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Who (or What) Killed YouTube’s Direct Messenger?

Tech

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A messaging feature in YouTube is going the way of prior Google social efforts like Allo, Spark, and G+.

YouTube Messenger made its debut in August 2017 as a way to enable sharing of videos (and, as a result, increases in traffic) between users and their friends or followers. The service was added to the web interface in May of the following year. But this week, its shuttering was quietly announced, not with a blog post but with a post in YouTube’s support forums.

“Heads Up: we’re removing the ability to message directly on YouTube after September 18,” the post was titled, with a four line note about its removal. Although their brief message cited a desire to focus on the quality of the platform’s public conversations, such an answer feels incomplete. Further, given the larger move that other popular social media networks have made toward private communication, it’s difficult to justify from a market need perspective. While we may never know the precise reason (or combination of reasons) that led to this decision, we break down a few possible options here.

Possible Culprit #1: Spam

It’s possible that, like Google Plus, the Messenger feature was plaguing users with spam requests, messages, and videos. For my part, I do recall using the now-defunct platform primarily for the Hangouts function, only to find that random users would hop on and off the calls I shared with friends and colleagues. Critics of G+ repeatedly used the term “drowning” to describe their inundation with unwanted or uninvited messages.

But this doesn’t seem like the likely culprit for YouTube’s direct messaging. For one, it’s not as popular enough of a feature to merit that type of throttling from spammers and bots. For another, if this were the case, it’s likely that more users would have noticed or reported the issue. But in this explanation, lies a second, more likely contributor to the tool’s shuttering.

Possible Culprit #2: Underutilization

Even a company the size of Google, which has…everything to burn: money, time, resources, and the like, can choose to not pursue something that isn’t worth the team’s attention. And direct messaging on the site could easily be counted among those things. The company isn’t afraid to shutter products that underperform (see also: Allo, Spark, or even Google Plus when the time came). And has someone who was only fully aware of the feature within the last two months or so, it’s easy to imagine that many other users had similarly overlooked—and therefore, not used—the tool.

This seems like the most likely cause for the feature’s coming shutdown. And yet that doesn’t mean that the brief announcement didn’t come without complaints. Who those complaints came from, though, could hold the key behind the most likely reason that direct messaging is leaving the platform.

Possible Culprit #3: Further Crackdowns on the Kid Experience

Sarah Perez’s examination of the decision for TechCrunch focused on one very specific element of the blowback on the Support post: the most vocal dismay seemed to come from the site’s youngest users. As she highlighted selections from the comments, she pointed out some of the common sentiments. “A sizable number of commenters are complaining that YouTube was the “only place” they could message their friends because they didn’t have a phone or weren’t allowed to give out their phone number. Some said they used the feature to “talk to their mom” or because they weren’t allowed to use social media.” And, to use Perez’s words from later in the piece, “That’s not a good look for YouTube at this time.”

Given their recent struggles with the content being served to kids, as well as the discovery of a pedophile ring in the comments of several videos, it makes complete sense that a space that allowed younger users to flout the authority of their parents would get shut down. Moreover, this could be the “improving public conversations” charge that is mentioned in the support post. As they do that, they claim to be focusing on comments, posts, and Stories (yep, YouTube has those); no one would argue that YouTube and Google should spend their time correcting the ongoing consequences of these scandals.

In the grand scheme, I think YouTube had the right idea when they added direct messaging to the platform a few years back; it allowed them to increase circulation of videos within their own domain. With that said, in the face of scandal around their youngest users’ experience and low utilization in other market segments, I think it also has the right idea in shutting it down. It stands to have a minimal impact on the platform experience for most users, and prioritizes the safety of those who did depend on it most.

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