Google brings its AI-powered SmartReply feature to YouTube

Google’s SmartReply, the four-year old, A.I.-based technology that helps suggest responses to messages in Gmail, Android’s Messages, Play Developer Console, and elsewhere, is now being made available to YouTube Creators. Google announced today the launch of an updated version of SmartReply built for YouTube which will allow creators more easily and quickly interact with their fans in the comments.

The feature is being rolled out to YouTube Studio, the online dashboard creators use to manage their YouTube presence, check their stats, grow their channel, and engage fans. From YouTube Studio’s comments section, creators can filter, view and respond to comments from across their channel.

For creators with a large YouTube following, responding to comments can be a time-consuming process. That’s where SmartReply aims to help.

Image Credits: Google

Instead of manually typing out all their responses, creators will be able to instead click one of the suggested replies to respond to comments their viewers post. For example, if a fan says something about wanting to see what’s coming next, the SmartReply feature may suggest a response like “Thank you!” or “More to come!”

Unlike the SmartReply feature built for email, where the technology has to process words and short phrases, the version of SmartReply designed for YouTube has to also be able to handle a more diverse set of content — like emoji, ASCII art, or language switching, the company notes. YouTube commenters also often post using abbreviated words, slang, and inconsistent use of punctuation. This made it more challenging to implement the system on YouTube.

Image Credits: Google

Google detailed how it overcame these and other technical challenges in a post on its Google AI Blog, published today.

In addition, Google said it wanted a system where SmartReply only made suggestions when it’s highly likely the creator would want to reply to the comment and when the feature is able to suggest a sensible response. This required training the system to identify which comments should trigger the feature.

At launch, SmartReply is being made available for both English and Spanish comments — and it’s the first cross-lingual and character byte-based version of the technology, Google says.

Because of the approach SmartReply is now using, the company believes it will be able to make the feature available to many more languages in the future.

YouTube bans David Duke, Richard Spencer and other white nationalist accounts

YouTube just took action against a collection of controversial figures synonymous with race-based hate, kicking the cluster of major channels off its platform on Monday.

The company deleted six channels: Richard Spencer‘s own channel and the affiliated channel for the National Policy Institute/Radix Journal, far right racist pseudo-science purveyor Stefan Molyneux, white supremacist outlet American Renaissance and affiliated channel AmRenPodcasts and white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

“We have strict policies prohibiting hate speech on YouTube, and terminate any channel that repeatedly or egregiously violates those policies. After updating our guidelines to better address supremacist content, we saw a 5x spike in video removals and have terminated over 25,000 channels for violating our hate speech policies,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

The company says that the channels violated the platform’s policies prohibiting YouTube videos from linking to off-platform hate content and rules prohibiting users from making claims of inferiority about a protected group.

YouTube’s latest house-cleaning of far-right and white nationalist figures follows the suspension of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes earlier this month. Some of the newly-booted YouTube account owners turned to still-active Twitter accounts to complain about losing their YouTube channels Monday afternoon.

The same day that YouTube enforced its rules against a high-profile set of far-right accounts, both Twitch and Reddit took their own actions against content that violated their respective rules around hate. The Amazon-owned gaming streaming service suspended President Trump’s account Monday, citing comments made in two Trump rallies that aired there, one years-old and one from the campaign’s recent Tulsa rally. And after years of criticism for its failure to stem harassment and racism on, Reddit announced that it would purge 2,000 subreddits, including r/The_Donald, the infamously hate-filled forum founded as Trump announced his candidacy.

YouTube’s latest experiment is a TikTok rival focused on 15-second videos

YouTube is taking direct aim at TikTok. The company announced on Wednesday it’s beginning to test a new feature on mobile that will allow users to record 15-second long multi-segment videos. That’s the same length as the default on TikTok as well as Instagram’s new TikTok clone, Reels.

Users in the new YouTube experiment will see an option to “create a video” in the mobile upload flow, the company says.

Similar to TikTok, the user can then tap and hold the record button to record their clip. They can then tap again or release the button to stop recording. This process is repeated until they’ve created 15 seconds worth of video footage. YouTube will combine the clips and upload it as one single video when the recording completes. In other words, just like TikTok.

The feature’s introduction also means users who want to record mobile video content longer than 15 seconds will no longer be able to do so within the YouTube app itself. Instead, they’ll have to record the longer video on their phone then upload it from their phone’s gallery in order to post it to YouTube.

YouTube didn’t provide other details on the test — like if it would later include more controls and features related to the short-form workflow, such as filters, effects, music, AR, or buttons to change the video speed, for example. These are the tools that make a TikTok video what it is today — not just the video’s length or its multi-segment recording style.

Still it’s worth noting that YouTube has in its sights the short-form video format popularized by TikTok.

This would not be the first time YouTube countered a rival by mimicking their feature set with one of its own.

The company in 2017 launched an alternative to Instagram Stories, designed for the creation and sharing of more casual videos. But YouTube Stories wouldn’t serve the TikTok audience, as TikTok isn’t as much about personal vlogs as it is about choreographed and rehearsed content. That demands a different workflow and toolset.

YouTube confirmed the videos in this experiment are not being uploaded as Stories, but didn’t offer details on how the 15-second videos would be discoverable on the YouTube app.

The news of YouTube’s latest experiment arrived just ahead of TikTok’s big pitch to advertisers at this week’s IAB NewFronts. TikTok today launched TikTok For Business, its new platform aimed at brands and marketers looking to do business on TikTok’s app. From the new site, advertisers can learn about TikTok’s ad offerings, create and track campaigns, and engage in e-learning.

YouTube says its new video test is running with a small group of creators across both iOS and Android. A company spokesperson noted it was one of several tests the company had in the works around short-form video.

“We’re always experimenting with ways to help people more easily find, watch, share and interact with the videos that matter most to them. We are testing a few different tools for users to discover and create short videos,” a YouTube spokesperson said. “This is one of many experiments we run all the time on YouTube, and we’ll consider rolling features out more broadly based on feedback on these experiments,” they added.

Kids now spend nearly as much time watching TikTok as YouTube in U.S., U.K. and Spain

A new study on kids’ app usage and habits indicates a major threat to YouTube’s dominance, as kids now split their time between Google’s online video platform and other apps, like TikTok, Netflix, and mobile games like Roblox. Kids ages 4 to 15 now spend an average of 85 minutes per day watching YouTube videos, compared with 80 minutes per day spent on TikTok. The latter app also drove growth in kids’ social app use by 100% in 2019 and 200% in 2020, the report found.

The data in the annual report by digital safety app maker Qustodio was provided by 60,000 families with children ages 4 to 14 in the U.S., U.K., and Spain, so it’s data isn’t representative of global trends. The research encompasses children’s online habits from February 2019 to April 2020, takes into account the COVID-19 crisis, and specifically focused on four main categories of mobile applications: online video, social media, video games, and education.

YouTube, not surprisingly, remains one of the most-used apps among children, the study found.

Kids are now watching twice as many videos per day as they did just four years ago. This is despite the fact that YouTube’s flagship app is meant for ages 13 and up — an age-gate that was never truly enforced, leading to the FTC’s historic $170 million fine for the online video platform in 2019 for its noncompliance with U.S. children’s privacy regulations.

The app today is used by 69% of U.S. kids, 74% of kids in the U.K., and 88% of kids in Spain. Its app for younger children, YouTube Kids, meanwhile, is only used by 7% of kids in the U.S., 10% of kids in the U.K., and wasn’t even on the radar in Spain.

The next largest app for online video is Netflix, watched by 33% of U.S. kids, 29% of U.K. kids, and 28% of kids in Spain.

In early 2020, kids in the U.S. were spending 86 minutes on YouTube per day, down from 88 minutes in 2019. In the U.K., kids are watching 75 minutes per day, down from 77 minutes in 2019. And in Spain, kids watch 63 minutes per day, down from 66 minutes in 2019.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the time spent increased quite a bit, as you could imagine. In the U.S., for example, kids in mid-April spent 99 minutes per day on YouTube.

In part, the decline in total YouTube minutes could be due to the growing number of daily minutes kids spend on TikTok. The Beijing-owned short-form video app could gain further traction if more YouTube creators leave Google’s video platform as a result of the increasing regulations and the related losses in monetization. More creators would broaden TikTok’s appeal, as it expands its content lineup.

Last year, TikTok became one of the top five most-downloaded apps globally that wasn’t owned by Facebook, and it has continued to grow among all age demographics.

From May 2019 through February 2020, the average minutes per day kids spent on TikTok increased by 116% in the U.S. to reach 82 minutes, went up by 97% in the U.K. to reach 69 minutes, and increased 150% in Spain to reach 60 minutes.

In February 2020, 16.5% of U.S. kids used TikTok, just behind the 20.4% on Instagram, and ahead of the 16% on Snapchat. In the U.K. and Spain, 17.7% and 37.7% of kids used TikTok, respectively.

Time spent on TikTok increased during COVID-19 lockdowns, as well, leaving the app now only minutes away from being equal to time spent on YouTube. In the U.S., for example, kids’ average usage of TikTok hit 95 minutes per day during COVID-19 lockdowns compared with just 2 minutes more — 97 minutes — spent on YouTube

In terms of online gaming, Roblox dominates in the U.S. and U.K., where 54% and 51% of kids play, respectively. In Spain, only 17% do. Instead, kids in Spain currently prefer Brawl Stars.

Similarly, Minecraft is used by 31% of kids in the U.S., 23% in the U.K., and only 15% in Spain.

Roblox isn’t just a minor diversion. It’s also eating into kids’ screen time.

In February 2020, this one game accounted for 81 minutes per day, on average, in the U.S., 76 minutes per day in the U.K., and 64 minutes per day in Spain. On average, kids play Roblox about 20 minutes longer than any other video game app. (Take that, Fortnite!)

During COVID-19 lockdowns, the kids who played Roblox increased their time spent in the game, up 31%, 17%, and 45% respectively in the U.S., the U.K., and Spain. But lockdowns didn’t increase the percentage of kids who used gaming apps, as it turned out.

Education apps, as a whole, did not see much growth from 2019 to early 2020 until the COVID-19 lockdowns. But then, Google Classroom won in two of the three markets studied, with 65% of kids now using this app in Spain, 50% in the U.S., but only 31% in the U.K. (Show My Homework is more popular in the U.K., growing to 42% usage during COVID-19.)

All these increases in kids’ app usage may never return to pre-COVID-19 levels, the report suggested, even if usage declines a bit as government lockdowns lift. That mirrors the findings that Nielsen released today on connected TV usage, which has also not yet fallen to earlier, pre-COVID levels even as government restrictions lift.

“We now live in a world with an estimated 25 billion connected devices worldwide. Many of those in the hands of children,” Qustodio’s report noted. “Today, on average, a child in the U.S. watches nearly 100 minutes of YouTube per day, a child in the U.K. spends nearly 70 minutes on TikTok per day, a child in Spain plays Roblox over 90 minutes a day,” it said. “The world is not going to return to the way things were, because screen-time rates were already increasing. COVID-19 just accelerated the process,” the firm concluded.

YouTube and Tribeca’s global online film festival starts today

Today, the online film festival We Are One is kicking off 10 days of films, talks, musical performances and VR experiences.

The event is a collaboration between Tribeca Enterprises (the organization behind the Tribeca Film Festival) and YouTube, with help from 21 film festivals from around the world.

Think of it as an attempt to recreate a little bit of the excitement of this year’s canceled festivals, and to showcase some of the films that would have screened there. Partner festivals include the Berlin International Film Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.

YouTube Chief Business Officer Robert Kyncl credited Tribeca for doing the “heavy lifting” of bringing all the festivals on-board and curating the lineup. He said that when the organization’s co-founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal first approached YouTube with the idea, “It sounded great to us, but it seemed impossible to actually execute — to get all of these important people around the world to agree to this one thing.”

However, Rosenthal and her team were able to pull it everything together in a short period of time, so YouTube is doing its part by giving the festival its online home. There will be more than 100 films screening on a schedule, just like a regular festival — although after many of the movies premiere, they will be available on-demand for the duration of the event.

And again, it’s not just movies, but the other festival programming too, like Tribeca Talks with directors like Guillermo del Toro and Francis Ford Coppola. YouTube channels like Lessons from the Screenplay, CineFix, Now You See It and La Blogotheque have also gotten involved by creating new content for the event.

Everything is available for free, and Kyncl said that neither YouTube nor Tribeca are monetizing the event. Instead, they’re directing viewers to donate to COVID-19 relief efforts, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Leket Israel, GO Foundation and Give2Asia.

“We just see this as an immediate response with no commercial intent on our side,” he said.

And while We Are One was created as a response to the pandemic, Kyncl was hopeful that YouTube could help to create similar online festivals in the future — though he hastened to add that online experiences will never fully replace the “human connection” of an in-person festival.

“The role that youTube can play for all the festivals in the future is, we can extend their reach … whether it’s creators who may be participants in their film festivals in the future, or just audiences who are absolutely participating, but I think we can expand their universe in any way they wish,” Kyncl said. At the same time, he added, “We’ve given zero thought given to it thus far. We’re all focused on making sure we can pull this off in a short amount of time.”

Appeals court rules in favor of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter in anti-conservative bias suit

The same day Donald Trump took to Twitter to threaten to regulate or shut down social media sites, the U.S. appeals court in Washington D.C. dismissed a lawsuit accusing top tech companies of silencing conservative voices. Filed in 2018 by nonprofit Freedom Watch and rightwing gadfly Laura Loomer, the suit accused Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Google of stifling first amendment rights.

The suit alleged that four of tech’s biggest names “have engaged in a conspiracy to intentionally and willfully suppress politically conservative content.” It specifically cited Loomer’s ban from Twitter and Facebook, following a tweet about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Also noted is her inability to grow an audience base and revenue on Google’s YouTube, suggesting that after Trump’s election “growth on these platforms has come to a complete halt, and its audience base and revenue generated has either plateaued or diminished.” Apple’s alleged role is less clear.

In the ruling, District Judge Trevor McFadden notes that Freedom Watch and Loomer failed to back up a claim that the companies were “state actors,” involved with the regulation of free speech.

“The Plaintiffs do not show how the Platforms’ alleged conduct may fairly be treated as actions taken by the government itself,” the judge writes. “Facebook and Twitter, for example, are private businesses that do not become ‘state actors’ based solely on the provision of their social media networks to the public.”

In other words, the companies cannot violate the first amendment, because banning users doesn’t constitute government abridgment of free speech. Per the decision, “Freedom Watch fails to point to additional facts indicating that these Platforms are engaged in state action and thus fails to state a viable First Amendment claim.”

YouTube Kids app is now available for Apple TV

YouTube Kids, the video platform’s version of its service that lets families set age categories, viewing timers and other controls, is now available on Apple TV.

Country availability is listed here, with more to be added later. YouTube says that safety controls still need to be set through the mobile version of the app.

YouTube Kids is meant to give children a safer alternative to YouTube, where even Restricted Mode can let through violent content and other things parents and caretakers don’t want kids to see. This includes videos that look like they are made for kids, often depicting popular cartoon characters, but are filled with inappropriate content. YouTube started paying more attention to them after a 2017 scandal dubbed “Elsagate,” but they still routinely make appearances in the platform’s automatically generated recommendations.

In general, the main YouTube app is a risky place for kids, even though it is filled with popular kids channels and educational content. Last year, YouTube disabled comments on videos in an effort to stop predatory behavior and also reached a $170 million with the Federal Trade Commission over violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Act (COPPA), putting into place new rules for kids’ video, but creators said the rules were confusing and resulted in lost revenue.

In an effort to make its brand more family friendly, YouTube has been expanding how YouTube Kids is available. For example, before the FTC settlement was officially announced, it launched a website for YouTube Kids.

Videos on YouTube Kids is still mostly filtered through algorithms, however, which means inappropriate content can still appear on the app. But while it is not perfect, YouTube Kids still offers more features that can help caretakers prevent harmful content from being viewed by children, including one that lets them whitelist specific videos or channels.

YouTube says that an error caused comments critical of China’s government to auto-delete

YouTube responded to reports that it is automatically deleting comments criticizing the Chinese government on Tuesday, explaining that the seeming censorship is actually an error in its automated moderation systems.

As the Verge reported, comments on the platform using the Chinese phrases for “communist bandit” or “50-cent party“—two terms tied to criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party were taken down almost instantly, even if those comments were positive. The latter term (五毛 or “wumao dang) refers to China’s censorship efforts, particularly the idea that online commenters are paid to deflect criticism for the government.

Oculus and Anduril founder Palmer Luckey drew attention to the phenomenon on Monday.

In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told TechCrunch that the auto-deletions were a result of “an error in our enforcement systems” that the company is looking into.

“Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements,” the spokesperson said.

According to YouTube, the situation is an accidental side effect of the platform’s comment moderation system, which is designed to filter out hate speech, harassment and spam. The company didn’t offer further insight as to how the terms wound up flagged by its automated systems.

With the vast majority of their workforces out of the office, major tech platforms have leaned more heavily on AI moderation methods in recent months, even as they acknowledged that less human oversight would likely lead to more instances of content mistakenly being taken down.

As COVID-19 misinformation grows, YouTube brings video fact-checking to the US

In a blog post today, YouTube announced that it’s finally bringing its fact-checking information panels to the U.S. First introduced in Brazil and India, the expansion comes as COVID-19-related misinformation and conspiracy has proliferated online and through certain media.

Fact-check articles will begin appearing in relevant search results, using information pulled from a dozen or so third-party publishers, including The Dispatch, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and The Washington Post Fact Checker. The site is leveraging ClaimReview’s article tagging system, which is also used by Google Search/New, Bing and Facebook.

In the post, YouTube specifically cites concerns around COVID-19-related misinformation as a driving force in the feature’s expansion, noting the difficulty in keeping up with a rapidly changing news cycle.

“Our fact check information panels provide fresh context in these situations by highlighting relevant, third-party fact-checked articles above search results for relevant queries, so that our viewers can make their own informed decision about claims made in the news,” the company writes.

The move doesn’t directly involve the take down of offending videos. Instead the plan is to offer users context as they search for information on a given subject. The feature will no doubt have mixed results, depending on how committed a user is to a given theory or source. People who are already dug in on notions of COVID-19 as a hoax are not likely to be swayed by contextual information from PolitiFact or The Washington Post. That’s just the nature of the post-information hellscape in which we all currently reside. 

It echoes a similar move from Facebook earlier this month, which alerts users when they’ve interacted with “harmful misinformation” about the virus. Twitter, too, has expanded its own guidelines around coronavirus-related tweets, removing some of the offending misinformation around theories involving things like 5G.

YouTube says the new feature “will take some time for our systems to fully ramp up.” That involves both refining the system, the features efficacy and eventually rolling it out into even more markets.

YouTube and Tribeca announce We Are One, a 10-day online film festival

With COVID-19 making it unsafe to watch movies in crowded theaters, not to mention traveling for the red-carpet glamor of a film festival, many festival organizers have been looking at online alternatives.

So today, YouTube and Tribeca Enterprises (the organization behind New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival) are announcing a new event called We Are One: A Global Film Festival.

It’s not simply an online replacement for Tribeca, but aims to be a truly global event. The 10-day digital film festival will include programing curated by representatives from most of the major film festivals around the world.

We Are One kicks off on May 29 and is supposed to benefit the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, as well as local relief providers.

“We are proud to join with our partner festivals to spotlight truly extraordinary films and talent, allowing audiences to experience both the nuances of storytelling from around the world and the artistic personalities of each festival,” said Pierre Lescure and Thierry Frémaux of the Cannes Film Festival (which will not be taking place this year in its “original form”) in a statement.

While the programming featured during the 10-day event hasn’t been announced yet, participating festivals include:

  • the Annecy International Animation Film Festival
  • Berlin International Film Festival
  • BFI London Film Festival
  • Cannes Film Festival
  • Guadalajara International Film Festival
  • International Film Festival & Awards Macao
  • Jerusalem Film Festival
  • Mumbai Film Festival
  • Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
  • Locarno Film Festival
  • Marrakech International Film Festival
  • New York Film Festival
  • San Sebastian International Film Festival
  • Sarajevo Film Festival
  • Sundance Film Festival
  • Sydney Film Festival
  • Tokyo International Film Festival
  • Toronto International Film Festival
  • Tribeca Film Festival
  • Venice Film Festival