Thursday, December 13, 2018

Youtube is a Sewer

I basically don't use Youtube for anything except watching music of various kinds. At some point - I dunno, a couple of years ago - those "recommended videos" (gotta keep fighting to turn the damn autoplay next video off!) started getting really weird. Often nothing to do with whatever crappy music I happened to be listening to. Basically a click or two (or autoplay) away from crazy racist conspiracy stuff.

The humans who run YouTube (and run its algorithms) aren’t exactly proud of the fact that their product showcases misogynist rants or pseudoscientific nonsense or apocalyptic conspiracy theories. But their position is that what happens inside their black box is extremely hard to correct or regulate, and on the scale at which YouTube operates, it’s impossible to apply human judgment to every case. They wish there was a way to serve up video recommendations without poisoning people’s minds till someone believes it’s necessary to invade a pizza parlor with an assault rifle, but that’s a real tough computational challenge.

What this line of defense leaves out is a very basic, obvious fact: YouTube already has access to an algorithm that can sort through videos without promoting unhinged fringe material. It’s called Google. YouTube is part of Google. When and if Google’s search algorithms start giving Google users fringe results, Google treats that as a failure and tries to fix the algorithms.


And so YouTube doesn’t have to pick out Pizzagaters or MRAs or neo-phrenologists. It has the power to send viewers in the opposite direction. The people who run YouTube made the choice to teach its algorithms to value trash—even if they thought they were teaching the system to value something more neutral, like viewing time. There was a time, in living memory, when the YouTube recommendation system was less aggressive and it acted like Google: stacking up more and more songs by the same band you were listening to, say, or the same subject you were watching a clip about, until you’d had all you wanted and were done.