Why YouTube’s Content Moderators Can’t Work From Home
YouTube sent their content moderators home from the office to keep them safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, relying on machine learning to handle the demonetization or removal of inappropriate videos in their absence. As most content creators know too well, machine learning doesn’t always do a great job in flagging videos.
Onsite moderators must review flagged videos to determine if machine learning made a mistake. Every correction provides feedback for machine learning to refine its decision-making process when flagging future videos. Wrongly flagged videos will remain unmonetized or offline until an engineer gets around to reviewing them.
The outcry from creators was: “Why can’t the moderators work from home?!”
YouTube released a video explaining that “video reviewers” can’t work from home because their work is sensitive and/or some areas of the world don’t have the right technical infrastructure. An explanation that didn’t reveal the whole truth. Having worked at Google before and after the Great Recession, I can tell you why moderators can’t work from home.
I was a computer support specialist for a contracting agency that provides contractors to Fortune 500 companies. My onsite assignment was the I.T. help desk at Google’s headquarters campus in Mountain View, CA, from June 2007 through January 2008.
For the first three months, I was a ticket dispatcher routing 200+ tickets per day to various queues.
- Tickets done remotely—installing software via network, creating hostname on DNS server, or turning on/off network ports at a user’s desk—went to the call center techs.
- Tickets done at the user’s desk—deploying new hardware, troubleshooting connectivity issues, or fixing software issues—went to the field techs.
- Tickets for anything else routed to the appropriate queue.
For the remainder of the contract, I sat in the call center answering calls and working remote tickets.
My typical workday began at 8:00 AM by logging into my desktop computer to bring up the ticketing system. If I were in the call center, I would put on my headset and log into my phone to accept calls from the help desk line. I sat in my cubicle for eight hours a day for five days a week.
Other than my badge having a different color and the word “CONTRACTOR” in bold text, I was no different than any other employee at Google.
My technical career took a circuitous route through the Great Recession.
My next assignment was ticket dispatcher for the I.T. help desk at eBay’s headquarters in San Jose, CA, routing 300+ tickets per day and working remote tickets. Over a year later, on Friday, February 13, 2009, I lost my job when eBay and other tech companies started laying off employees in large numbers.
I became “unemployable” for the next two years (2009-10) and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2011.
On the day that the court finalized my bankruptcy in May 2011, I had $25 in checking and a one-year contract for a PC refresh project by Dell to replace 1,500 desktops and laptops at eBay. Because I knew the help desk staff at eBay, the Dell project manager appointed me as a team lead on the first day.
For the next two years (2011–13), I worked seven days a week on numerous contracts from three different contracting agencies to rebuild my finances. It wasn’t until 2014 that I felt comfortable working only one contract at a time.
I returned to Google for a one-month contract to build out a testbed data center in December 2011.
Cisco Systems at the time had a new enterprise router that was extremely fast, difficult to maintain and insanely expensive. The testbed used off-the-shelf components to build an identical router that was extremely fast, easy to maintain and relatively inexpensive. The tradeoff was taking up more space than the Cisco router did.
The testbed was inside a warehouse building on the perimeter of Google’s headquarter campus in Mountain View.
A dozen techs loaded eight empty rows with power inverters, redundant power units, optical replicators, switches, and servers. Thousands of copper and fiber optic cables connect everything together were strung from one end to the other.
Whenever we ran out of equipment to install, most of the techs sat around and talked while waiting for something to show up. A few techs played a regular game of poker to kill the time. I picked up a broom to sweep the floor and picked up the trash to keep myself busy.
After installing and connecting everything together, our contract was over.
The project manager took us down to the company store and gave us each a $25 USD voucher to buy whatever we wanted. I picked up a pair of gym shorts with the Google logo.
We had a farewell dinner at “Building 51” (a.k.a., Sports Page Bar & Grill), a popular hangout spot for Googlers until Molly Magees Irish Pub opened in downtown Mountain View. That went on the corporate credit card.
My habit of picking up the broom got me a one-week contract to haul out the trash and sweep up the floor two months later. The testbed was fully assembled and functional. I’ve never heard if the testbed successfully duplicated the Cisco router and deployed to the production data centers. Like many Google projects, it could still be in “beta” nine years later.
I wasn’t aware that Google bought YouTube in 2006, missing out on the golden era of cat videos.
When I worked at the help desk, I didn’t recall seeing YouTube mentioned on the tens of thousands of tickets that passed through my queue. I did see San Bruno — the peninsula city that YouTube calls home between Mountain View and San Francisco — as a location on many tickets. One location out of the many locations.
As for working at the data center, I had no access to a computer. The generic “smart phone” I had at the time was good for emails and web browsing. Streaming videos on mobile devices was still a few years off.
I didn’t become aware of YouTube until I uploaded my first video in March 2014, a Godzilla-themed haiku trailer for a haiku collection that was never published.
Until I noticed that one of my comic con videos — Batman, Robin and Riddler singing “Johnny B. Goode” — had quietly accumulated 3,000+ views in 18 months, I didn’t start posting videos on a regular basis until December 2017.
During my time between the help desk and the data center, Google came under fire for not clearly defining Full-Time Employees (FTEs) and Temporary, Vendor and Contractors (TVCs).
When I worked at the call center (2007–08), there weren’t any real distinction between FTEs and TVCs other than the badges. Managers and engineers, of course, carried laptops with them all the time. The only red flag was drinking alcohol at company events. Some contracting agencies forbid drinking on the job. Any alcohol-related incident resulted in immediate termination.
When I worked at the data center (2011), the distinction between between FTEs and TVCs became a bit more obvious. Gifts like my gym shorts required a voucher for the company story. The farewell dinner wasn’t a catered event at one of the cafeterias but at a off-campus sports bars.
In short, no freebies for TVCs.
Earlier this month management prevented TVCs from accessing free training resources that only FTEs and interns can now access. Can’t have TVCs improving themselves at the Google’s expense.
Based on my work experience and what I’ve read on the topic over the years, this is my list of the “haves” and “have nots” of Google employees.
Full-Time Employees (FTEs)
- FTEs are managers and engineers.
- They’re paid the big bucks, work on laptops, and can work from home.
- An FTE job is difficult to get because Google wants the best of the best from the top universities.
Temporary, Vendor and Contractors (TVCs)
- TVCs represents everyone else from janitors to marketing to support techs.
- They’re paid the small bucks, work on desktop PCs, and must work on site.
- Getting a TVC job is easy since third-party companies will take anyone who has the relevant experience to fill out positions.
Wall Street loves this business model because it reduces FTEs to a small number and everyone else as a line item in the corporate budget. Many Silicon Valley companies have emulated this business model.
Since the moderators don’t have the ability to work from home, I think it’s safe to say that they’re TVCs. With the State of California and other parts of the world under shelter-in-place orders, they must twiddle their thumbs at home and remain unemployed for the duration.
Could YouTube provide laptops and grant remote access for the moderators to work from home?
Technically, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.
Will YouTube change the business model to make that happen?
Oh, hell no.