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YouTube is not so wild anymore

December 10, 2008 |  4:55 pm

TonyaOn some bright, parched morning back in the Old West, folks must have heard grumbling as a boy nailed a list of new town laws to the wall of the saloon. And when they saw the sheriff and his fresh-faced deputies looking on with a satisfied grin, that’s probably when they knew the West wasn’t going to be so wild anymore.

A similar scene has been playing out digitally at YouTube, the Internet’s video town square. In addition to its long-standing campaign to crack down on illegally copied material, in September the site outlawed videos depicting drug abuse and last week tightened its guidelines further to restrict profanity and sexually suggestive content. In other words, before the money wagons roll in...

...some law and order needs to be imposed.

The 4-year-old site, long a cultural frontier complete with virtual vice and chicanery, is growing up. Gone are the small, fuzzy video screens that made many a cat famous, replaced by screens twice as wide and even high-definition capable. TV shows and feature films have arrived, and so even has the president-elect, who now uploads his fireside video blogs every week.

“In the last six months, we’ve been iterating very, very quickly,” said YouTube spokesman Ricardo Reyes, adding that as the site becomes more sophisticated, the potential to boost advertising grows too. YouTube, which costs nothing to use, now boasts hundreds of millions of visitors every month, and the Google-owned company has been working to translate more of that activity into profit. “I think that generally people understand that we have to find a way to pay for the service,” Reyes said.

Videos that YouTube considers objectionable will no longer qualify for its daily honor roll pages, where the most widely viewed clips are showcased. These “browse” pages often act as a kind of viral launch pad, from which many of the Web’s most-watched videos blast off. Exile from these areas, while not explicit censorship, cuts deeply into a video’s chances to get noticed.

Reese Leysen, a member of iPower, a YouTube filmmaking group, noticed his videos were disappearing last week from the browse pages — and he wasn’t sure why. One of the group’s successful tricks has been to use racy video titles and preview images to tempt potential viewers.

But a recent effort featured no worse than the group’s leading lady, Tanya Derveaux, in a low-cut top suitable for wearing to the grocery store. Even so, Leysen said, the video—jokingly called 'Hilarious Cats'—quickly vanished from the most viewed area despite having earned more views than many of the day’s top videos. A second iPower video was marked unsuitable for minors. This time it was Derveaux in form-fitting workout clothing.

It’s been YouTube’s almost-anything-goes attitude that has made it one of the new century’s most prolific and colorful geysers of visual content. With the exception of overtly sexual or violent material, the site has until now made no attempt to impose the kinds of  taste guidelines that govern both the film and television industries.

YouTube’s new policing highlights the tension between large and vibrant online communities and the businesses that own them. That companies are charged with making judgments about political and artistic speech can be problematic, said Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford and author of “Remix,” a new book that looks for a balance between art and commerce.

“I think it risks a significant animosity and skepticism,” said Lessig. “The whole excitement about the place is that we can see what the public is watching, what the public likes, what’s important.”

For its part, YouTube believes that the stricter rules will boost the quality and relevance of the most visible videos by trimming away clutter and less desirable material. “There’s definitely this obligation we have to allow people to actually find what they’re looking for,” Reyes said.

Other social sites are tightening the reins on borderline content as well. Last week, the social networking service Ning — which allows users to create their own customized networks — announced it would no longer support any of the adult-oriented communities that had cropped up on the site, even though the company’s rules had never forbidden pornographic material.

“This was not an easy decision, and we did not make it on philosophical grounds,” wrote Ning Chief Executive  Gina Bianchini in a blog post. “In this recession we have to be relentless in providing the most compelling service in the most efficient way possible.”

Caterina Fake, who co-founded the photo-sharing site Flickr, said that governing large online communities is harder than it looks, and policy changes rarely please everyone. “Any builder of social software who’s about to announce a major change knows to gird for battle first,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The best owners can do, Fake said, is to be clear and concise about the changes. “I don’t think you need to go into exhaustive detail with explanations, justifications and examples, because often these raise more questions than they answer,” she said.

YouTube’s approach to defining profanity and sexually suggestive content shows the no-win aspect of elucidating such rule changes. In the case of profanity, it gives no definition at all, leading users to wonder if even one instance of cursing might imperil their video.

In explaining sexually suggestive content, the site includes a list of elements that could get a video flagged, including when “the subject is depicted in a pose that is intended to sexually arouse the viewer.”

Adding a layer of murkiness is just how YouTube plans to enforce such slippery rules on the thousands of videos it gets every day. The site says videos that violate its new content guidelines will be “algorithmically demoted,” suggesting the implausible idea that computers would be able to determine, for instance, if a video was intended to arouse, educate or make an artistic statement.

Users are not notified when their videos are penalized, and the site does not explain its rulings or even which provisions may have been violated.

“It’s just pretty unsettling when one of the most important socially driven sites online seems to become nontransparent about what makes it to its most important pages,” said iPower’s Leysen.

Philip “sXePhil” DeFranco, whose raunchy pop culture monologues have made him one of the site’s most recognized faces, wrote in an e-mail that he didn’t blame YouTube for trying to clean up its act—and that he’ll probably start bleeping the curse words in his videos so he doesn’t lose exposure. “You have to change with the times, or get crushed against the tide,” he said.

— David Sarno

Image: Tanya Derveaux's cleavage may not be suitable for minors. Credit: iPower.

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