Love him or loathe him it's undeniable that John Bain, much better-known as TotalBiscuit, is a highly-influential video game personality with a huge and passionate fanbase. From his "WTF Is" video series where he gives initial thoughts on a game over footage, or the Co-Optional Podcast he hosts alongside Dodger and Jesse Cox, a large audience follows him no matter the platform he creates content on.
Over the past week Kotaku UK has been covering the problem of harassment on Twitch, with an emphasis on how it impacts 'normal' streamers as well as those with large fanbases. But John Bain operates on a whole other scale. I had a chance to chat with Bain earlier this week about his personal experiences curating and moderating audience comments across Twitch and Youtube. He also talked to me about his personal struggles trying to balance audience safety and comfort, with his own mental health needs. He's had a history tied to harassment of others, but he's also faced a lot of harassment for his attempts to improve. I certainly don't stand by everything he says and does, but I feel he has an important perspective to add on a topic we've spent a week now covering.
I've dealt — for the longest time that I can remember — with forums and communities of either my own making or the making of others, and I don't think it's a secret to a lot of people online that I've had problems dealing with that. There have been several incidents where I've blown up at people, and there have been a lot of drama incidents that are attached to my name — some of which completely rightly are my fault, some of which not really, or exaggerated — or in some cases completely made up. But I'm still in the business today.
I've been doing YouTube now as a job for eight years. I've been doing livestreaming as a job for eight years and as a hobby for over 12 years. I have a lot of experience now dealing with feedback in very, very large amounts. I wouldn't necessarily say I'm all that good at it and I've had to put in safeguards and work out systems that are restrictive but that work for me in order to maintain my mental health.
Chatting with Bain, it became quickly apparent that it has been a long-term struggle for him to handle the overwhelming amount of opinion that attaches itself to his work. The difference between constructive criticism and angry shouting can be tough to discern at the best of times. For Bain it wasn't until his wife stepped in that he realised his engagement with his community was badly affecting his ability to both be happy and enjoy his work.
I think it definitely came down to when my wife told me, "You care more about what people who hate you on the internet say than what people in your real life — friends and family who like you — think of you. That's a problem for me, and I don't think it's healthy." There's no question that it was true.
That's what encouraged me a couple of years ago to start going to therapy on and off, and I'm currently back doing therapy at the moment. I'm developing techniques to try and focus on the positive; to focus on constructive feedback that can actually be used to make things better for my audience, and not fixate too much on negative feedback that is non-constructive and angry.
After realising how much of an impact community engagement was having on his mental health, Bain began taking fairly drastic steps. He didn't cut off community engagement entirely but, in the face of poor management tools, he directed his audience towards other areas where he could better control the flood of negative content.
Three years ago, I shut down my YouTube comments and never turned them back on. The reality of it is, that on a channel of a certain size without extremely heavy, regular 24/7 moderation, YouTube comments become a complete shitshow. And that mainly comes down to the fact that the comments that float to the top are the ones that get the most engagement, and are the most controversial, not the ones that are the best.
The thumb down button doesn't work on YouTube, it never has. In chat, in the actual comments, thumbs down does literally nothing. Nothing. It's a button that doesn't work at all. It only takes a few people to respond to something and some people to thumb it up - whether it be fellow trolls or just people randomly — to get the most toxic comments at the top and to bury the constructive stuff.
I feel that it's not only a case of protecting yourself from that kind of constant stream of negativity, making sure that your mental health is stable and that you're not obsessing over that, but it's also a responsibility that you have as a content creator to protect your viewers from having to constantly see that. That's the main thing about the platform: it's a big platform and you're allowing people to come and use it to troll your audience and upset them. What's under your video, as far as I'm concerned, is something you're responsible for.
While many content creators make use of volunteer mods from within their communities to moderate content, especially when first starting up, Bain actively pushed back against the idea. For him, the fear of repercussions down the line was too high.
My policy is that I don't generally work with volunteers, because we've had problems with them in the past. If someone is under contract with me, and it's someone I'm actually paying, then I can rely on them to do a job. There's something I can point to in the contract if they're not doing that, that says, "Go do your job or find someone else who can." Volunteers can generally be the wrong people for the job, you know? It's this idea that you get a small amount of power, and I think it can really go to your head. Moderators fall prey to that all the time. As a smaller channel, you may be tempted to bring on one of your early fans to do that. They may overzealously moderate: they may have a bad reaction if you disagree with them later down the line. The biggest advice I can give is that, from the very start, you've got to be careful.
I asked Bain about automated and built-in tools, specifically with regards to what might work for smaller channels. Somewhat to my surprise, Twitter was his go-to example for an effective user-operated moderation tool suite.
Twitter's latest iteration of mute can actually affect a wide variety of different things, not just phrases or words. We've seen them implement the idea that if users have a default profile you can mute people based on that, because they understand that a lot of people register throwaway accounts and will re-register new accounts in order to continue the trolling process.
I have noticed that any kind of automated feature which mutes comments from accounts that are under a certain age is effective because, again, it provides a cooldown period: somebody might just be angry and want to lash out, but if they're still angry in seven days and want to lash out, that's a commitment — and the majority of people won't. They'll just get bored and move on if they're doing it for their own malicious enjoyment, and if they're doing it because they're mad, they might not be mad in a week. I found that extremely effective on our official subreddit, and that has proved to be a significant asset.
I think all platforms should probably move away from the block-based system that notifies a person that they've been banned, and towards mutes that do not, because it will generally reduce the amount of trolling. It's very, very effective. Block is considered by some trolls to be a victory — 4chan in particular. It has become an "if you block, we win" kind of thing. If you mute, that's not the case.
Subscriber-only chat on Twitch has created an environment where moderation is almost not required. We ban around one person a month as a result of using subscriber-only chat all the time. Really, who would want to pay $5 just to troll and get banned immediately? We no longer need a moderation team on Twitch as a result of using subscriber-only chat. That's not an option open to all creators but, if you can use it, you'll see a fast improvement in the chat.
I asked Bain about the kind of new tools he would like to see implemented, on YouTube in particular, in order to improve comments sections more generally.
I would love for YouTube to implement a system whereby you have to watch a certain period of the video in order to be able to comment at all. That would not only prevent drive-by trolling, but it would also prevent people that didn't bother to watch much of the video starting an argument over something that was never said. It would vastly decrease the amount of falsehoods that were spread. The more effort someone has to put in to posting something, the less likely they are to actually do it. When you put hurdles in the way of people, they can still speak their mind, but they have to put some effort into speaking their mind. The lower the effort that is involved in doing so, the more of the junk, the more of the noise and trolling that you're going to get.
Bain was fortunate to be in a position where he could afford to shut down his YouTube comments, a position many creators don't have the luxury of. While it did help, there was an undeniable financial hit.
I will say to a new channel, there is a monetary impact to shutting comments down. We took a financial hit in doing it, and YouTube doesn't want you to do it because they more strongly value videos that have engagement — comments count as engagement, thumbs-down counts as engagement. I wouldn't recommend shutting down the comments immediately by any stretch — they can be handled if you can find someone you can trust to deal with that. Just be careful because later down the line, especially if your channel grows, it may be that that person isn't appropriate for that job anymore. This is why I worry about new creators going straight for volunteer moderators.
One of the things Bain seemed most adamant to get across during our chat was that, while he may not have dealt with criticism as well as he should have, there's a big distinction to be drawn between constructive comments and malicious messages aimed at tearing down creators.
It can be hard sometimes to distinguish between what is well-meaning constructive criticism that may not be worded very well, and malicious trolling, the kind of criticism that is not useful. You do not have to value all criticism equally. If you show attention to those that put effort into their remarks, then you encourage others to put in effort to seek your attention. If you respond to negativity and trolling, you encourage more people to do it because you have demonstrated that you can be influenced — they can get a rise out of you. "Don't feed the trolls" is almost as old as the internet, and we seem to have forgotten that lately. I'm bad at it — I've always been bad at it. I have to work actively, mentally, to avoid engaging with those kinds of people. You just give them what they want. All they want is attention, they'll do whatever they can get to get it. You can, by example, create a better community and a better comments section by rewarding those that participate properly and are giving you useful feedback and you can discourage the other stuff by simply not giving it attention.
Just bear in mind YouTube and Twitch are very open platforms. People stumble across your videos all the time, and drive-by trolling always happens, especially on YouTube videos. Either get a moderator to clean it up, or encourage people to either go to an official forum or a subreddit that is easier to moderate and has better tools to moderate on. Even if you're going to leave your comments on, encourage people to go here instead to have a better discussion.
John Bain is someone whose experience in gaming video has to be respected. I was glad to hear about how he'd identified his problems with community engagement, and was in a position to take the steps he needed to maintain his mental health. At the same time, as Bain was quick to point out himself, many of his solutions he uses are either not available or financially viable for smaller creators. That highlights something important: if you've got access to money and tools, it is possible to get on top of toxic online comment communities.
My main feeling after talking to Bain was that with wider access to tools, and services learning from what other platforms do well, many of the problems regarding comments section and chat moderation could at least be improved. It would need an injection of cash from the platforms, but we're talking about companies owned by Amazon and Google here. And the problem isn't cash anyway, it's attitude. These platforms value their engagement metrics, and so incentivise creators to use them. Community engagement is at the heart of the business. The fact there's an awful underside to this is well-known to everyone. Whether there's a will to engage with fixing that remains to be seen.
[Disclosure: I have appeared on the Co-Optional Podcat with TotalBiscuit in the past]