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YouTube is putting safety and comfort of VR users first with new shared spaces

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Comment sections and the cesspool of negativity and vulgarity found within have come to define almost every single website on the internet, but YouTube is trying to find ways to slowly fix that.

During Google’s I/O conference yesterday, a portion of the press event was dedicated to demonstrating what YouTube has planned for Google’s expanding line of VR initiatives. With Google trying to bring VR to more platforms as a way to encourage everybody and anybody to join in on the latest tech craze, YouTube is allowing its users to become closer than ever before by offering what it believes to be an extra incentive: the ability and option to talk to their friends without having to deal with the negativity of a comments section.

The co-watching experience, as referred to by YouTube VR product lead Erin Teague, allows groups of users to enter a shared space and watch a 360 video, using voice chat as a way to talk to one another instead of typing out comments. The groups will be small, Teague said. More importantly, however, is that viewing sessions will be limited to friends and people viewers know, and each video has to be agreed upon by the people in the room.

Allowing people to decide who gets to be a part of the viewing group also allows those with VR headsets to bypass the noise in comment sections. It’s a way for the company to allow users to circumvent the comments section, if they so wish, and it’s something YouTube has been trying to fix for quite some time.

The company is more than aware of how people use comment sections on their site; just last year it introduced a new series of guidelines and rules prohibiting commenters from using abusive or harassing language, giving creators more freedom to handle the comments that appear on their videos. In fact, the company even signed a code of conduct with the European Union, aimed at fighting racism and xenophobia in Europe, that would help ensure hate speech wouldn’t live on its site.

Even with the ongoing issues YouTube faces with its community, that word has always been what the platform has been based on. Teague called community “one of the core pillars that makes YouTube YouTube,” but YouTube’s community has a problem and this isn’t going to help it.

Giving YouTube users the ability to choose who they get to communicate with also eliminates one of the biggest problems those who game with voice chat on know full well: harassment.

Voice chat can also be a cesspool

The number of racist, sexist, homophobic and otherwise vile messages players have received over the year via voice chat has been well documented, but YouTube’s private chat system is looking to curb just that. With exclusive chatrooms via services like Discord and players choosing who they go into a game with has made it a bit better, those who want to join an online game with a bunch of strangers run the high risk of being on the backend of some kind of slur.

Two month ago, a female Overwatch player posted an extensive post on Reddit about a string of vulgar messages she received over voice chat while playing a number of competitive matches. Between the usual, “Get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” to other, far more inappropriate sayings. A portion of her post on Reddit can be read below.

[Warning: The following contains coarse language which may be offensive to some readers.]

This last week before the end of S3 has been one of the worst for me in terms of harassment. I talk in voice chat a lot and try to shotcall if no one else does because I feel as though a lot of people tunnel and as a healer I'm in the back and can see a lot more of the field. Let me share with you some of the things that have been said to me since I have been playing a bit more than usual since the announcement that S3 is ending.

The mundane: "Can I get some nudes?" "Hey, why aren't you in the kitchen making me a sandwich?"

The explicit: "Let me lick your gaping donut hole." "You're a small tittied bitch." "I bet you have a fat cunt."

I usually queue with a guy friend, and if someone is being exceptionally nasty they'll continue with comments like "Awe, little girl has to queue with her boyfriend." or "Can I get a turn at pounding that pussy, my man?

A little bit further down the post, she wrote that because this happened more often than not over voice chat, she couldn’t really report anonymous voices and was afraid to go back into games with voice chat on because of the harassment she received.

“I always report them, but a lot of the time it's over voice channel so I don't have proof that they said those things, just my friend to back me up,” she wrote.

This is where limiting the number of viewers in a room and handing the keys to those rooms over to actual users makes a big difference. YouTube is aware that it can’t moderate these types of open channels as strongly as they need to, but by letting people self-moderate and handpick who they want to watch a video with, the company doesn’t necessarily have to worry about it. These are friends hanging out in a virtual room and watching the Star Wars: The Lat Jedi trailer for the first — or hundredth — time.

Voice chat doesn’t eliminate YouTube’s biggest problem, but it’s a start

YouTube’s comments section is notorious for the level of harassment and abuse doled out by people. No matter what the video is, there will be some kind of comment that’s included just to stir the pot and make other people upset. Look at this example in question, discovered by the New Statesman on a YouTube video playing one of Mozart’s — even Mozart isn’t immune to the comment section — compositions.

New Statesman/YouTube

In fact, a 2014 edition of the scientific journal, Plos One, examined the worst commenting habits online definitely called YouTube’s comment sections the worst. The journal looked at TED Talk videos, a channel on YouTube that has generated more than 100 million views since it started, but the takeaway is universal: YouTube commenters joined chats to discuss what they were seeing but preach rhetoric, insult others and self-promote. Unsurprisingly, the comments were worse if the video had a female presenter or was about a topic relating to women or social justice.

“Commenters were more likely to discuss the presenter if she was female,” the journal stated. “Furthermore, there were significant differences in the sentiment of the comments when the speaker was discussed: comments tended to be more emotional when discussing a female presenter (significantly more positive and negative). Conversely, comments about the speaker tended to be more neutral when the presenter was male.”

YouTube wants to latch onto new technology and find a way to continue growing its community, and it seems with the rules and restrictions surrounding voice chat that they’re taking the comfort of their community serious. Not everyone is going to have a VR headset, but as it becomes a more ubiquitous consumer project, YouTube will already have planted the seeds in creating a safe and welcoming place for friends to come and hang out.

With more than one billion daily views and millions of users, YouTube is the right platform to test this kind of shared viewing experience. It can set the tone for how to do this right and remove a large part of the harassment problem that exists within these platforms.

YouTube is trying to change the way people communicate online while enjoying entertainment and, to be quite frank, this seems like it might be the best way to do just that.

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