Maybe it was the body language, with the interviewer leaning forward, consulting a shiny notebook on occasion to draw upon for sharp points, and with the subject of the interview, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, sometimes squinting at the questions as if unclear what was so difficult to understand about what her company is trying to do.
Whatever the reason, a late Tuesday afternoon talk winding down the Interactive portion of South by Southwest made for some sharp turns and was more proof that YouTube has been having a very bad year or so. The interviewer, Wired editor Nicholas Thompson, held little back, expressing skepticism at some of Wojcicki’s answers or volleying them back incredulously, or asking questions that put Wojcicki in the uncomfortable position of defending YouTube on freedom of speech issues versus what it’s doing to clamp down on hateful and potentially dangerous comments and video content.
For her part, Wojcicki tried to remain positive about the complexity of the challenges that YouTube, the company she’s led for four years, faces, touting the company’s efforts to fight fake news, to steer users away from conspiracy theory content and giving viewers better experiences (versus what she likened to bingeing on junk food).
She said, “What this year has really shown is that sometimes those freedoms are in conflict with each other. The last year has shown us how important it is for us to get that right and to deliver the right information at the right time,” she said.
To that end, she spoke about several efforts YouTube is making to address the problems it’s been having, including tweaking its algorithm to favor legitimate news sources in sections such as its Breaking News Shelf. Wojcicki said it’s important to the company to provide a window on real-world events that are happening. “If something really significant has happened and we’re not showing it to (viewers), we are missing an opportunity,” she said.
Thompson, however, was persistent and sarcastic, pointing out again and again the impossible challenge YouTube faces in not only defining a line between what should stay on the platform and what should go, and the folly of allowing machines to make that judgment call (even with human oversight). “Where does morality come in?” was a typical question of Thompson that Wojcicki struggled to answer in any satisfying way.
Wojcicki showed an example of how YouTube will address conspiracy theories: by adding text to some videos from third-party sources (such as Wikipedia), giving more context for, say, the 1969 moon landing or videos about “Chemtrails.”
The issues YouTube is trying to fix, she said, are “Clearly difficult and complicated” and largely subjective. While Thompson pointed out it’s a slippery slope recommending videos to users that might guide them from vegetarianism to veganism and marathons to ultramathons (the logic being that YouTube might drive an intensely interested person toward one form of extremism or another), Wojcicki said it’s not YouTube’s job to make certain judgment calls about how people behave. “We don’t want it to be us saying people shouldn’t eat donuts,” she said, following up on her earlier junk food analogy.
On toxic comments, she said YouTube is still working to identify and remove comments that are harassing and creating a ranking system for comments. She said she’s like to see improvements in comments being more time-based, tying in to specific parts of a video with a time stamp, for instance.
The optics of the aggressiveness of the questions and the gender dynamics was dicey; Thompson is male and Wojcicki is one of the few women in the tech industry to hold a CEO position at such a large and well-known brand.
In the @SXSW session with @SusanWojcicki, CEO of @YouTube, and the moderator is enjoying himself while grilling her with tough questions while she is... #Interrogation #SXSW pic.twitter.com/BOtlKRN8uA— Will Nash (@WillGlennNash) March 13, 2018
When Thompson asked Wojcicki an audience question about how she’s survived in such a male-dominated industry, however, she avoided any kind of #MeToo moment, saying only that she’s enjoyed working at YouTube, which has given her an environment to thrive.
“I don’t give up very easily. I'm not gonna give up on these hard issues,” she said, “I'm gonna work really hard to find a solution for them and address them.”