Removing the dislike bar from YouTube: a solution that pleases no one

On November 10, 2021, YouTube announced on their official blog that they were making a small change to their platform: users would no longer be able to see the amount of dislikes displayed on videos. To say people were displeased with this announcement would be an understatement. Even Jawed Karim, a co-founder of YouTube, changed the description of the very first video uploaded to the platform, questioning whether YouTube wanted “to become a place where everything is mediocre?” Pretty harsh.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Removing the dislike bar

YouTube might as well be part of the internet’s DNA at this point. You can find free content on nearly anything from the modern age, whether you want to watch a concert you wished you went to, binge true crime documentaries, or catch up on the latest Design Buddies event recording. In 2021, YouTube had an average monthly visitor count of 2.3 billion, making it the second most visited site in the world.

People are naturally averse to change, and there’s no way around it. When introducing (or removing) features to a product, especially one that people are familiar with, it’s important that users feel that any major changes are made with their best interests in mind.

YouTube’s explanation for removing the dislike count centered around their concentrated effort to create a more inclusive environment for creators. One of the ways creators, primarily smaller ones, are harassed is through dislike mobs; people visiting videos with the intent to drive up the dislike count, often without even watching the video. In February 2019, YouTube posted a video to their Creator Insider channel, in which one of their project management directors went over possible solutions to dislike mobs. These ranged from requiring viewers to justify their rating, to removing dislikes altogether, with the latter option referred to as both “extreme” and “undemocratic.”

Fast forward to November 2021, YouTube announced that they had decided to address this problem by ultimately removing the visible dislike count. They cited internal experiments that helped them determine that this was the best solution, but much of the general public were not convinced that this response was in everyone’s best interest. The controversy boiled down to what’s known as a design tradeoff, making a choice and sacrificing one interest in favor of another.

An example of a YouTube video that was famously targeted by dislike mobs

The origin of the dislike bar

This is far from the first time that YouTube has made an unpopular decision altering the user experience of the platform. From its beginning in 2005, YouTube used a five-star rating system, where viewers could rate a video anywhere from one to five stars, with one star being least recommended, and five stars being most recommended. The average of all these crowdsourced reviews would be displayed as a single star rating, giving viewers reliable idea of how other audiences felt about the content.

A screenshot of YouTube’s video player with the 5 star review system from 2006

This system was replaced in 2010 by a binary like and dislike rating system, after YouTube found that most reviews were either one or five stars. The average star rating on each video was also replaced with a bar that showed the amount of likes compared to dislikes. This sparked a lot of discourse at the time, with critics noting that the change to a binary recommendation took a lot of the nuance out of rating videos on a scale. However, users accepted this new design over time because it didn’t fundamentally change how people could gather information about a video’s quality. A video’s like to dislike ratio was just as effective as an average rating when it came to concluding if a video was good content.

YouTube player after the switch to the like / dislike rating system (2011)

The wisdom of crowds

For people that grew up with access to the internet, one of the greatest benefits is the sheer amount of free educational content covering virtually any topic. YouTube in particular is fortunate enough to host a massive amount of content from experienced creators that have spent years cultivating their knowledge and honing their filming and editing skills. When presented with such a wealth of information, where is one supposed to start? Time is valuable, and one of the most efficient ways to find quality content is to crowdsource recommendations.

The “wisdom of crowds” theory is the idea that on average, large groups of people are collectively better at decision making than individuals. That’s why product reviews when online shopping are so helpful: when people are overwhelmed with choices of ambiguous quality, we are often drawn to the option with the most positive feedback, as the reviews serve as social proof of what subjectively is the best choice.

Why the dislike bar matters

As a self-taught designer who used the internet as my main resource, the toughest part was not the learning, it was evaluating my sources. Compared to types of design like graphic design and typography, which have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, web and digital design is relatively new, and it can be tough to know where to start learning as a beginner. While there are plenty of great educational design articles and videos, I realized that there’s a lot of not so great ones as well. Not all designers share the same opinion of what good design is, making it difficult to determine whose opinions to use as a foundation. Of all the resources I ended up using, the most valuable were the ones that were recommended by multiple people I knew.

The benefit of crowdsourcing reviews is that you have more than one recommendation; you have input from everyone who has experienced it. As a learner, the YouTube dislike bar was incredibly useful to me, because the “wisdom of crowds” in the form of the like to dislike ratio served as that barometer for measuring how skeptical I should be about something I am unfamiliar with. It’s important to note that the theory of “wisdom of crowds” accounts for independent assessments from multiple sources, and not from concentrated efforts such as dislike mobs abusing the rating system. When it comes to educational content specifically, this isn’t as large a concern, because while it’s impossible to identify a definitive pattern to what types of content dislike mobs will target, generally educational channels are spared the worst of these attacks.

From a business metrics perspective, the change makes sense. If YouTube viewers click into a video and see that 95% of previous audiences disliked it, they are likely going to try to find something else to watch, which may be on a competitor’s site, such as Netflix or Hulu. However, without a way to gauge that response, the viewer loses more than just a ratings tally, they lose the valuable ability to easily identify good content from bad or untrustworthy content. Now, people have to actually watch a decent chunk of the video to come to the conclusion whether it is worth their time.

However, a more concerning side effect is misinformation, especially when a creator decides to disable comments and eliminate the only other way to get a glimpse into others’ opinions of a video. The benefit of creating a solution should not be outweighed by the cost of creating more problems. Designers are usually the ones who are tasked with solving these types of problems, but in the case of industry titans like YouTube, it’s not hard to imagine decisions like these coming from higher ups who prioritize other concerns over the experience of the viewer. Ultimately, YouTube’s decision to remove the dislike bar is an example of a solution that aims to please everyone, but ends up making nobody happy.

But does it really matter?

At the end of the day, a lot of us won’t think too hard about it. Realistically, it’s a minor inconvenience, and there are few, if any, alternatives that offer educational content of the same quantity and quality that YouTube has. At the time of writing, there are even browser extensions that reinstate the dislike count, with varying degrees of functionality.

The current state of the YouTube player with hidden dislikes

YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki addressed the discourse in a 2022 blog post, in which she defended the decision as a solution that protected creators, as well as confirming that the change ultimately had no meaningful difference in viewership. To be fair to YouTube, which is owned by Google, one of the biggest companies in the world, there isn’t a literal guidebook for choosing the best design tradeoff when there are so many different audiences with different concerns. But if there is a guidebook, they’re the ones writing it, and there might need to be a few edits.

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