awkwardly

Saturday

I, for one, reject our social network overlords.

Melinda has gotten screwed over by Youtube again. It's a reminder that corporate websites are not here to help people or make useful products or be our friends. They are here to make money, and we are tools to that end.

As you may or may not know, Melinda stumbled into Youtube a few years ago and has spent most of her waking hours since then watching, responding to vlogs in comments, and making her own daily videos. She occasionally gets fed up or freaked out and stops participating for a while, occasionally deleted all her videos or closed her channel, but she never stays away for long.

After interacting with popular vloggers, she attracted viewers to her channel, and plenty of devoted trolls and haters. Eventually she learned that arguing with some popular vloggers is like slapping a hornets' nest, attracting thousands of that person's devoted fans to sting you, so she tries to keep out of drama lately. She had enough fans that she qualified to become a Youtube partner, which means earning money from the ads they put on your videos. She made $100 or $200 from it, which means a lot to someone who hasn't held a job and worries about it.

When I say devoted trolls, I mean there were a few who made videos taunting Melinda, photoshopping her head onto porn images, extracting her voice from videos and putting it over movie rape scenes. Plus text comments, a constant string of vicious insults and threats that make those visuals seem tame by comparison. Trolls also "flag" Melinda's videos, supposedly warning Youtube that her videos are offensive or violating copyright when they aren't. Anything to cause trouble.

Youtube doesn't want to pay a "partner" who fraudulently clicks their own ads. They have rules against it, and presumably ways of tracking IP addresses of people who click ads. Makes sense so far, except I wonder how they deal with a partner living in Georgia who asks an accomplice in Borneo to click ads hundreds of times and generate more revenue for them. The partner in Georgia could claim they know nothing about it, and how could Youtube know if it were true? The answer is they don't bother to verify it. Their policy is to punish any partner whose ads get clicked too frequently by any one user. That's what they did to Melinda.

How does this account for trolls and haters who intentionally click ads dozens of times to make it look like fraud? Or authentic friends who think they're doing you a favor by clicking ads, and don't realize it will get you kicked out? How do you appeal if something like that happens? On Youtube, you cross your fingers and ask them to reconsider. I would have thought Youtube would be smart enough to understand that haters will do that thing. They probably do, but they don't have the tools to distinguish between fraudulent clicks from partners and fraudulent clicks from haters, so they err on the side of haters.

That's how you run a site when you see participants as resources, not as humans. They told Melinda she was cheating their system and dropped her. She can still post videos and use the website, and they may still run ads alongside her videos, but they won't pay her because they claim someone clicked on her ads fraudulently.

Even if you haven't been screwed over in that way, you've seen how Youtube and Facebook will initiate policy changes or tweaks to their website with no notice. Do they care what you think about the changes? Do they care enough to let you know before it happens, or to ask what you want? If there's a big enough backlash, they'll change it, but they don't get input from users beyond some focus groups or surveys. These websites are not your friends. They're just not that into you.

How do you like the latest changes on Facebook? I hear you've got a ticker down the right side of your screen that you can't get rid of, showing things you don't care about. It never showed up for me, and I don't know why. If there's a site or rss feed where they post info about their changes, I haven't heard of it. Haven't even found it when I looked for it. Yes, you might be able to tell me about a link to it now, but that's not the point. Isn't that the kind of thing they should make easily accessible, or at least easy to find when people go looking for it? Should they rely on people getting answers from their friends? That would be bad customer service, but we're not customers. Advertisers are their customers. We're something below customers.

A few days ago, Melinda heard a person on Youtube talking about his foot fetish, so she made a joke video where she held a cigarette between her toes and smoked it. Two great fetishes in one video. It was about one minute long. Her foot was bare but she was wearing more layers of clothes than you'd see on Baywatch or your average booty-shaking or dick-slangin dance video. She takes a few puffs. I think she said one sentence at the end about how silly it was, and that's it.

Unfortunately I can't give you a link to see it because Youtube took it down. I don't know if some user flagged it as inappropriate, or Youtube moderators made that decision on their own, but it was a ridiculous decision either way.

Yes, it had "fetish" in the title. Search results for 'fetish': about 30,000 results. Yes, some people might have been turned on or got off to it. But they can do that to anything. Watching young Jody Foster dressed as a hooker in Taxi Driver could get some people excited, and they might abuse themselves while watching it. Does that mean Taxi Driver is kiddie porn? No Denis Leary or Bill Hicks stand-up routines or Edward R. Murrow interviews because someone might see them smoking and want to jack off? There would be almost nothing left on Youtube, the website would shut itself down if they consistently removed all the innocuous things that inspire some people to wank.

Does it make a difference that Melinda used the word "fetish" in her title or talked about it? Is it offensive just to talk or joke about those things now? Should we pretend that it doesn't happen, at the risk of having our videos removed? If that's the case, how was she able to hear that guy talking about it on Youtube in the video that inspired her?

To add insult to injury, Melinda got a "strike" on her account, meaning she could be banned by Youtube if they decide that she breaks some of their other rules in the next six months. That's nice that they drop it from her criminal record after six months, but could she have reasonably expected that Youtube would consider smoking a cigarette between her toes a violation? I look at the many search results for "dick slang" and "booty bounce", and I don't think so.

You could see this as sour grapes, a person who breaks some rules and complains about getting penalized for it. Or you could see it as a disagreement about how to moderate a website. I see it as a problem of capitalism. It wouldn't be all utopian sunshine and rainbows and gravy if we lived in a non-capitalist society, or if we were talking about non-capitalist websites that currently operate. As long as there are humans, there will still be disagreements between humans. But users face a big disadvantage on sites that keep their software and actions and policies opaque, with decision-making limited to people who happen to have more money, or who leveraged their position as early adopters to make more money.

A good forum would have users making decisions about how to run it. If they run it into the ground, then presumably there will be other forums to try, and some of them will work. A large enough group will have most of the users working within the rules, maybe kicking out users who break rules.

A forum where users have little influence, where the existence of the forum is meant to earn profit for a small group of people, is not a very open or good forum.

No one is putting a gun to my head. If I don't like the way Youtube or Facebook or Google+ treats you, then I can take my ball and go home. But on social networks, I can't necessarily take all my friends and go home. I'm sure there are already non-profit alternatives right now. I'd like to try them, but it requires other friends and acquaintances to use them. Otherwise you can be the loudest tree falling in the quiet woods, with no one around to hear you.

This is not meant to convince my friends to stop participating in/on/with corporate websites today or this week. I would just like you to think about what it means that profiteers are running these websites, making decisions about how you communicate, whether you're allowed to participate on the forums where a lot of your friends and acquaintances do.

Meanwhile, if you know of any non-profit, user-managed alternatives right now, please let me know anyway.

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