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YouTube just says no to drug use

September 17, 2008|David Sarno; Maria Russo

YouTube has changed its "community guidelines," and among the changes handed down is a prohibition on videos containing "drug abuse." The phrase, like other parts of YouTube's rule set, came with no context, elucidation, examples or anything else that would help users figure out what "abuse" might actually mean in practice.

Of course, the subjectivity of YouTube's language is deliberate. If you've ever moderated a busy Internet site, a task that can require you to make hundreds of judgment calls an hour, you know there's no time to ponder every yea or nay -- you just gotta go with your gut.

YouTube, now home to tens of millions of videos, calls its enforcement approach a matter of common sense and partly relies on its users to flag material they consider questionable. "It's a combination of users policing the site and [the working of] our proprietary tools and technology that review videos 24 hours a day," Chris Dale, a YouTube spokesman, said in an interview. "If we come across content that does violate those guidelines as we clearly laid them out, we'll take them down."

"Clearly" is a bit of an overstatement. YouTube keeps the details of its policy vague so it has the wide latitude it needs to police its site without the need to explain every decision. The trouble is when enforcement decisions are not transparent, they start to look unfair and inconsistent. Users may have little sense of the reasoning (or lack thereof) that led to their video being yanked.

Take the recently popular videos about the drug salvia, which the New York Times reported on last week -- and which the tech-gossip blog Valleywag suggested might be purged under the new rule. They're a good example of an enforcement gray area. The hallucinogenic herb is still legal in most of the United States, and its effects have not yet been thoroughly studied, let alone proved harmful. As such, it's not clear who decides whether smoking this mint-family plant counts as "drug abuse" or just use. And YouTube won't say.

The case with booze is fuzzy too. The prohibition of "underage drinking" suggests that of-age drinking is acceptable, no matter how abuse-like that drinking looks. OK. But alcohol is a drug, so that means YouTube does not necessarily consider drinking "drug abuse." Slippery slope?

YouTube will also have to decide how to approach the sticky wicket of marijuana videos, in which it can be impossible to tell if the smoker has a state-sanctioned prescription, lives in a country where the activity is legal or is even smoking pot rather than, say, banana peel.

Not until drug videos do begin disappearing will we be able to tell whether there's any rhyme or reason to the application of the rule announced last week. But as far as a drug purge goes, count me as a skeptic. I doubt if YouTube tries to smoke out every last pot, salvia and alcohol video from its giant database. It'd be too much work, and with all that stuff already in its system, I doubt YouTube would have the motivation anyway.

-- David Sarno


Bill & Jerry: Men with a mission

When last we saw new friends Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates, in the first installment of the new Microsoft Corp. ad campaign, they were leaving a shopping mall where they'd run into each other at a discount shoe store. The second "episode" from ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky arrived last week, and Jerry and Bill have ventured further into the featureless heart of suburbia: They've moved in with a deeply average family.

Between the two ads, we can now see that the "series" is about Seinfeld and Gates' adventures trying to connect to normal folk -- a kind of super "Simple Life" in which men of historic proportions are shrunk down to Earth and inserted into the plodding routines of the workaday masses. Whether these commercials do anything to vivify Microsoft's bland image, the campaign is settling in as a watchable, much-discussed piece of Web entertainment. As of this writing, over 1 million people have viewed the new ad on YouTube.

The mall vignette was slammed with a tidal wave of dis by commentators -- including me -- who couldn't make sense of its meaning-impaired narrative and unfunny details. But this time, the critical seas are calmer. Nobler souls are even considering forgiveness for the original ad's sins. And for sure, the sequel, twice as long as the first, rolls amusingly along.

The new ad jokes about why Seinfeld was chosen as the face of the campaign, which after the first episode was still a mystery: Like both Microsoft and its charisma-lacking founder, Seinfeld needs an image revamp. As he says to Gates while lying on a kid's bed in the suburban split-level house, "You and I are a little out of it. You're living in some kinda moon house hovering over Seattle like the mother ship. I've got so many cars I get stuck in my own traffic. We need to connect with real people."

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