14th of February 2005. A day to revel in love or wallow in loneliness. As men purchased overpriced roses and women put on their best pair of panties preparing to celebrate the joys of love, three borderline autistic computers geeks launched a simple yet well executed video sharing site that’s etched it’s way into our daily attention cycles, changing the modern media landscape forever. The Youtube of 2005 was vastly different, an echo chamber of independent filmmakers, bloggers, teenagers with cameras and everything in between. No Jimmy Kimmel or agitating 30 second ads. A pure cacophony of independent sources of content free of any censorship, or corporate interests. The early days of YouTube were a glorious time. Smosh was the most subscribed with 40 thousand followed closely by Brookers with 38, nipples were everywhere and you could upload songs free of copyright infringements, it was the wild wild west of human expression, certain to draw quicker and shoot television in the head before it realised it even had to bring a gun to the showdown.
YouTube, a bastion of pure unadulterated, commercial free, amateur videos quickly became the one of the fastest growing sites, with its users growing exponentially every month, from February 2005 to February 2006, its traffic was accumulating an extra 60 to 70 million users monthly, something only Facebook could rival. It wasn’t long before YouTube crept its way out of the basement and into the investment portfolio of the monolith known as Google. October 2006 just a year and half into its inception, YouTube was purchased for the bargain price of 1.65 Billion dollars. A prudent investment considering the colossal 70 billion dollar price tag attached to it now.
The online romantic revolutionary saw YouTube as the dagger that would inevitably strike the final blow to the archaic, money driven medium that is television. YouTube was the wrecking ball of human expression destined swipe power from leeching advertisers, organically handing it over to the creators via the simple process of just being better, but if The Usual Suspects taught me anything, the devil never dies, he just changes costume.
Google, ostensibly has one goal and one goal only, to produce profit. YouTube was purchased with the intention of preservation. Just not the preservation of its authenticity. The preservation of all those advertising dollars that companies funnel into television. Marketing agencies accurately predicted they we’re in danger of being marginalised by the ever growing, and advertisement free online video market, the wave of public attention was steadily shifting, leaving a black hole of commercials with a dwindling platform. Like I said the devil doesn’t die, he just shape shifts. Google didn’t drastically change the visible structure of YouTube, just realigned its purpose.
YouTube was now at the mercy of the dollar, dollars generated by marketers, and what do advertisers want more than anything? The consumers attention, they want to know how long and who exactly is viewing their content. Youtube’s video search and sidebars used to be completely arbitrary, you start off with videos of fishing that could lead you anywhere, the sidebar would just put random videos on any topic, related or unrelated. Videos you may like or other fishing channels didn’t intrude into your line of sight, YouTube didn’t try and guess your taste, instead leaving the consumer to make their own choices, creating a mixed bag of content. The businessman’s dilemma with that was people generally spent less time on the site. When your interests aren’t catered too, you have more control over what you consume, increasing the likelihood of you moving your attention onto something else and away from the site.
Juxtapose that with today, YouTube has created an algorithm, with the intention of apprehending and incarcerating a user’s mind indefinitely. Have you ever searched for a funny video of children falling over, then 3 hours later found yourself watching a some Chinese toddler do the macarena on South Korean X factor. That’s not an accident. Your attention was hijacked by design. The algorithm, void of any human counsel, precisely estimates what your current interest is. Using that information it places similar videos to the one you’re watching, going off past history of people who watched the video and how likely they were to continue on to the next option. It deciphers the best next option likely to intrigue you, automatically playing the next video, the perfect sequel to what you were just watching. The effectiveness of YouTube is found in its investment, the average YouTube videos is between two and six minutes, leading the user to view the next installment as a small time investment on their behalf. Unlike TV shows or movies, everyone feels like they have an a quick two minutes to view a harmless video, get a quick of dose of distraction.
YouTube bombards you with whatever you’re looking up at the point of time, unlike discovering videos by searching yourself or haphazardly stumbling across a new interesting video. These days your interests are found out and heightened. Every time YouTube automatically plays or suggests videos, they’re slightly more radical version of your previous choice. For example, If a woman decides to look up a do it from home workout video, she finds a quick five minute sit-up exercise meant for home, targeting abs, the next suggestion would be sit up exercises you can do anywhere, then sit ups and crunches at home, sit ups and crunches anywhere, how to sit ups and crunches at the same time, leg workouts to maximize your sit ups, full body workouts, diet tips and the rabbit hole just continues to get deeper. Of course targeted advertisements run concurrently with your activity.
This may seem innocuous, a lot of the time it is. Most people use YouTube for banal interests and self help videos, mixed in with a bit of soft core porn. The danger of this unregulated algorithm lies not the curious housewife wanting to increase her chances of an affair, but in the fragile minds of young adults or the disenfranchised outcast looking for an avenue to find purpose. Let’s say a teenage boy takes an interest fighting, starts by watching a beginner boxing tutorial, two hours later YouTube has poked his motivation to the point of him consuming videos conducted by Russian specials forces, detailing how to kill and subdue people. Maybe there’s a female university student who just broke up with her boyfriend, leaving a temporary distaste for men. She looks for comfort in the form of a feminist motivational blogger. Three hours later she’s watched a documentary on men’s crimes against women and is viewing content on the pervasive evil of the patriarchy. Taking a short term feeling or interest than radicalising it.
Essentially YouTube captures your mood, then augments it. During its infancy YouTube would allow you to look up a video, watch it, then use your own mind to find another video you like. Now whatever content we’re looking up is heightened and hammered into the psyche, playing right into people’s confirmation bias. This could partly explain Donald Trump. Throughout the 2016 election cycle Donald Trump’s YouTube and social media numbers dominated every trending list there was, sparking intense curiosity from people who typically wouldn’t support such views. These people would view a Trump rally out of intrigue. Trumps stance on illegal immigration was well known, but as someone views Trumps interviews on immigration, YouTube would then slowly push content that was a little more extreme. One minute you’re checking Trumps views on Mexicans, next minute you’re being indoctrinated with Mexican crime wave videos, docos on the dangers of cartels, all this until you end up watching just straight up white supremacist propaganda videos leaving you heiling Hitler, and demanding the biggest fucking wall the world’s ever seen.
YouTube has killed the spontaneity of self-discovery. People’s attention spans are getting shorter, without YouTube guiding people on what to watch, users are more likely to just watch one video on a topic, come to conclusion then focus their attention elsewhere. With YouTube’s primary goal being advertisement income, all major TV/Radio stations, news outlets, artists and public figures all use YouTube to forward their message. Mathematical algorithms don’t ponder the social consequences of its purpose, it only attains the goal of more views, equaling more money. More money, more problems. Problems far removed from the concerns of YouTube’s board members.