Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Criteria for moderating comments on a viral video

Cross-posted to Google’s Education Blog, “The Infinite Thinking Machine.”

Two days ago, my nine year old daughter recorded a two minute video response to President Obama’s September 8th speech to students and I posted it to YouTube. Since then, in a little over 48 hours, the video has been viewed over 70,000 times, received thousands of comments and ratings, and on the first day received “YouTube Honors” as a top education video in over twenty different countries. Neither my daughter or I anticipated this type of viral response to the video. I am thankful I chose to enable comment moderation at the time I published it, but this entire experience has raised some big issues with which I’m still grappling. Marco Torres talks about how our students today have the opportunity to share their ideas and publish on “the global stage.” Although I’ve used that phrase previously and think it about it often, few experiences have driven home the reality of our new media landscape as forcefully as these experiences moderating YouTube comments on Sarah’s video the past two days.

One of the first issues which immediately arose, after I realized the video was receiving thousands of views and hundreds of comments on Tuesday, was to decide on a personal criteria for comment moderation. Initially, I decided to remove comments which contained profanity or which were disparaging / demeaning to my daughter, Sarah. While I was tempted to just approve comments which were positive and supportive of Sarah, it is true that she made some factual errors in her video which commenters were quick to highlight. Commenters also criticized her delivery, speculated on whether she was reading a script, debated whether she was being brainwashed by her parents, wrote supportive comments for President Obama, and frequently lashed out against the President or one of our main political parties. I did not keep detailed statistics, but I’d estimate about 10% of submitted comments included profanity. A much smaller percentage, probably 1 – 2 percent, were personal attacks on Sarah that were vulgar, cruel, hateful, and sexually explicit. I estimate about 25 percent of all comments have been anger-filled comments directed at other commenters, our President, or particular political parties. About 25 percent have been very positive, supportive comments for Sarah, which she has found very encouraging as well as inspiring.

Being thrust into the role of moderating hundreds of YouTube video comments like this has been challenging. Not only has this consumed several hours of time over the past two days, since I’ve individually read each submitted comment and decided whether or not to approve or delete it, it’s also been psychologically draining. This experience has been analogous to holding up a large mirror to our society in general. While there have been MANY submitted comments which were very supportive and edifying of Sarah, there have been an approximately equal number (which I have removed so they have not been made public) which were highly disparaging. That language, in fact, is likely too tactful to be accurate. Many comments have been filthy beyond imagining. It is difficult to understand how human beings could be so filled with hate and contempt for others that they would write such words of condemnation. By simply reading them, I felt defiled. Thankfully, my daughter has been spared the brunt of those nasty comments, but she did see some this morning on my computer which I had not yet moderated. This situation brought forth an acute and personal sense of how we want and need to protect our children from the sometimes cruel nature of the world, but at the same time need to prepare them to have tough skins and to be able to survive (eventually) independently in it. This experience has at times been agonizing, but it has also been very instructive.

As the moderator of comments surrounding Sarah’s video, I felt it would not be a good idea to remove / filter out every single critical comment. Not only was I concerned that only approving comments with a positive / supportive tone would invite direct contact and criticism of me via YouTube’s mail service and possibly my own email, I also became aware of the open dialog into which I was cast as a controlling moderator. While my desire to protect my daughter from cruel and profane comments is difficult to question, what about a desire to only approve / permit comments with which I personally agreed? Would it be correct to make the video’s comment forum into an echo chamber of support, devoid of critiques? I didn’t think so, therefore I approved many comments which were not strictly positive or supportive of Sarah.

Looking back, I wonder if I should have filtered out all the comments in which a person made a personal attack on another commenter? Frequently, those types of exchanges build on each other. In the case of comments which have been critical of Sarah, like those who suggested a nine year old has no business watching a political speech or making comments about it, it has been good to see many people rise to Sarah’s defense and the defense of young people more generally in being civic minded and active.

One of the most common themes commenters have addressed is Sarah’s opening story, regarding a student in her class who declared he was “not allowed to watch the speech because we’re Republicans.” I definitely agree with those who take issue with a closed-minded approach like that, and I am proud of Sarah for being willing to share that story and bring it to light. While it can be depressing at times to hold a mirror up to our society, seeing the hate and ill-will which is there in the hearts of some, it also is valuable to hold a mirror up and reflect attitudes like this one which are unfortunately common. This is an important role of journalists in our society, and today we can all become citizen journalists. In this context, Sarah is serving as a storychaser, and I think the window into our schools, homes, and communities which she tried to open is important to consider.

Looking back, if I was to re-live the past forty-eight hours and again moderate all the comments being shared on this video, I think I would make one change: I’d remove all comments which included any type of personal attack on someone else, in addition to removing those with profanity and those disparaging to Sarah. I would again remove comments which were inflammatory, racist, and disparaging to our President — not all of those which are critical, but certainly all those which step over a line of respect and disrespect.

These YouTube comment moderating experiences reflect how much individuals in our society want to discuss, to debate, and to be social. Many, many people want to be RECOGNIZED. As Michael Goldhaber noted in 1987, we live in an “attention economy.” YouTube is many things to many people, but predominant among those is a space to seek and vie for attention, not only with shared videos but also with posted comments. Many comments are clearly written with an intent to provoke. The same can be said of some blog posts as well, I suppose, but this is even more common in the world of YouTube commenting. Whether good or bad, it seems to be a fact: We want recognition. I’m reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who addressed “recognition” in the context of becoming a servant. Visit the homepage of the King Center to see these words and hear them in his own voice.

Is it dangerous and undesirable to garner worldwide attention via YouTube, even if it is fleeting, when you are nine years old? I have had some close acquaintances suggest that it is.

Is it amazing and positive for a nine year old to be able to share her perspectives and ideas with tens of thousands of people around our globe, all within the space of 48 hours? I’m inclined to think it is.

How would you establish a personal criteria for moderating comments submitted to a politically-charged viral video, like Sarah’s? I could close off comments at any time to the video, but for now I’m keeping them open and still moderating. If you have suggestions and guidance for me, I’m all ears.

The global stage is here, and while we may not like everything we see and hear on it, it reflects our society as we are. Are we doing our best to help our children as well as ourselves to not only remain SAFE, but also thrive in this opportunity-rich environment? If not, it’s time for us to BECOME the change we want to see, to quote another leader I deeply admire.

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14 responses to “Criteria for moderating comments on a viral video”

  1. Miss W. Avatar

    Well done Wes, in filtering the comments. As a nine year old, Sarah expressed herself well despite the few errors. It certainly didn’t look like she was being coached or reading from a draft.

    Good to see both positive and negative comments, but as an Australian, am amazed at the division between Republican and Democrats views. Maybe because we vote in a party to power, while you vote in a person to President.

  2. Richard Byrne Avatar

    As someone who has taught debate and has moderated large (1000+ member) student forums, I’ve found that the hardest thing to teach students is to remove emotional feeling about another person and listen to what that person is saying before responding. When I’ve moderated student forums one of the ground rules has always been that personal attacks will be removed immediately. Often when I’ve removed those comments it has become an opportunity to talk with students about the difference between attacking an argument/ point of view and attacking a person. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that this is taught all that often in schools which leads to poor behavior such as you’ve seen in moderating comments. That type of behavior is exactly why schools should be teaching appropriate online behavior. Nine years-old might be a little too young (although that’s totally your call because as you know I don’t have kids of my own) to use the poor behavior of the commentators as a teachable moment, it could be a teachable moment for older students. Had you not posted the video on YouTube and instead posted it in a walled garden environment, that teachable moment may not exist.

  3. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    I’m delighted to know you’ve been involved with debate, Richard – I was on the speech and debate team 4 years in college, and totally believe it was the best activity in which I engaged during that time– and I was able to do a lot! So much to learn in speech and debate that are vital life skills…

    Great point about the value of publishing in an open forum, rather than a walled garden, for the teachable moment aspect of this… certainly it is something we’ll discuss with Sarah. Even though the harshest comments are not public for her to see, there obviously is some criticism and that is part of life, we need to learn how to deal with it, and also (as you point out) learn to take the emotion and the personal aspects out of our arguments. Unfortunately on YouTube I think many people explicitly DO want to engage in personal attacks, and that leads to an escalation of words… Not really good for anyone.

    Are you involved in LD debate now at your school? I have volunteered to help my son’s debate teacher (who teachers both middle and high school debate) this year and want to setup some live videoconference-based debates this fall. I haven’t posted anything on this to the CILC website or elsewhere yet– have you all done this sort of thing, do you know if people are already doing LD debates over video between different schools, etc? This would be a practice debate– it could be scheduled during the day or after school. I’m eager to see what we can setup.

  4. AllanahK Avatar

    Well done Sarah. I thought you spoke clearly and constructively on a topic you had thought about. Children’s opinions are to be encouraged and I am pleased you decided to share yours.

    I know that some teachers do not moderate their class/child blogs at all and although they believe moderation can slow the conversation I am loathe to follow their path. I like to have the ability to firstly know what is being said and secondly to able to shield the children from people with little intellect.

    Our podcast has been spam commented a few times as well and it is a lot easier to remove comments before they are placed than to go about deleting them once they have gone live.

  5. Richard Byrne Avatar


    I am no longer involved in teaching debate (without getting into detail, the school canceled the course in favor of something else). I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to offer it again next year. I do, however, still moderate the district’s student discussion forum on First Class.


  6. dave cormier Avatar

    First… thanks for sharing your thoughts here. this kind of struggle is at the heart of the work that we do on th internet.

    A comment about the choice of youtube and cloud services. Youtube is a k-99 service. It is a service with no internal community weight to it, it has no associated mores that structure the way that people comment. It is, in the end, amoral and a-ethical. Openness does not necessarily need to be like this. We can be open with our stuff and structure it in a place where people of like ethic are likely to come… I think the learning experience for the child can be mostly the same.

    Community matters online as much as it does in your village/town/city in raising a child. I’ve been thinking alot lately about how many of the people i think of as my ‘community members’ online have kids… and have these problems. We also happen to have the technical ability to structure a nice open community where our kids can go and share and work and feel comfortable in 98% of what will happen there. You and I might have different feelings, for instance, about what religious upbringing our children would have, but i have a fundamental respect for your approach to your work, and, as is clear with your writing in this post, have a fundamental respect for you humanity and your ability to reflect on your own practice.

    These are the people that I would want to have frequenting the open community space where my children are sharing things (when they start… oscar is just getting old enough now) and i would welcome the teachable moments that would come from our differences (whatever they might be).

    At the risk of sounding critical (which is not what i’m trying to do) youtube is no choice at all… it is the street that you don’t let your kids walk down alone (which you clearly didn’t… and watched her the whole way) I just wonder how much we should be brining them down those streets at all. Open yes. But open where? The medium, here, has a great deal of an effect on the kind of things that people would say.

    thanks for getting me thinking!


  7. Lion Kimbro Avatar

    When there are hundreds of comments, people are probably not going to read them, and they’re (frankly speaking) probably not very important. I don’t know that it’s even worth the time to moderate them, or to make the emotional investment in moderating them.

    It might be easier to just disable commenting, and delete all comments, just period. If people want to talk about it, they can do so on their blogs, or what not.

  8. JMCrebbin Avatar

    Fantastic! Kudos to Sarah for her clarity of speech and for actually having enough active interest in the topic to pursue it further online in such a way.

    The issues with YouTube are well known and it is unfortunate that the system operates in such a way that a 9 year old girl can be bullied and abused by people who are protected by anonymity. Having to be a moderator for the sort of comments these ‘people’ publish can be upsetting, especially in your case where the comments are aimed at your nearest and dearest.

    YouTube needs a better system. Moving away from ‘anyone can publish anything anonymously’ to ‘anyone can publish anything anonymously – but your account is authorised through a credit card or similar so you can be blocked for life when you get a bad case of potty-mouth’.

    I regularly use a forum which is moderated by volunteers, and while your account is not verified beyond a simple email check, this moderation works quite well and the simple but effective rules are usually followed. (

    Moderators can be contacted through a simple ‘herring’ link, which allows a user to highlight a post as a Personal attack, Illegal or inappropriate, Foul language or Off-topic / hijacking.

    With the high numbers of YouTube users and the countless number of posts made each minute of every day, a simple solution is not apparent, however the status quo is why YouTube is blocked in many Australian schools.

  9. kiwispouse Avatar

    as an american watching from afar, my heart breaks just a little more every time i see that the political parties are moving further and further apart, rather than uniting in times of crisis, and i am relieved i chose to live abroad.

    i cannot advise you on comment moderation, wes, as my first instinct would be the protection of my daughter. however, having a dd who has experienced mostly the negative aspects of technology (cyberbullying) to the point of police reports and a new school, i would not have encouraged her to post a video to youtube. her own blog, yes, but not youtube, as the level of comments throughout, regardless of content, is poor.

    i say to sarah: well done sarah! i am so happy to see a young person like yourself involved with and listening to and thinking about politics, so that when your generation comes forth to take the mantle of power, you can reflect back on my & your parents’ generation, who did it so badly. you give me hope. the fact that your classmate was “not allowed” to watch the president’s address because he’s “republican” is a sad, sad illustration of the stalemate the parties have come to. we have a president now who is garnering the long lost respect of the world – if only the people at home weren’t so full of fear and hatred.

    cheers sarah and wes,

  10. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Dave: I think your point about YouTube being “the street that you don’t let your kids walk down alone” is a critical one. I wonder how many parents understand the importance of this perspective? I certainly have greater insight into this world after the past few days, and I “thought” I was pretty knowledgeable about such things. I agree we need communities structured in ways that encourage accountability.

    One thing I have definitely noticed is that as I’ve moderated out / not approved comments which include personal attacks, the overall tone of the conversation on the video has changed and become more positive / constructive. This does not address the accountability issue, but it is interesting to watch this and the role the moderator plays.

    I agree that we need to do a lot more thinking about building online communities for young people as well as ACTING to build them. My experiences the past week definitely highlight the need we have to build digital sandboxes in which our children and students can interact and play, with some adult involvement and supervision. It is really a bummer Imbee didn’t make it, their founders were trying to do this sort of thing.

    @JMCrebbin: I am glad to hear your forum moderation is working well, it sounds like a good system. What is the platform you’re using for that, is it open source?

    @kiwispouse: We do need to remember that the “fear and hatred” get amplified by the media and sometimes through the technology– while those voices are “there” in the online comments over Sarah’s video, they are DEFINITELY NOT in the majority, and that is good news. I’m distressed by our political polarization as well. Perhaps this is an opportunity for moderates to come forward and lead? I don’t think either extreme represents the majority, but often the extremists seem to shape the debate and discussion to a larger extent than is perhaps justified or beneficial.

  11. AV Flox Avatar

    I think you did the right thing. While ideally children should be free to interact with the world and take in all the lessons of that world, I find the lesson is better learned slowly than in an overwhelming tsunami of information.

    I was fortunate to find the web at the young age I did and to not become an overnight sensation as Sarah did. It has taken me these thirteen years to understand commenter mentality (and brutality). Now, when I see horrible comments about me on the web, I can let them roll off my back. My best friend who got on the web less than a year ago recently experienced her first flame war in comments–she didn’t have a chance to grow into it. It was horrifying for her. Her husband and I helped her through it, but it was different for us to help her manage the wave because we’ve been in the space so much longer and the experience was not so shocking and hurtful.

    I have always moderated my blog comments because I have never seen the web as a democracy–this may be due to the fact that I became active when the crowd online was largely people who could afford a computer and had enough knowledge and resources to get online. Things have changed and more people now have access, but I still don’t necessarily buy into this “global conversation” business because I’ve been to so many places where people still don’t have access (illiteracy is still common in my home country of Peru and many other places, not to mention many people don’t know the “global language” that is English).

    Instead of a stage for “global, open discussion,” I view my blog and social network streams as an extension of my salon, where it is also my duty to moderate my guests. If someone becomes rude to myself or someone else present, I am quick to admonish or banish the person (depending on how much they have previously contributed or if they’re simply being a troll). The web is about conversation, yes, but as someone contributing content and a space for others, I feel it is my responsibility to ensure that this conversation has value and a comment that takes the direction of disrespect or profanity has no value.

    I starve the trolls. There are plenty of places they can go with their vitriol, but it won’t be my salon. In my space, I provide a place not just where I feel safe, but where other people with their opinions, be they right or wrong, in agreement or dissent, can come and be respected when they lay their case.

    I like the thoughts you put forth in this regard and I hope that you has a similar discussion with your daughter about this because that’s where the real lesson is: learning to be selective of what we permit in our space, be it in life or on the web.

    Thank you for sharing this. I may blog about it in my personal blog because I think it’s a very important topic, not just for parents, but in general. Your daughter is very fortunate to have someone active online to guide her through this wonderful, if at times frightful space.

  12. Dish Network Avatar
    Dish Network

    The internet is such an unregulated environment, its very difficult to control offensive language and negative responses to blog posts. Especially in the case of 9 year old Sarah.

  13. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    From a technical standpoint it is actually very easy to moderate comments, you just turn on comment moderation and then do it. I wish YouTube permitted comment moderation to be turned on for ALL videos in a channel by default, however, and that it had batch options for changing video permissions. The challenge with a popular video like Sarah’s is the quantity of comments that came in.

    I don’t think the unregulated nature of the Internet is “to blame” for offensive comments, I think that is more of a mirror for where we are as a society with how people often treat each other.

  14. randalusa Avatar

    You sure throw the word hate around rather casually in describing those who adopt a tone deemed by you as over the line. Since none of us get to see any examples because you deleted each one, that leaves the whole matter in question. But given your ready willingness to wield such a weapon, also the very young daughter I will assume being delighted by a man who has proven himself to the informed to be like most Democrats, arrogant, thieving neo-communist liars,I am inclined to figure your criteria should be reviewed.

    Also, we send out children to public schools where they are lied to all day long about a scientific joke called evolution. Meaning, real science PROVES that evolution based on spontaneous generation of life is IMPOSSIBLE, according to science.

    1. First Law of Thermodynamics,
    2. Laws of Statistical Probability.
    3. Law of Biogenesis.
    4. Law of Information.

    And more.

    They are taught censored history that omits the story of blacks owning black slaves, how only 5% of all African slaves came to America anyway, how tons of them were shipped out by Muslim Arabs. Moreover, how whites and other races have suffered in slavery too. All gone from textbooks in schools that teach little girls to adore Marxist liars.

    Also ANY reference to violent racism FROM blacks in this country over the last 50 years. Complete censorship at the national level of ABC News, NBC, NPR and CBS (Comedy Central too). I have been collecting videos of such hushed-up violent black racism, then made a couple to display what the majority have never heard about. Moreover, I have personally been a victim of racist violence from blacks more than once.

    Anyway, parents send their children to schools where liberal NPR-addicted teachers feed them deceit all day long, including about human sexuality, then pretend to be protecting those kids by shielding them from words I call colorful adjectives, what our culture labels cuss words. They are also categorized under the broad category of “profanity,” not like you said in using the word profane, which has a different meaning.

    There is no prohibition against profanity found in the Bible, so you know, not yet found by me at least. But if there were, how we got into bizarro world where professional liars like Katie Couric, Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer, Matt Lauer, David Gregory, Bob Schieffer and many more get a pass but honest people coloring adjectives are called offensive is truly weird.

    Perhaps if letting some of the conversations play themselves out you might have ultimately received an education deprived to our nation’s youth and their parents beforehand. Since it isn’t too late though, I recommend starting at the Media Research Center ( for an introduction into reality. An hour there might begin to loosen the average mind from the fake world the masses have been trained to live in. Then you could start protecting your children from the atheist elite rather than blunt people upset about witnessing the overthrow of a once treasured country.

    Not overthrown by Obama or anybody with his skin color, even though the 95% approval from the black community should be seen as frightening by anyone who pretends to even oppose racism or allowing the chronically ignorant (including liberal whites) to vote. Overthrown by the professional liars who got Nixon taken down for committing tiny crimes in comparison to what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would later engage in.

    Start protecting your babies, Wesley. Sometimes there really is a conspiracy. We are living it. You are a willing victim of the bad guys and carting your offspring along for the trip. You only get one of these lifetimes down here. Don’t let a demonic oligarchy get you to waste the entire thing trifling about piddly social offenses rather than getting into the real war.