Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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Disarming Dislikes: A Thumbs Down From Everyone

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YouTube recently announced that it will be removing the number of dislikes visible to the public from all videos published on the platform.  Although users of the media-sharing platform will not be able to see who else shares their determinate opinion, they will still be able to click on the dislike button and have public discourses with other viewers and the creators of the video in the comments section. Content creators will retain the ability to view the number of likes and dislikes on their videos when they view the analytics for their video performance in YouTube Studio.

The company has justified this decision through claims of prioritizing the mental health of their creators, protecting content creators from potential harassment related to dislike counts, as well as attempting to decrease any targeted campaigns on smaller creators through possible misleading public reactions on the videos. 

According to YouTube, this change was implemented after months of tests and in-depth analyses that indicated that such a move would be helpful to the online community. They had implemented an experiment for hiding the dislike count in Mar. 2021, similar to when Instagram was toying with the idea of hiding the number of likes in order to make the photo-sharing platform feel like a more authentic form of ‘social’ media in place of a marketable competition. Around this time, Facebook had also removed the ‘like’ count from Facebook pages to highlight the ‘followers’ count instead. 

However, taking inspiration from these platforms would not be applicable to YouTube’s structure, since it primarily relies on public engagement and appeals to its audiences with the marketability of its content, in place of the social connection aspects of Instagram and Facebook. 

The mainstream public’s opinion seems to be largely against the platform’s decision, with several calling for the change to be reversed. This likely stems from the public’s tendency to use the number of dislikes on videos to gauge the quality of the content and whether or not the creator’s representation based on the title and thumbnail of the video is true. A visible dislike count also allows viewers to voice their opinion regarding the type of content presented on the site, and helps the algorithm-based promotion model of YouTube understand which videos should be recommended to certain audiences. 

YouTube’s decision to hide the dislike count also raises the question of freedom of expression and speech for everyday viewers and users of the site. Everyone should have the right to clearly express their discontent, not just satisfaction, with any piece of content or media that is put out into the public sphere. Even though hiding the number of dislikes diminishes the ability of people to be persuaded by negative reviews, an overly positive viewpoint may mislead viewers into content that may be harmful to them or other audiences, simply because they were unable to judge its popularity without taking into account the like to dislike ratio. 

This suppression of the “thumbs down” visibility in the name of protection isn’t truly censorship, though, since the comment section remains open for viewers to interact with others that may hold the same ideas as them. Additionally, using dislikes as a way to increase engagement with viewers (asking for extreme dislikes) has already been a part of popular culture long enough to have done its damage to creators that have seen its impact, and the notion of protecting creators is a skewed point of view for YouTube to support. 

Moreover, this change isn’t supported by one of the cofounders of YouTube, Jawed Karim, who edited his description on the first ever video on YouTube to reflect his views and protest the decision made by the corporation. He states that “nothing can be great if nothing is bad,” and that YouTube’s decision is costing them the main intention for which the platform was created: sharing videos and finding good creations through popular and individual judgement among a sea of content. 

In order to protect its creators, YouTube mustn’t hide behind experiments that simply copy other platforms’ changes. YouTube needs to consider that different audiences and creators are protected in different ways, and create targeted regulations that ensure the protection of — especially minor and smaller-scale — creators. Removing the visibility of dislikes will only create a superficial form of protection, and encourage harsher and perhaps even increased  unnecessary criticism in the comments section of videos — and since such statistics will still remain visible to creators, the potential emotional harm may take a toll on creators and other teams that work on the platform. 

Instead, the company should take an approach that opens the number of dislikes to the public, but only shows the ratio rather than the exact numbers to creators, to guarantee that they absorb the response as a form of constructive criticism in place of harassment. However, there are loopholes to everything, and creators may find a way to look for exact numbers in the future. Any form of reliance on public opinion can become a double-edged sword. Another possible approach to newer forms of cyberbullying could be removing the concept of likes and dislikes altogether and allow users to give different forms of reactions on videos to help other viewers ascertain the popular opinion around a piece of content. 

YouTube is a platform that was built on the basis of public media consumption based on reactions to content. As a site that relies on public opinion for the success of its algorithm, YouTube needs to listen to its users’ reactions surrounding the enforced reorientation of using the site before introducing such monumental modifications.  

Nandini Sharma is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at nandis2@uci.edu