A report about YouTube's 'Condom Challenge' deliberations shows why keeping toxic content off the site is such a challenge
- A recent New York Times report highlighted the difficulties YouTube faces when deciding whether or not controversial content should remain on its site.
- A policy review meeting held to discuss "Condom Challenge" videos, displayed just how seemingly arbitrary distinctions can be, even when the company's CEO, Susan Wojcicki, is involved.
- While these internal debates may be the most critical part of YouTube's business for it to get right, its ability to produce clear and repeatable results at the company's massive scale may ultimately be its toughest battle yet.
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At a recent policy review meeting at YouTube's headquarters in San Bruno, California, the company's chief exec, Susan Wojcicki, weighed-in on a certain set of "challenge" videos that had become wildly popular on the platform, according to a New York Times report last week.
The videos - which make up a phenomenon called the "Condom Challenge" - show a water-filled contraceptive falling onto a person's head in slow motion. Nothing is particularly raunchy about the videos (besides knowing that condoms are being used), and they are, admittedly, fascinating to watch.
The act, however, could potentially be harmful.
But just how harmful was up for debate in the meeting described by The Times and in the complicated world of content moderation, that distinction makes all the difference.
One employee, according to The Times, considered the videos to be "dangerous" - which, if no minors are involved, would allow them to stay on YouTube per the company's policy for challenge and prank specific content.
Wojcicki disagreed, however, and considered them to be "ultrahazardous," - a classification that would force all condom challenge videos to be taken down from the site.
"There's no reason we want people putting any kind of plastic over their head," Wojcicki said in the meeting, according to The Times.
The back-and-forth between YouTube's chief exec and the unnamed staffer highlights just how seemingly arbitrary these distinctions - which can mean all the difference between whether a video stays or goes - seem to be. And while these internal debates may be the most critical part of YouTube's business for it to get right, its ability to produce clear and repeatable results at the company's massive scale may ultimately be its toughest battle yet.
Using a 'scalpel' not a 'chainsaw'
The Times report did describe an internal structure YouTube created to handle controversial cases. According to The Times, an "incident commander" is assigned to each case and oversees the company's response. Alongside senior executives, these incident commanders will hold "content reviews" to decide on whether a video, or group of common videos, should remain.
But can a structure like this - that requires the coordination of senior executives - be applied to every escalation that YouTube faces?
The Times reporter who wrote the original piece, Daisuke Wakabayashi, tweeted last Wednesday that from what he observed during his time in San Bruno, the YouTube's head exec was more likely to handle content questions with a "scalpel" than a "chainsaw" - meaning Wojcicki prefers moving slow to be more precise, rather than dealing with a tough problem in one fell swoop.
"If we're here just being reactive and making arbitrary decisions, it's no longer a fair and just platform for everyone," Wojcicki told The Times reporter. "We want to do it in a way that is carefully thought out and systematic and nuanced so that we understand what are the changes that we're making."
But can YouTube seriously be "systematic and nuanced" in every problematic scenario it faces? How - across the seemingly endless amount of content uploaded onto the platform each day - can that scale?
As Marc S. Pritchard, brand officer of Procter & Gamble, put it in The Times report, YouTube has moved well beyond Wocicski's description of the platform, growing from a small city to a metropolis. Instead, he told Wojcicki, "You grew into a galaxy [and] that has implications beyond anything you would have ever known."
Ultimately, condom challenge videos - the ones that didn't include minors in them - remained.
When asked why YouTube made the decision, a company spokesperson referred Business Insider to its company policy on challenges and pranks.
Apparently, at some point along the way, Wojcicki decided that the videos were merely "dangerous."
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