Reed Rosenbacher: Why YouTube is hiding the depths below

Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 5:33pm

It’s 2007, and a bored middle schooler sits in front of the computer looking for some kind, any kind, of entertainment. Faced with the blank Google bar, there is only one logical place to go: YouTube. A special place on the Internet that often feels like an infinite archive of the hilarious, practical and, most importantly, random.

When YouTube first began, it was a platform ruled by regular people who just simply wanted to share something they thought was fun. Charlie Bit My Finger and Numa Numa seem like the most shining examples of the incredibly human and wholesome spirit that dominated the surface of YouTube. Resting below, however, YouTube housed content that was far more obscure.

Entering this part of YouTube has been called going on a “deep dive” or going “deep into YouTube.” This video of a man playing trumpet and shooting a gun to the tune of “All Star” by Smash Mouth to honor his friend Keith’s birthday is an exemplar of YouTube’s deep end. The lines of irony, specifically the borders of irony are almost absolutely unintelligible. In other words, is the gun in the video meant to be cool or funny? If it is meant to be a joke, do I find it humorous because it is a good joke or because it is such a bad joke? In all honesty, I have absolutely no idea.

The depths of YouTube are by their very nature a mixed bag of hidden gems. These parts of YouTube, which do not follow any norms or guidelines and are quickly becoming buried so “deep” into YouTube that they are no longer easily accessible, is just the way YouTube wants them to be. Instead of finding odd videos that have a few hundred views, YouTube users are now overwhelmingly recommended videos with thousands of views from professionalized channels. In fact, only about 5 percent of videos that YouTube recommends fewer than 50,000 views. It is still possible to access this very do-it-yourself, “deep” part of YouTube, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to get there.

The launch of programs such as YouTube TV, a service that allows users to watch “regular tv” on YouTube, demonstrates YouTube has taken gigantic steps away from its origins as a platform designed for the masses to share videos of themselves. The main sources of content on YouTube come from people who identify as professional Youtubers, people who get the majority of their income from YouTube and  treat their channels as a job instead of a hobby.

As YouTube has grown and the platform has changed, it has become clear YouTube’s algorithms have become centered on keeping people in what I call the surface or the professional parts of YouTube. In the earlier days of YouTube, diving deep down into the oddest parts of the site was easy—all you had to do was keep clicking on the top recommended video and eventually you would end up with something like a man poorly playing the trumpet and shooting his gun to the tune. The algorithm for recommending videos has become much more precise and can more easily recognize what makes two videos similar. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is highly personalized and based upon what types of videos similar users watch. 

Spontaneously generating libraries of videos on a certain subject is not always what's best for users. If, for example, someone has a broken toilet and goes on YouTube to learn how to repair a toilet, then having a tight collection of videos is great. This type of algorithmic collection, however, can manifest itself into dangerous echo chambers. If someone wants to research a topic like politics, then the tight collection of videos is damaging rather than beneficial to the educational process. For example, if you search for Dinesh D’souza, a famous right-wing enthusiast, on YouTube, almost all the recommended videos are of him or Jordan Peterson, another famous right-wing intellectual. Put simply, the current suggested video algorithm of YouTube is focused on similarity that can often create an excellent user experience but sometimes create a damaging lack of diversity.

By producing algorithms that drive people away from the obscurities of YouTube toward large channels that supply people with the most similar videos, YouTube has made depth and diversity a distant horizon for users. The inability to easily dive deep into YouTube shows users are placed within feedback loops that simply replenishes rather than replaces the content that has been consumed. Not only is the content locked within a framework of replacement but it is also guided toward what is safe and profitable for YouTube. Larger channels with lots of content and views tend to more reliably follow YouTube’s community standards, which are essential to YouTube's profitability.

YouTube has transformed from a platform for regular people to share random videos about their lives to a platform that promotes professionalism and precision. YouTube, of course, is not the only website to experience a transformation of regulation — many people believe the days of the “Internet Wild West” are over. If the Wild West is a memory of the past, or even if it never existed, it is still essential powerful platforms like YouTube think critically about how algorithms are essential curators that craft how us users view the world. In short, YouTube has gone from a platform dominated by the masses to a platform dominated by the algorithms.

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