ARTICLE BY GREENLIGHT INSIGHTS

Online anonymity just suffered a major blow and perhaps that's a good thing.

At Google's 2017 I/O developer conference, Youtube unveiled a breadth of enhancements for use within Google Daydream VR. The most prominent of these includes plans to forgo traditional text comments in favor for in-avatar audio voice chat. Youtube VR users will make cartoon-ish avatars and be transplanted to a 'room' that is transparent and completely surrounded by the 360-degree video. No definitive comments were made with how this function would work with 2D videos, but a theater-like experience is at least possible, if not likely.

Text has been the default communication in online environments. Youtube VR's decision to not include it at all speaks volumes to what the company sees as the future of the medium. Youtube clearly feels that its community would be happier/find it easier to communicate by voice instead of text. This is sure to become somewhat controversial given the spam and another objectionable commentary that is often found in YouTube's comments section.

Looking back at the previous year saw a period of increased aggression and bigoted opinion rampant in Youtube's comment section. This does not even include the controversial 2016 U.S. election. A topic as mundane as the Ghostbusters reboot garnered significant Youtube user feedback - an unfortunate percentage of which contained - or was viewed as containing - sexist, racist, and other hate-filled speech.

Troll culture has always enjoyed a presence on YouTube, in part due to the perceived anonymity of online comments. Adding voice changes this completely. Users will still maintain the mask of a username, but a significant portion of the disguise has been removed.

 

Oculus Rooms is a similar program already on the market for Gear VR users. That said, its user base is understandably far smaller than YouTube's.

Integrating full in-avatar voice chat could not only deepen the immersion but reduce the troll presence on its website. The goal is an amiable one, even if it likely will not be enough. Microsoft's Xbox 360 online interface was proof that - even with voices - troll culture continued to exist. Yet the added engagement of VR may turn the experience more personal and hopefully encourage users to better display their humanity.

Too much of Youtube VR's functionality remains obscured. Will VR users be put into random rooms or only with people on their friends' lists? Whether or not these audio messages can be recorded also matters. Finally, the maximum size of these virtual rooms is also in question. In theory, space is virtual and therefore limitless - and the idea of watching the latest Game of Thrones trailer in a room full of millions of fans reacting is intriguing. The more users, however, the more the voices will become lost as white noise that accompanies the video.

Youtube VR is making a major step forward. YouTube is a large and influential social media company, so expect others to emulate their decisions. Online text conversation may have just inched closer to extinction. It will be interesting to see the social impacts of such an advancement.