The Untold Story of why YouTube is removing Community Contributions; YouTube CC History pt. 4

Rikki Poynter

Continued from Part III

Last time, we saw YouTube introduce new ways to add closed captions, as well as some UI improvements. Owing to these changes, the quantity of captioned videos increased drastically between 2009 and 2015. However, outside of accuracy improvements to automatic captioning, it cannot be said that quality was improving to match this quantity.

This lag in quality can be attributed to a problem many online platforms suffer from: Bundling closed captioning with subtitles. If you recall, YouTube had taken note of the growing internationalization of their platform and so began diverting resources accordingly. But at some point, international accessibility had became the greater priority. And this is noticeable through gradual changes in the UI, such as relabeling “automatic-captions” as “auto-generated” or naming the captions panel in YouTube Studio as “Subtitles”.

But as we will soon see, these changes were not only in name…

Although the terms captions and translated subtitles are used interchangeably, there is a slight nuance between the two. They differ in what additional information they provide. Closed captions are meant to complement the audio, and that means that in addition to a transcript of what is being said, there should also be sound cues. 

Whereas translated subtitles are meant to break language barriers, and more often include footnotes such as definitions or translations of proper names. It would not be correct to say that one is superior to the other, but they are meant for different purposes. 

Yet as one can imagine, bundling these two into a single feature would inevitably lead to an ambiguity of which form of transcription to adhere to. And that is precisely what happened on YouTube. Even if there were more and more captions by the day, these were not being authored with the needs of the Deaf Community in mind. 

In reaction to these low-quality captions, the NoMoreCraptions (sic) movement was born. The movement was headed by Michael Lockrey (aka TheDeafCaptioner) and Rikki Poynter, who came up with the name independently of one another. Yet theirs was a common goal: To spread awareness to combat low-quality captions.

If Google and YouTube aren’t going to do the right thing on accessibility, then it looks like it’s going to be down to you and me.

TheDeafCaptioner, 2014

Lockrey was among the earliest critics of YouTube’s low-quality captioning and other shortcomings in accessibility. His focus was on the inadequacy of automatically generated captions. Around the same time that YouTube was testing the closed-beta for community contributions, Lockrey launched A spiritual successor to CaptionTube, the web-app allows users to caption any YouTube video of their choosing (regardless of permissions) but they can only keep the caption files to themselves. A few years later, it also received a feature to auto-import automatic captions, so captioners would not have to start from scratch.

Of course, automatic captions were not the only problem. There were also the issues in manmade captioning, which became a lot more frequent once community contributions became available for all channels in late 2015. This is when Rikki Poynter comes into the picture.

The good thing is that with the announcement of the fan contribution subtitles and captions, more big YouTubers have had their viewers help them caption their videos, and that’s pretty awesome. Here’s the bad: A lot of these big YouTubers, okay a handful – so far that I’ve seen – of these big YouTubers, they don’t check over their stuff and there’s a lot of incorrect captions, not only incorrect, but there’s a lot of jokes that get put in there, and it basically looks like it’s all for laughs.

Rikki Poynter, Stop Adding Jokes and Useless Commentary Into YouTubers’ Captions!

Poynter would begin an extensive campaign to promote proper captioning and to fight against caption vandalism. Sadly much to her dismay, she was not able to make a whole lot of noise. It was rare to see any of these big channels taking responsibility for these low quality, sometimes even malicious, captions. 

You see, although community contributions were designed to have an independent contribution and review phase, all it took was a few alt-accounts for a person to force their captions to be accepted. It was an Achilles’ heel, and it would come back to bite YouTube in the near future…

2017 was a turning point for YouTube. At this point, over one billion videos had been automatically captioned! Approximately 15 million views came from automatic captions per day! Confident in their technology, YouTube slowly also began to make the automatic translation feature increasingly more prominent.

Whether or not if it was due to a vision of eventually fully automatizing captions and subtitles, around June they shut down their professional translation network. As if to fill the void, YouTube all of a sudden began actively promoting community contributions which they had been updating silently up until this point, through video tutorials:

(Click here if the above video is inaccessible)

Now that people were actually becoming aware of this feature, increasingly more channels began enabling community contributions. Consequently, as viewers caught on, community contributions would flourish. All of a sudden, it became possible for nearly any channel to be able to expand into an international audience once it reached a large enough following.

Alas, all the flaws and exploits which were present in 2016, were still there and would continue to remain there for some time to come. And over time, spammy and outright malicious captions grew increasingly in prominence. While Poynter and other critics kept trying to raise awareness on the issue, nobody was giving them the time of day. It was going to take a blunder so audacious and so mind-boggling, that people could not miss it.

On August 20, 2019, 3kliksphilip uploaded a video titled The Much Problem Of Translate on his kliksphilip side-channel, where he announces his decision to disable community contributions. He laments that he is tired of having to back-translate these so-called contributions to filter swear-words, self-promotions, or altered links that people were slipping in. A big YouTuber was finally bringing attention to a years’ long problem, but this was not the straw that broke the camel’s back, that would come only a few hours later on August 21.

So I was on the French version of YouTube, and I decided to click on a PewDiePie video, because who doesn’t want to watch a PewDiePie video, right? And this is what happens when you go on a PewDiePie video in a different language, that’s not English. 

So it looks perfectly fine before you do click on it, you know the title says “We BUILT the GREATEST thing in Minecraft”. But when you click on the video the title updates and says “SUBSCRIBE TO CHANNEL AT THE DESCRIPTION”. But then at the very top of the description, there’s a link which takes you to a completely different channel which says subscribe next to it, and it’s not PewDiePie’s, it has nothing to do with PewDiePie it’s a completely random YouTube channel.

JT, Pewdiepie’s Translators ruin his channel…

YouTuber JT would, unlike 3kliksphilips, actually call-out a caption saboteur who had done a lazy job covering his tracks. This however only led to an escalation of hostilities. Before anyone knew it Twitter and Reddit were rioting. PewDiePie himself wound end up disabling his community contributions and explaining why in a video, ironically, titled Best Week Ever, currently standing at over 18 million views!

YouTube finally took notice and at first tried to downplay their responsibility:

Failing to calm the crowd, YouTube then took a radical decision, which they never repealed, to make it so that any and all community contributions had to be verified by the video uploader. Any spam/misconduct sneaking into their captions would now be their sole responsibility:

As a result of these events, it became much more difficult for contributions to ever be published. Many submissions are currently stuck in limbo, waiting indefinitely for uploaders to publish them.
In the end, the toiling translators were demonized and the Deaf Community were still not getting properly captioned videos…

Was that the end of it? You wish! The team responsible for captioning in 2019 might have had some familiar faces, but their attitude was nothing like the team in 2009. Gone was the image of pioneers who were working tirelessly to bring accessibility to the internet who truly cared about what they were doing. All that remained was a façade, buried somewhere under the behemoth of all those robotic subtitles. 

Now, it would absolutely not be fair to say that the captions team was acting irresponsibly on their own accord, but rather under the wishes of their company at large. When people were ranting on Twitter, they were ranting to YouTube, not any of those amazing people. And it would seem that YouTube, as a company, chose to intervene here.

The decision to only allow uploaders to publish contributions taken by YouTube was an irrational one, hastily decided in the heat of the moment with little regard for consequences which would have mattered to a team whose priority was providing accessibility and not garnering reputation.

It was not long before people were asking for alternatives such as contribution moderators. But YouTube had other plans in mind… On April 23, 2020 (the anniversary of the first video on YouTube no less), The Creator Insider channel wanted to have a talk about The Future of Community Captions? They explain that they are considering completely removing community captions, seeing as content creators are unhappy with the feature, and seeing that contributions are not used “that much”.

Highly unusual for a video about accessibility features, where Google often boasts about their inclusivity, the only person featured in this video responsible for closed captions is Product Manager James Dillard. And that’s far from the only thing unusual about this announcement, Ashlee Boyer wrote an entire Twitter thread counting the oddities and unfortunate implications throughout the video.

Of course, since this was only a Creator Insider video, it didn’t get that big of an audience, only being noted by Deaf content creators as a possible red flag. Unchallenged, the decision was officialized by the end of July. The scheduled removal of Community Captions on September 28, was reported through the YouTube Help page, YouTube Support Community, and finally a now-unlisted Creator Insider video which provides the most detailed explanation for the course of action.

First of all, we get to see a glimpse of a change in the hierarchy concerning the captions team. It’s now a branch under the Creator Product team and we have the lead on that, Ariel Bardin to accompany the captions product manager James Dillard from the previous video. While a lot of points are demystified in this video, such as how this removal decision came in the wake of updates to the YouTube Studio and how YouTube would work to roll out a “role” system for people in need of captioning*, ultimately it misses the mark. The reasons provided here do not sufficiently justify the removal of this feature and drew much ire from the few people who did manage to find the link to the video.

* Minor note here, in YouTube’s realization of the idea, there are roles which allow for specific people to be assigned permission to contribute captions at all, instead of moderators in charge of approval.

Public outcry ensued soon after, with many YouTubers criticizing the decision. But as it has always been with captions, it’s been difficult to win the numbers game, as while these are moderately big channels they are not going to bring in 18 million views. There is currently a petition with over 500 thousand signatures. #DontRemoveYoutubeCCs eventually trended on Twitter at one point. Even a number of Deaf charities have pleaded with YouTube to reconsider. 

In hopes of appeasing those unhappy with the decision, YouTube has offered eligible channels a 6 month, later 1 year, Amara subscription. They also haphazardly began rolling out the new “roles” system which not only does not support closed captioning yet, but was missing closed captions on the announcement video for the first few days.

No matter how hard they might try to win people over, the decision to do away with community contributions altogether instead of attending to the issues which have made the feature exploitable is nothing short of betrayal. Not only a betrayal of users and content creators on YouTube’s platform but even Google’s own employees, some of whom waited almost a decade for community contributions to become a feature

Even though we have reached the present day, the history of closed captions is not over. It is merely turning over a new page. Where YouTube has fallen short, projects such as externally hosting community contributions have come about:

As for us here at Data Horde, we are working to collect as many of those contributions stuck in limbo, never to be accepted by the video uploader, as we can. In addition, we will also be grabbing caption credits, as YouTube made no comment on what was to come of these.

If you would be interested in this project head on over to the Discord Server bellow:

And finally, to all of the video uploaders out there, please take your time to accept any unpublished non-spam community captions on your channel while you still can. This is not only important because it feels like the right thing to do, but also because caption formatting and stylization are maintained only when an uploader accepts a contribution.

(Note that the editor preview might lie by rendering the captions differently. The English captions in the video below are an example of how this will work if a formatted contribution is accepted correctly.)

Make sure to also follow Data Horde in the coming days, as we bring more updates on the current situation and share resources to help content creators and viewers who will be harmed by the removal of community contributions…

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