic. Google+ integration means that there's now no apparent limit on comment length (cue the pasting in of eye-popping ASCII art, entire screenplays etc), or restrictions on posting links (cue links to viruses, porn or worse). In addition, Google's promise to push relevant comments to the top of the page actually promoted controversial comments instead (ie, aforementioned ASCII art, links to viruses, porn, etc). Perhaps most ridiculously, bearing in mind the stated aim of improving commenting standards, pseudonymity is still widespread. You can attach your YouTube account to a Google+ page you've created and give it any name - cue dozens of angry "Adolf Hitlers" with the caps lock key engaged.

The outcome: YouTube comments have got worse (with some YouTube stars shutting comments down altogether), while Google+ has seen a rise in resentful activity among people who don't understand why they have to use it in order to tell a white supremacist to "suck balls".

The real reason, as with any real-name policy, is the personal information we bring to the party - so valuable when selling advertising. And as we meekly surrender it once again in exchange for online services, you wonder whether we'll ever draw the line and refuse, or whether we crossed that line a long, long time ago.


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