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Inside YouTube, leaders seek "balance" after scandals

Neal Mohan, from YouTube Product Manager, look at a picture I saw on my phone. It's my cousin 5 years old, with curly brown hair and wide smile. He is a big fan of zombies, a fascination that could be unusual for children his age, and has long been obsessed with the Slender Man, an urban legend who stalks children. He found both on YouTube.

When I saw him a few weeks ago, he whispered to his aunt about relegating YouTube Kids, a version of Google's video application for children under 13 years old. He wanted to watch the video streaming service because that's where the zombie videos are.

I tell this story to Mohan, the former de facto YouTube leader after CEO Susan Wojcicki, as we discuss the recent YouTube issues involving kids on the platform, including pedophile rings, as well as YouTube Kids, which has struggled to gain ground. We sit in his office at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, about 15 km south of San Francisco. I tell him I know that the burden is also on the parents, but YouTube knows that there are children on his site who should not be there. I ask Mohan, 45, to imagine that my cousin is in the room and explain to him why he should not spend so much time watching YouTube.

Mohan, who has three children, including a 5-year-old girl, does not talk to zombies. Instead – always the product guy – he extols the virtues of YouTube Kids by emphasizing parental controls to set limits to the type and amount of content that kids can watch.

"There is a limit," says Mohan. "Like any other type of content, there is a limit." He added that YouTube Kids had 20 million weekly users – tiny by YouTube standards, that is 2 billion monthly users on the main application – but that it 's only $ 4 million. was acting "from an area of ​​investment."

This kind of questions is no stranger to Mohan. As the problems faced by technology companies change, everything must be done to protect themselves foreign interference in elections to address people greatest desire for online privacy – Mohan represents a leading product model whose role has also evolved. Now more than ever, he has to think of more than just new features, bells and whistles.

It also takes into account the perverse effects of YouTube products, including how its automated recommendation engine might drive extremist content or promote misinformation in times of crisis. His job is to protect and expand the world's largest video hosting platform. Whenever YouTube executives talk about the work of securing their services, they see it as a "liability," as if it had a capital R.

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Neal Mohan is the right-wing executive of Executive Director Susan Wojcicki.

James Martin / CNET

"Susan asked her to play a major role in defining responsibilities," said Jennifer Flannery O Connor, director of product management at YouTube, and former Mohan's chief of staff. "It is now a recurring problem that is an integral part of his daily and weekly work."

Although he's not the CEO, Mohan, an 11-year-old Google veteran, is playing an increasingly important role in determining what will become of the vast empire of video. As YouTube grows, its relationship to society and democracy is complicated. This puts Mohan in the spotlight as it chairs our first point of contact with YouTube, the technical elements and code that make up its application and its home page, even as its policies and lines make the big ones. securities.

"YouTube has an identity crisis," a former executive told me. "It starts with the product, it does not start with the content."

On Thursday, Mohan unveiled new tools to help video creators make money on YouTube, during his speech at VidCon, the annual celebration of online video culture in Anaheim, California. A new feature, according to a copy of the speech delivered in advance to CNET, allows fans to support their favorite creators by subscribing to their channels via different paid subscription levels. Another tool relies on a feature introduced two years ago called Super Chat, which allows people to pay for their comments to stand out during the live broadcast. From now on, the creators will be able to propose to the televiewers digital stickers that they will be able to buy during the flows.

In an interview at the end of June, in front of VidCon, Mohan and I also discussed whether YouTube is a media company that should be held accountable for the rules and responsibilities that flow from it. (Mohan says this is not the case.) And we talked about the exhausting work of content moderators, who are responsible for blocking objectionable content in real time if automated filters do not detect it. Mohan said that he had never experienced a complete change in content moderation, just like the 10,000 workers hired by YouTube and Google around the world. But Mohan told me that he was committed to doing one.

Technology companies have always hesitated to assume their responsibilities when their platforms are abused. But as Silicon Valley faces a reaction from lawmakers, regulators and the public, the sector is becoming more and more proactive. On Twitter, product manager Kayvon Beykpour talks about the "health" of the conversation on the platform. Facebook has not had an official product manager since the departure of Chris Cox, who had announced his departure in March. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company had a "broader view of responsibility" to deal with the unintended consequences of its services.

Mohan still thinks his job is to develop YouTube's services. This includes developing new features for products such as YouTube Music, a Spotify competitor, and YouTube TV, a cord cutter service. But he recognizes that his role must go beyond that. According to Mr. Mohan, part of YouTube's management is to "find a balance" between the open platform of the site – anyone can post a video on the site – and the community guidelines outlawing hate speech and abuse, a mission defined by Wojcicki.

"I see [dealing with the scandals] as part of the focus on products, "he explains. Susan has set out this vision for YouTube. And my job – taking this direction and executing it – is not just about all this product innovation, but addressing what I think we should assume as part of our responsibility as a platform. world form. And I think that they go together. "

YouTube has refused to make Wojcicki available for an interview. But in a statement, she echoed Mohan's feelings. "His leadership and problem-solving skills have helped us focus more on the responsibility and protection of the YouTube community, while preserving the magic of the open platform," said Wojcicki.

Or, as VidCon co-founder Hank Green says, "YouTube is powerful and everyone has noticed, you will have to be more accountable now."

"This work is just as critical"

At VidCon, Mohan will divert the attention of controversies to turn to new features. The Southern California Conference, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, is the world's largest gathering of online video personalities. On Thursday, YouTube will unveil new features designed to give creators more ways to make money beyond advertising, the primary source for entering the site.

A new tool is the membership levels. YouTube already allows people to pay monthly fees creators with at least 30,000 subscribers. The idea is to support them as a sponsor or a PBS donor. The $ 4.99 fee allows subscribers to access items such as unique badges, personalized emoji, member-only posts, and exclusive live streams. YouTube will now allow creators to set five different subscription levels at prices ranging from 99 cents to $ 49.99. The model is similar to the competing Patreon platform, which also allows creators to set up membership subscriptions.

Mohan also said that Super Chat, the feature that allows people to pay for their comments to be highlighted during live broadcast, is active on 90,000 channels, some creators earning up to $ 400 per minute . (YouTube will not say how much.) The company said it was the largest source of revenue for nearly 20,000 channels. YouTube goes even further with the introduction of Super Stickers, which will allow fans to buy digital artwork and emoji during live broadcast.

YouTube also unveils an educational product called Learning Playlists, which groups videos around certain topics and organizes them into chapters. He classifies lessons by difficulty, from beginner to advanced. The company works in partnership with services such as Khan Academy and TED-Ed for feature film. YouTube will also hide video recommendations from reading pages in playlists to help encourage viewers to focus on the lessons they are currently viewing.

Giving YouTube personalities more ways to earn money is a noticeable move, as YouTube has been closely scrutinized for its commercial ad model, which once favored user engagement . Critics say that the financial incentive encourages video creators to be more far-fetched, provocative or extreme, resulting in much of the toxic or marginal content of the platform.

The creative business economy made headlines last month, when YouTube was criticized for do not close the chain of Steven Crowder, a conservative humorist who has made racist and homophobic abuses at the home of Carlos Maza, a progressive Latin-gay journalist. YouTube has instead demonetized Crowder, an approach that deprives it of shared advertising revenue. Crowder is making fun of this decision by calling it ineffective, saying that he could still earn money outside of YouTube by selling products.

Mohan defends the practice of demonetizing by calling it "an important leverage". (YouTube declined to disclose the total amount of its sales or creators via advertising revenue sharing.)

"I can not speak for the particular channel [Crowder’s]But, in my experience, monetization is an incentive for many creators of the platform. And revoking this privilege for a reason related to a code of conduct or policy usually has an impact. "

Mohan also told VidCon that YouTube is updating its policy on abuse, particularly with respect to harassment from creator to creator. The company said the move was not motivated by the incident between Crowder and Maza. YouTube will not reveal more details, but said the change would come later this year.

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When Susan Wojcicki became CEO of YouTube in 2014, she asked Mohan to become his assistant.


"This work is just as crucial to the future of the YouTube community as any product launch," Mohan said.

While YouTube introduces new tools for alternative revenue streams, Mohan, a veteran of Google's giant ads operation, says that there will likely be no seismic change in the business model in the near future. "Ads are the primary means by which creators generate money on the platform," he said. "I do not see that changing in the near future."

The big city

When YouTube executives talk about platform issues, they often use the same analogy: a growing city. When the video site was created in 2005, it was a small, sparsely populated city with simple rules. A year later, after its acquisition by Google as part of a $ 1.65 billion stock deal, the city began to expand. It is now a sprawling metropolis with its own cultures and customs, but also its own crime and security problems, its burglars, its graffiti and its tangled roads. It takes a police force, hospitals and social services more important for the city, with all its unique neighborhoods, continues to hum.

Wojcicki used the analogy when she spoke at conferences during the past year. Mohan used it during our interview for more than an hour in June.

So Mohan's mother should have a doctorate. in urban geography, study the architecture and operation of cities. His father was a civil engineer who worked on large projects such as nuclear power plants and airports. He earned his PhD at Purdue University after emigrating from India in 1973. Mohan was born on campus.

Finally, Mohan's father wanted to bring back his engineering skills to India. The family moved and Mohan attended Lucknow High School. He returned to the United States to attend Stanford in 1992, after graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He earned his MBA at the university in 2005.

Mohan joined Google as a result of the company's acquisition of the DoubleClick advertising technology company in 2008, a $ 3.1 billion buyout that helped reinforce Google's dominance in digital advertising. Wojcicki, who is credited with the success of Google's ad network as a $ 100 billion a year, has asked her to become his deputy after being appointed CEO of YouTube in 2014.

Now, Mohan is one of the most powerful product managers in the world. He meets the most popular YouTube creators, like Lilly Singh and MatPat, and befriends NBA star Kevin Durant. On YouTube, Mohan has been working to expand the range of product offerings. Under his leadership, the company has added YouTube Premium, a paid subscription service with product content in Hollywood and no advertising. Youtube music; and YouTube TV. Even so, Mohan said that he did not think that YouTube was a media company because it was mainly an open platform allowing users to download content. When pressed, it does not directly address issues that might come from regulators who might disagree.

Mohan said YouTube is investing "heavily" in these subscription and streaming services. If you watched the playoffs of the NBA, it was obvious that the company wanted to spread the word on television on YouTube. The service aired commercials at major games and placed its logo on the hardwood of the NBA grounds. YouTube declined to disclose how much it had spent on marketing its new television service.

Toronto Raptors face Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of NBA Finals

YouTube TV has stuck its logo on the floor of Oracle Arena during the NBA playoffs.


Mohan, a hardcore basketball fan with season tickets for Golden State Warriors, has always known that it was essential to broadcast live sports events on YouTube TV. "Neal has really helped to ensure that YouTube has a good relationship with the sports leagues," said Christian Oestlien, vice president of product management for YouTube TV. "Because of his position, he can talk about the direction the world is taking, not just for creators, but for mainstream media as well."

A former YouTube employee who worked with Mohan said he was a "capable" leader and a longtime googler, "well placed" to become a product manager. But recent YouTube scandals – and the damage they may have caused to the brand – could hurt its cause.

For subscription services, "they should perhaps consider changing the full name to another name" and call the free YouTube version, said the former employee. Paid services could then make a fresh start as a new brand. "YouTube gets pounded" by the bad press, said this person. "It must have an impact."

The wheel of the boat

The Mohan office looks like the physical embodiment of the YouTube home page. It is lined with red trim and red shelves in the same shade as the company's iconic logo. The sofa under a massive window has four cushions that look like YouTube play buttons. A large ship's wheel hangs on the wall, above a conference table, a perfect backdrop for one of YouTube's top executives.

The room is vibrant and happy. It is adorned with sports memorabilia, from a 1980s boom-type box to the YouTube brand and from several awards given to Mohan during his tenure as a Google executive. It seems designed to celebrate all that is good with YouTube. But there is one element that alludes to the current struggles of the platform. A cup on Mohan's desk that says, "Harmful in the context of transmitting false information."

He nods at the role played by YouTube in spreading misinformation. With Facebook and Twitter, YouTube suffered a setback after the 2016 US presidential election for helping the Russians spread false news. After shooting Parkland High School last year, YouTube's YouTube channel highlighted a video claiming that one of the teenage survivors, David Hogg, was a movie. crisis actor paid.

But even in less scandalous cases, YouTube's tools can still help disseminate false information. When Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire in April, YouTube's systems acted appropriately and they only made the news coverage authoritative, coming from media such as France 24 and NBC News. But under some of the live video feeds, YouTube's algorithm has accidentally placed a presentation text containing information. on the terrorist attacks of September 11. The automated tools of the platform misclassified the video. Ironically, the presentation feature, announced last year, was launched to help demystify fake news videos, such as those of 9 September truth writers. After the Notre-Dame fire, YouTube said its software had made the "wrong call".

"Nobody here, including myself, was happy about that," Mohan says now. "We want it to work properly, but the technology will not always be 100% perfect, so the best we can do is try to fix it as quickly as possible."

Compared to videos on neo-Nazi and conspiracy theory, which have also been broadcast on YouTube, Notre Dame's error is relatively harmless. But this shows how, at the scale of YouTube (more than 500 hours of video are downloaded every minute), small errors can be magnified.

Since the beginning, Google has given priority to the growth of the site, says Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube. While the search giant was working on closing the YouTube acquisition in 2006, Eric Schmidt, then CEO, dismissed it at a meeting.

"You have the opportunity to steer the ship completely," recalls Chen, telling him about Schmidt. "As long as we agree on this simple checkbox." The goal was neither monetization nor income. Instead, it was to increase the number of views, downloads and the number of users, says Chen. Schmidt, through his company Schmidt Futures, did not return a request for comment.

Today, Mohan does not believe YouTube is too big. Instead, he argues that the size of YouTube benefits society because it gives people a voice. "I think the amount of good it brings to all our users around the world is hugely outweighing some of the challenges that exist in dealing with the platform's controversial content," he said. He adds that he does not "think too much" about antitrust concerns, even as US and European lawmakers and regulators call for the breakup of large technology companies.

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YouTube's biggest problems have recently been the controversial content of the platform. It's hard to please everyone, but Mohan insisted that the company did not decide content based on who might be offended, particularly because of the Republican accusations and President Trump lob of anticonvervating bias on YouTube and Google, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

"When we talk [internally] About the violent extremism on the platform, we try to do everything we can to protect our users and eliminate the platform of this type of content, "says Mohan," without any kind of nod "If we do that, here's how some ridings will react, and blah, blah, blah."

Like its peers in the industry, YouTube has used moderators to help it use its automated tools to filter toxic content. The work may be painful, with some Facebook entrepreneurs apparently experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Moderation decisions ultimately fall under Wojcicki's responsibility, but Mohan acknowledged that it was important for leaders to know what moderators are living.

"Unless you're in those shoes, you do not really understand," he says. It has never completely changed the moderation of YouTube's content, but claims that it has no problem doing so. When we asked him during our interview he was committed to doing one, he answered yes.

YouTube on VidCon - Day 1

Mohan is speaking at the VidCon conference last year.


YouTube has also been criticized for its recommendation engine, accused of leading viewers to more and more extreme content, such as videos of white supremacists or sexualized children. The feature, called the "Up Next" tool, has been blamed for turning YouTube into "Great Radicalizer."

Green, co-founder of VidCon, said YouTube should be more open about its recommendation algorithm. He does not think YouTube should share it with the public because it could be played by creators and bad actors seeking to strengthen engagement or influence people's point of view. But he adds that the company could give the data to university researchers to study watching habits so that YouTube can learn to be more responsible for the recommendations.

"They have the data to understand all these problems," says Green. "They do not study it because they think they do not need it or because they're scared of what they're going to go through." find, it's problematic. "

Mohan also declined to say if YouTube could follow Facebook's example by handing it to a third-party content monitoring committee – a kind of court outside the Supreme Court – that would decide videos and channels remaining or not broadcast from the site.

After spending time with Mohan, it's clear that he likes to talk about products like YouTube Music much more than, say, employee retaliation against YouTube for LGBTQ-related issues. But he says that he understands this obligation. This is especially urgent because, at the scale of YouTube, every mistake could mean that a creator is being bullied or that a child is surfing on a site that is not his or her not intended, because the alternative reserved for children is not convincing.

At VidCon, Mohan plans to double this message of responsibility.

"Sometimes this work is slower than you would like – and frankly, slower than I would like it to be," he said, according to the speech. "But we are progressing well."

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