hi-youtube

Earlier this month, Google revamped the way comments work on YouTube.

Since then, many prominent YouTube personalities have criticized the new comment system, and an online petition calling for Google to switch back to the old system has collected more than 180,000 signatures.

According to Google, as of Nov. 6, YouTube comments are now "built on the Google identity platform." Practically speaking, that means a number of changes, including the way comments are sorted. Google also added threaded comments, and the ability to add links within comments.

But perhaps the biggest and most controversial change is YouTube's integration with Google's social network, Google+. Now, according to Google, "to comment on YouTube, you'll need to connect your channel to a Google+ profile or page."

That means no more anonymous comments on YouTube.

The biggest complaint by far is that this integration is mandatory - that by not allowing anonymous comments, YouTube is somehow "forcing" users to connect their account to a Google+ profile or page. Some YouTube users want Google to revert to the old system for practical workflow reasons, arguing that the old system was better for receiving notifications and moderating comments.

Others want YouTube to switch back out of principle. Google has a so-called "real name policy" that dictates that your Google+ profile correspond with your first and last names. Many YouTubers use pseudonyms, and aren't keen on the idea of linking their account with a Google+ profile that requires them to use their real name.

Fighting the 'Nymwars'

This real name policy was controversial when Google+ launched back in 2011. At the time, many talked of the so-called "Nymwars" (short for pseudonym wars), which are all about identity and how we choose to represent ourselves online.

Google says the policy is designed to make "connecting with people on the web more like connecting with people in the real world." When Google+ launched in 2011, Google's Vic Gundotra said it's "like when a restaurant doesn't allow people who aren't wearing shirts to enter."

So why change YouTube's commenting system?

Google says the changes are about turning comments into conversations. That rings true to me, given the addition of threaded comments, the ability to link to individuals within a comment and the option of making a comment private or public.

But I don't think that's the whole story.

Some have suggested that these changes are yet another attempt to get more people signed up to Google+, which can sometimes feel like a ghost town.

I don't think that's the whole story, either.

Part of this is about integration - connecting all the pieces of the Google puzzle. Remember, the technology that powers YouTube is shared among other Google products: their live streams, Hangouts, the Google Play video store.

Google's 'identity service'

Another part of this is about identity.

Back in 2011, when Eric Schmidt was CEO of Google, he described Google+ not so much as a social network, but as an "identity service" - something that could prove you're "a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer." The recent changes to YouTube comments underscore Google's desire to be an identity service.

Will 180,000 signatures on an online petition change the trajectory of YouTube's comment system? I doubt it.

Undoubtedly, Google is aware of issues with the system. On Nov. 12, it acknowledged issues of "spam and abuse" and said it is "working hard to fix them." But it made no mention of Google+ integration.

Any time a major web service makes a change like this, backlash follows. Some tends to be well-founded criticism of specific design decisions. The rest tends to be knee-jerk reaction to change, because people don't like change.

Personally, I don't see Google reverting back to the old comment system. Yes, they may lose anonymous commenters. Yes, they may lose some popular YouTube creators who use pseudonyms.

But when you look at Google's core business - highly targeted advertising based on individuals' quantifiable usage patterns - I'm not sure how important it is to please anonymous and pseudonymous users.