YouParticipate: the politics of YouTube’s flagging system
My thesis is about a seemingly small detail of YouTube’s interface, the ‘flag’ button. I got intrigued by this function because of the politics that are at play behind it, hence the title “YouPartipate: the politics of YouTube’s flagging system” [.pdf] . The function is not exclusive to YouTube, but it is one of the more self-reflexive platforms. In the sense that the YouTube community talks quite frequently about changes in the platform, software, interface etc. or what they like to see changed. Most of the time this is the only way for the community to comment on the rest of the community and/or YouTube. Flagging gives the community a tool to participate in regulating the content. If a community member thinks a certain video is inappropriate, he/she can flag it for the YouTube team to have a look at. This sounds quite straightforward and shows how convergence culture, as described by Henry Jenkins, presents itself in the flagging system on YouTube. The user is enabled by the company to have a certain amount of control (corporate convergence).
But one might argue that this sense of control is false, for YouTube has the last say in the matter. Why ask the community to go around and flag videos, when YouTube will decide whether they did a good job? To avoid misuse, YouTube does not get too much into the details of back-end of the flagging system. But trying to deconstruct this, shows that certain flagging categories seem to have a higher priority over others. It also shows that there is a certain hierarchy amongst the flag-checkers at YouTube, with three Google persons at the top of this. This lack of transparency in the actual workings of flagging causes (part of) the community to take matters in their own hands and they started to misuse the system. Videos flagged for copyright were muted faster than videos flagged for spam, so people started to flag for this reason. And soon the flagging wars begun. In which flaggers did not target a certain video per se, but a certain side in discussions ( such as pro vs anti scientology / islam / US etc.) The community started to use the flagging tool differently from what it initially was meant for, this appropriation of the tool can be interpreted as grassroots convergence.
By deconstructing the flagging system in how it relates to YouTube’s overall model of moderation, how it is presented by the company and how it is both experienced and used by the community, I am giving not only an overview of the politics that are at play within the flagging system. But it also forms the beginnings of the next step of the grassroots convergence that is taking place at YouTube, in which I disagree with Jenkins’ distinction between the concept of ‘participation’ and ‘interactivity’. According to Jenkins participation is shaped by cultural and social protocols, while interactivity is shaped by technological protocol. By showing the different ways in which the YouTube community has appropriated the flagging system, I show the possibilities that technological protocol entails for participation. By analyzing the various issues and demands from the YouTube community and proposing a reputation model in addition to some changes in the flagging system, which is based on existing systems that experience the same type of issues.
The whole thesis can be read online here.