Thumbs down

It’s been a little over a month since YouTube removed public dislike counts on all videos.

Soon after this pronouncement, I noticed an interesting phenomenon begin to occur in the comments sections of YouTube videos. Users started making their own “dislike buttons.”

Comment saying "heres a dislike button for you guys. go wild"

Other users simply left one word comments that said… you guessed it.

A series of comments saying "dislike"

As an information architect, I’m fascinated by this kind of push-and-pull dynamic between the top-down directives of the platform and the bottom-up behavior of the users. Clearly the users of YouTube still want a way to publicly express their dislike of a video, as evidenced by the comments section workarounds they have come up with.

In a video accompanying the blog post, Matt Koval, Creator Liaison for YouTube, describes this change as mitigating a “whole other use” for disliking a video, which is to harass the creator of the video through something YouTube calls “dislike attacks.” At what point does a sincere dislike become an “attack” dislike? Your guess is as good as mine.

Typing out the word “dislike” is certainly a “whole other use” for a comments section. Will that be the next user forum to get gutted? I have to say, if curtailing harassment was the goal of this change, it’s utterly baffling why the comments section wouldn’t have been the first feature to be axed. I genuinely wonder if YouTube will eventually turn comments into some sort of one-way function where users can leave a comment that only the creator will be able to read, much like those suggestion boxes where one drops a folded up slip of paper into what feels like a void.

A series of boxes
Pictured: The future dynamic of the YouTube comments section?

I also found it amusing that one of the reasons Koval names for the dislike count being “a big problem” is because “half of YouTube’s mission is to give everyone a voice.” How is removing one of the key mechanisms for interaction between users anything but the precise opposite of that mission?

Besides, creators can still create their own commentary videos about why they dislike something. Surely several minutes worth of spoken commentary (plus the view and like counts of said commentary) has at least as much potential to “harass” as a thumbs down?

Indeed, there’s been no shortage of commentary from prolific, established YouTube creators about why this move makes little sense and worsens the user experience of the platform. One of the best I’ve seen is from Marques Brownlee:

One of the key points Brownlee makes is that the dislike count is not merely that—it is also one of two necessary halves of a like/dislike ratio that provides “the immediately glanceable piece of information that I can look at when I arrive at a video to know if it’s going to be worth my time.” Neutering dislikes also neuters likes.

(Maybe there’s a corollary to that famous IA mantra about “the creative organization of information”. Something like, “The selective destruction of information destroys other information”?)

If I see that a video has 3,000,000+ views and 27,000 likes, what does that mean? Is that… good? Is that a particularly well-received video? It’s widely acknowledged that the likes-to-views ratio on YouTube has always been low (I’ve seen several sources put it at 4:100 on average). Most users only watch the video and leave as soon as it’s done, even if it’s a video they enjoyed. I can’t assume that a like count that’s far below a view count is necessarily “bad.” The entire like/dislike mechanic is effectively meaningless to me now, save for whatever unseen, mysterious influence my choice might have on “the algorithm.”

Compare the image on the left to the image on the right. Which UI provides the user with the most helpful information in the shortest amount of time?

A side by side comparison of the same YouTube video. On the left is 27K likes. On the right is 27K likes, 498K dislikes.
Which UI provides the user with the most helpful information in the shortest amount of time?

If a user clicks on, say, a how-to video (or perhaps a video about COVID-19) and immediately sees a disproportionate number of dislikes, that’s an immediate indicator that the video is suspect—and not necessarily because the information is malicious or the creator is untrustworthy. It might simply be that the information is out of date, for example. But now the user will need to either sift through YouTube’s notorious comments section for a clue as to the general reception of the video (which seems less than ideal if the goal is to decrease harassment) or they will need to waste time watching more of the video than they otherwise would have because they need to figure out for themselves whether it’s worthwhile.

Hm, I think I may have hit on something. One of the side effects of this change is that a greater number of YouTube videos will attract lengthier watch times. That’s fantastic from the perspective of YouTube, their advertisers, and their shareholders, who want to be assured by perpetually climbing eyes-on-the-screen metrics. But from the perspective of YouTube users? Not so much. Think of it this way: if I wanted to maximize the time users spend on a piece of written content trying to find the information they’re looking for, I could remove all the headers and equalize the formatting. That would certainly boost time-on-page, but would it help usability? What would that say about my priorities as an information architect?

Information architecture is a balancing act between the business needs of stakeholders and the desires of users. Unfortunately, the decision of YouTube to remove the public dislike count has to be one of the most lopsided moves I’ve seen from a major platform in a long time. It is entirely in favor of the platform at the expense of the creators and users. I say this confidently because I quite literally have not seen a single actual YouTube creator speak out in favor of this decision. To quote Jawed Karim, YouTube co-founder and star of the first video ever uploaded to the platform:

Calling the removal of dislikes a good thing for creators cannot be done without conflict by someone holding the title of “YouTube’s Creator Liaison”. We know this because there exists not a single YouTube Creator who thinks removing dislikes is a good idea—for YouTube or for Creators.

Why would YouTube make this universally disliked change? There is a reason, but it’s not a good one, and not one that will be publicly disclosed. Instead, there will be references to various studies. Studies that apparently contradict the common sense of every YouTuber.

The ability to easily and quickly identify bad content is an essential feature of a user-generated content platform. Why? Because not all user-generated content is good. It can’t be. In fact, most of it is not good. And that’s OK. The idea was never that all content is good. The idea WAS, however, that among the flood of content, there are great creations waiting to be exposed. And for that to happen, the stuff that’s not great has to fall by the side as quickly as possible.

The process works, and there’s a name for it: the wisdom of the crowds. The process breaks when the platform interferes with it. Then, the platform invariably declines. Does YouTube want to become a place where everything is mediocre? Because nothing can be great if nothing is bad.

In business, there’s only one thing more important than “Make it better.” And that’s “Don’t fuck it up.”

I’ll take a guess as to the reason: I think this change is to appease the “large” creators, despite YouTube’s insistence to the opposite. No big-name movie, music, or game studio enjoys seeing their videos added ignominiously to a list of most-disliked YouTube videos. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they are probably less inclined to funnel marketing budgets towards platforms that have humiliated them. I’m not the first to posit this, although some other creators lend this idea less credence than I do, arguing that even the most thoroughly embarrassed brands see all press as good press. My retort: even if brands are willing to tolerate the short-term sting of shame, other entities might be less so. Some of those entities might even be closer to home than you realize.

Fortunately, there does exist a way to return the YouTube dislike counter: returnyoutubedislike.com. I’ve installed the Chrome extension. I would encourage any of my fellow daily YouTube viewers who are annoyed by this change to do the same. Judging from the resurfaced dislike counter on YouTube’s pronouncement video (pictured above), I can tell there are at least several hundreds of thousands of you.

If YouTube is a key contributor to what Richard Saul Wurman described in 1997 as the “tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilized world,” removing one of the mechanisms for people to make sense of that data—the public dislike count—is analogous to smashing the beacon of the lighthouse on that beach.

To those out there who agree with YouTube’s decision, I ask the following questions in full sincerity:

  • Would you support removing the ability for users to give one-star reviews on sites such as Etsy, Yelp, or Amazon in order to protect the mental health of merchants?
  • Would you support the criminalization of the Better Business Bureau and similar consumer protection nonprofits in order to protect businesses from possible targeted harassment?
  • Would you support the abolition of public election result data in order to protect defeated candidates from embarrassment?

For the sake of usability, transparency, and democracy, I hope your answers to those questions are a big, fat 👎.