NOT long ago, the Web seemed on the brink of bringing true democracy to entertainment. Through the most-viewed, most-discussed and highest-rated lists of sites like YouTube and Technorati, every Web user was a mini-studio boss, casting his vote for what deserved to be seen and heard. Soon, the Web promised, showbiz bigwigs would no longer shove their wares down the throat of the entertainment consumer! With the click of a mouse, every man was a king, able to vote with his eyeballs and watch his favorites rise to the top.
It became an article of cultural faith that the most-viewed list and its ilk told you what your fellow citizens really wanted to see and hear. So great has this belief been that the power of user voting has become the central organizing principle of an entire genre of websites such as YouTube and Digg.
Well, sometimes newborn democracies become Poland or Argentina and sometimes they become Iraq, and the Web's system of government suddenly looks precariously balanced between those models. One element fueling the uncertainty is the popularity of a device called a refresher, downloadable for free from refresher.com, which allows people to set their browsers to constantly refresh a given page, driving up the page's viewer counts by the minute. And refreshers aren't the only way to game the system: In a host of other ways, it turns out, YouTube fans have learned tricks to manipulate online viewer ratings.
The result is that in the last month, Web video megaplex YouTube has hosted an ongoing battle over the sanctity of the most viewed list. Accusations have flown and fingers have been pointed at some of the site's biggest stars, suggesting the system has been gamed, cheated and scammed.
At stake is nothing less than the reputations of the new era's first giants and the entire framework around which this new democracy has been constructed.
The first j'accuse in the current round appeared on the site in a video posted Oct. 23, by a v-blogger using the name Blunty3000. A British-accented Kevin Smith clone with trimmed beard and backward baseball cap, he begins, "The reason why a lot of YouTubers are talking about it is not because it's a new problem but because it's getting particularly bad at the moment. It's frustrating a lot of us who work to be entertaining in our videos and earn our viewers and earn our subscribers." Then Blunty3000 outlines the ways people can game the system, such as using refreshers and creating fake profiles to subscribe to one's profile, to push up one's placement in the all-important, holy of holies: the YouTube all-time-most-subscribed list.
Blunty3000, like many of the indignant voices in the debate, expresses in his video an almost desperately idealistic belief in the ability of the most viewed list, if purged of cheating, to perform the natural selection process. He says, "Being a YouTuber is about more than just being on the YouTube site and posting videos and making friends.
"It's an attitude and a spirit and playing fair. These people who I'm not calling YouTubers are not playing fair.... They don't earn any of it. I've earned my place on the most subscribed of all time by making videos that people are enjoying and they want to see more of." The halls of YouTube soon resounded with the sounds of an amen chorus, echoing Blunty3000's plea, and castigating alleged cheaters.
However, sneaking into the chorus was one voice who, it was soon said, perhaps protested too much. On Oct. 27, the v-blogger known by the name Littleloca posted a video titled "YouTube Cheaters" that dramatically escalated the debate. Along with Lonelygirl15 and Brookers, a young woman given a real-life producing deal based on her online efforts, Littleloca is one of the early successes to break beyond the confines of YouTube and garner mainstream media attention. The subject of a recent New Yorker magazine profile, Littleloca is the alter ego of Stevie Ryan, an L.A.-based actress who portrays the sass-talking chica in a series of highly viewed, straight-into-the-camera videos. In her video, Littleloca spoke out against the trend of cheating, explaining explicitly how a refresher can be obtained and used and then pointing an extensively manicured finger at some of her v-blogger colleagues, naming names and accusing them of rigging their rankings.
About one competitor, Littleloca was particularly forthright saying, "This one especially is all up there doing that because loca is all up on her back door knocking and I'm about to pass her and you know she cannot deal with the fact that loca might have more subscribers than her."
She continued, "A lot of these fools up here are cheating and you know what? If you gotta cheat, why you wasting so much time. We know this one ain't got a job so she has all day to be making up fake accounts and subscribing to her damn self."
Within a day, a 5-minute, 59-second video was posted by an anonymous v-blogger calling himself "RIGHTBACKatYOU2" detailing in deadpan, portentous tones reminiscent of a 9/11 conspiracy video how Littleloca herself has allegedly created false accounts to drive up the views and ratings of her videos. Littleloca could not be reached for comment.
Further accusations are still materializing. Among the feuding parties, however, remains an idealistic belief that somehow, some way, YouTube will intervene and this brief era of trickery will be dealt with, the cheaters vanquished and the true anointed will be restored to their thrones atop the most viewed.
As one anonymous v-blogger warns the bad element in a post titled "Cheaters Beware": "Rest assured that YouTube will be forced to act to prevent the scams you've been using up to now. If they do not the entire purpose and integrity of the community they've worked so hard to build will be irrevocably compromised ... Together the community of YouTube will triumph over cheaters, and scammers."
Actually, according to YouTube itself, help is on the way. In an e-mailed statement, Michael Powers, YouTube senior product manager, wrote, "There will always be a handful of people that try to get around the system but we have tools and technology in place to prevent this from happening. When it comes to our attention that someone has attempted to falsely increase their numbers to gain placement on the top pages we remove the video or channel from public view."
But if there is one thing that YouTube's short history has already demonstrated, it is that every new technology will be met by the forces determined to manipulate that technology for personal gain. In less than a year, YouTube has gone from zero to absolute Net dominance, to a question mark. What will the next year hold?
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It's an online crime wave
Two weeks ago we introduced the online virtual role-playing game Second Life. Here are excerpts from one week of its police blotter (TG refers to the game's Teen Grid):
Violation: Terms of Service: mature content
Description: TG 1st strike (nudity)
Action taken: Suspended 7 days
Violation: Community Standards: intolerance
Description: TG 1st strike (harassment and intolerance)
Action taken: Suspended 7 days
Violation: Terms of Service: chain letter or pyramid scheme
Description: Distributing pyramid-scheme objects
Action taken: Suspended 3 days
Violation: Terms of Service: teen profanity
Region: Sandbox Island 3 (TG)
Description: TG 3rd violation (profanity)
Action taken: Suspended 14 days
Violation: Community Standards: assault, safe area
Description: Repeatedly caging residents at a welcome area
Action taken: Warning issued
Violation: Forum Suspension: personal attacks
Description: Multiple inflammatory and unproductive personal attacks on other residents
Action taken: Suspended 3 days