To make the internet a better place we could start by switching off the world’s biggest video sharing site amid claims its algorithms magnify fringe views, says Annalee Newitz
21 August 2019
A FEW years ago, the biggest complaint about YouTube was that if you left it running, you would eventually find yourself watching Psy’s Gangnam Style music video for the 40,000th time. How I long for the days when all we had to worry about was too much bouncy K-pop. Now, YouTube’s algorithm leads us in the opposite direction, autoplaying ever more marginal videos rather than more popular ones. As a result, according to a two-year investigation by the New York Times YouTube has been one of the major forces pulling fringe politics and conspiracy theories into the mainstream.
To make matters worse, allegations that children were forced to perform for camera has led to the closure of at least two popular YouTube channels in the US And this is on top of recent accusations from YouTube employees, denied by the company, that it won’t enforce its content rules for prominent YouTubers, allowing some channels to get out of control.
Put simply, YouTube is a garbage fire and it is high time to throw the whole thing away.
Let me make one thing clear. I love DIY video. Nothing is more delightful than watching people yell about anime, explain the origins of the universe, melt giant cubes of cheddar with red hot nickel balls (look it up) and dance to, well, anything.
The problem is that YouTube, which is owned by Google, is doing more than allowing people to share fun stuff. It is working hard to sculpt its users into the ideal audience for video adverts. And the ideal audience is one that can’t look away. Ever.
This is where the algorithm that chooses your next video comes in. Sometime in 2016, someone seems to have realised that the average human would spend more time on YouTube if the platform could recreate the psychological experience of seeing a horrific auto accident When the video you want to watch is over, YouTube will autoplay another that is the same, just more so. And so on, until you are watching somebody in a hockey mask explaining how aliens are controlling the cheese economy, and Brexit is the only defence.
Meanwhile, the quest to make money encourages YouTubers themselves to become more extreme to garner more views. One popular YouTuber, Logan Paul, filmed himself making jokes next to the body of a man who had hanged himself in a forest.
“Put simply, YouTube is a garbage fire and it is high time to throw the whole thing away”
A recent Washington Post investigation reported that YouTube moderators allege they are given one set of rules for top-grossing YouTubers, and another for smaller ones. It cited cases such as that of popular YouTuber Steven Crowder who was allowed to remain on the platform after what seemed to be clear violations of its terms of service by posting homophobic and racist abuse about journalist Carlos Maza Maza received death threats from followers of Crowder. YouTube denies applying double standards, but as a private company it isn’t regulated by US free speech laws, so there is no legal obligation for it to allow Crowder to remain.
So how do we clean up this mess? I have some modest proposals. One is that we shut down YouTube altogether. Some US lawyers have argued that YouTube is violating child labour laws by making money on YouTube channels featuring children. These laws exist to prevent backstage parents and producers from abusing kids, which is exactly what is alleged to have happened in some cases.
Making YouTube liable for violating these laws and others would probably bring the company to a standstill.
A more interesting possibility would be to split YouTube into two companies: a video-sharing site for people who have no more than a few thousand followers and a professional video production company that must abide by child labour laws and follow the Hollywood studio model, with unionised actors and writers.
The video-sharing site wouldn’t allow advertising and would cap audiences at, say, 10,000 followers. YouTubers who amassed a bigger following could apply to work at the YouTube Studio, and follow labour laws accordingly.
And finally, what if we turned YouTube into true public broadcasting? Chop it up, hand it over to PBS, the BBC, the CBC or any number of other public broadcasting corporations, and let governments regulate the content in their countries. The private sector has failed, and it is time to try a new model for video sharing.
When YouTube as we know it goes away, I guarantee you won’t miss it. And maybe we will get something better.
What I’m reading
Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity by Patrick Roberts, about how human civilisation began in the tropics.
What I’m watching
John Wick 3: Parabellum, an inexplicably wonderful Keanu Reeves movie.
WhatI’m working on
A short story about how hacker drama causes the robot uprising.
- This column appears monthly. Up next week: James Wong
More on these topics: