The Uncanny Valley

Elizabeth Bridges - Writer, Professor, Reviewer

An Open Letter to YouTube

Dear YouTube,

In adjusting your “restricted” algorithms in such a way that much of your LGBTQ content is now blocked from normal view, you have sent a message to LGBTQ people, especially to young people. You have sent the message that our lives are “inappropriate content.”

Tweeted by @xxFoomaticxx, 3/20/2017

Some blocked content includes episodes of the web series Carmilla (which warrants a PG rating at best), music videos by popular artists like Hayley Kiyoko and Tegan & Sara, Tyler Oakley’s sunshiney content, young people’s empowering “It Gets Better” videos, coming out stories, humorous blogs, kids’ “fashion haul” vids, TV show reaction videos, and a user on my twitter timeline even reported that her own wedding video came up restricted.

Sure, your algorithm probably happens to catch some heterosexual content as well, but does it catch that content because it is heterosexual? No. Most likely for other reasons. Is your algorithm set specifically to key on terms like gay, lesbian, LGBT, queer, nonbinary, trans, etc. when they co-occur with certain other terms? My guess is, probably so. And if so, that is discriminatory. That is bigotry. That is a way to police what you consider appropriate viewing for young LGBTQ people.

Can we adults adjust the settings on our YouTube such that it doesn’t filter results? Absolutely? Can young people? Maybe. But parents, schools, and other institutions can also lock the settings so that they can’t be adjusted.

What’s the harm, you say? So what if kids can’t see a couple of music videos?

Here’s the harm:

The restricted setting is the default setting. Your default setting means that your huge company, pretty much the arbiter of all video content online, has determined that our coming out stories, weddings, music videos, humor, fashion, art, culture, entertainment, everyday lives are – by default – inappropriate. Yet, there is nothing pornographic or inherently sexual about anything I’m describing here.

Tweeted by @kateleth, 3/20/2017

As comic artist and writer Kate Leth put it, “LGBTQ+ content is only perceived as inherently adult or sexual because we’ve accepted heterosexuality as the safe default but IT AIN’T.” What she points to here is important, crucial in fact. We as a culture constantly expose kids to a kind of sexuality. They see weddings and kissing and romance and love and families all the time: the heterosexual variety. Are those things all inherently sexual? No. Neither are they in a LGBTQ context. Why, then, would our video content of a similar nature be considered “sensitive,” to use the terminology from a lame, too-little-too-late announcement hastily slapped up on Twitter Sunday night?

Tweeted by @YTCreators, 3/19/2017

The answer, of course, is simple: homophobia & transphobia.

And by the way, getting my life reduced to a “sensitive issue” is ridiculously insulting.

Perhaps some parents or other viewers out there might think that YouTube is capable of “making kids gay.” Well, newsflash, kids are gay. There are LGBTQ children. I remember having thoughts and feelings I now associate with being queer as early as three or four years old. It happened. I had no name for it, no peg to hang it on, zero outside influences that could’ve prompted it, but it was there just the same. In smalltown Arkansas, in my very earliest memories when it was still the 1970s. Limiting kids’ exposure to LGBTQ content online might delay their coming out process, but it won’t halt it.

And worse still, restricting access to that kind of information and online community can have horribly detrimental effects. Me? I had nothing as a kid or teen. Nothing. I knew no one. Had nothing in the media that was positive, and what little that did exist was entirely negative. I’ve talked about that in other posts (particularly here), so I won’t go on about it. But what I will say is that the first “places” I went when I came out in my 20s were TV shows (Xena, and later Buffy) and the internet (AIM, aol chat). Media representation and personal connections, in other words.

The choice to come out was a life-or-death choice for me, as it is for all of us. I couldn’t live another day in the profound misery and loneliness of hiding who I was. I also knew I needed people to reach out to, and the real world wasn’t exactly cutting it. I knew two other gay women at the time (a couple, of course – my luck, right?), and I wasn’t super close to them.

I didn’t have something like YouTube, but that’s one of the first places this generation of kids goes when they come out, or even think about coming out. It’s a source of education, connection, community, empowerment, and representation. It’s a place where they can see young people like themselves and feel okay. Maybe for the first time ever.

That is literally life-saving for some kids.

And in making the choice to restrict content that might otherwise save even one young person’s life, you are showing what you’re really about, YouTube.

Say what you want about algorithms, “unfortunate oversights,” “sensitive issues,” or what parents have supposedly requested. The fact is that you – a huge and powerful company – are telling us that our lives and our experiences are “inappropriate content.” And you are telling not only us, but other people as well, people who will take that message and use it against us, like they always do every chance they get. Like they’re already doing – have you looked at your Twitter replies? Do you really want to be a part of that – to endorse it? Because you’re doing exactly that. Right now.

As a subsidiary of Google, you claim to be pro-everybody, or so your pseudo-inspiring TV commercials appear to show.

If you are the company you claim to be and embody the values you purport to exemplify, fix this now. Or we will assume, as you have now shown us, that you are indeed discriminatory and homophobic. And you can expect to be the target of our ongoing public airing of your utter hypocrisy. It’s your choice.

Here’s hoping you make the right one.

– Elizabeth, aka Prof.

8 Comments

  1. Elizabeth,

    thank you for this open letter! You expressed our (LGBTQ+) concerns more than adequately to YOUTOUBE. What YOUTOUBE is executing is an insult nothing less! If they will not change their attitude i shall henceforth stop using their site. Easily done.
    Thank you again.
    Sam

    • EB

      March 20, 2017 at 4:35 pm

      You’re welcome. I had to say something. I couldn’t not, ya know? I don’t know that it’ll fall under the right sets of eyes, but stranger things have happened. You never know I guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ This is a real mess, and I think the str8 world does not necessarily get why. What for them is just fun entertainment can be a lifeline for us. Actually, I think I just stumbled onto what’s basically the theme of my entire blog there.

  2. Thank you for voicing thoughts I had no capacity to articulate so well. As usual. I needed to read that and have something to share.

    • EB

      March 20, 2017 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks for reading. I wrote it partly to help give that stuff a voice, for myself and for y’all. Glad it was helpful. This is a frustrating mess. I had to say something. Couldn’t sit on my hands on this one.

  3. Great article!!

  4. Riley Yawn-White

    March 23, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    A professor of mine (and a colleague of yours) directed me to this article as I had shared my concerns with her on this issue, specifically after seeing Natasha Negovanlis’ (aka Carmilla) about the episodes being blocked. A huge center of my research as an undergrad is on the necessity of queer role models in the public sphere and media and how important the internet is for LGBT adolescents who have no real-life queer influences to look up to. When I heard about this whole hot mess I was so frustrated that I couldn’t even articulate my frustrations to anyone I was telling about it. I had to resort to simply wordlessly showing them screenshots of tweets and pulling up Hayley Kiyoko music videos to show their blockages, accompanying each item with a series of increasingly erratic grunts. But you summed up pretty much everything I feel so articulately that now I don’t have to be non-verbal in my discontent, so thank you for supplying your voice in place of those who for whatever reason can’t.

    Riley

    • EB

      March 31, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Hello Riley, Thanks for getting in touch. I’m so glad you did. That’s essentially why I wrote this. I don’t expect that YouTube will really care that one prof with a blog wrote this open letter. It got retweeted and shared a good bit, but who knows if anyone of import saw it? I mean maybe? But who knows? Half of why I write what I write on here is to try to articulate what I know a lot of my younger readers are feeling and let them know that they’re not alone. Contrary to what I see younger folks indicating on social media a lot of the time, your concerns are far from generation-specific. I’ve lived long enough to see a *lot* of progress, but not nearly enough. We’re all in this together. And yay Carmilla! Love the energy of the fandom and the show. I saw Natasha and Elise briefly at a party at ClexaCon though I didn’t get a chance to speak to them. As you might imagine, they were lovely. But strangely tiny. I imagined them taller for some reason.

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