Previously I wrote about the Elephant on the Internet, and lately it seems like we can’t stop blundering into the pachyderm that shall not be mentioned. Last week, Medium published a controversial article about a strangely mutated (but inexplicably popular) genre of kids videos on YouTube. For those of us hardened by years of work (and play) in the darkest and weirdest corners of the internet, the article wasn’t surprising, but it was definitely disturbing how bad things had become in this area. If you don’t mind wearing the mental equivalent of hip-waders, James Bridle’s article plays Rod Serling to this Twilight Zone-esque subgenre that evolved to exploit YouTube’s keyword and “Suggested Videos” algorithm. One of my “favorite” videos from this story is entitled, “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video”. Rolls right off the tongue, eh?
What this means for you
A few years back, my wife and I made the sad (but not surprising) discovery that YouTube was not something that could be left in a child’s hands unsupervised. At the time, it had yet to grow the strange and mutated mushrooms that crowd the darker corners as described in Bridle’s article, but we encountered too many inappropriate “suggestions” from YouTube’s algorithms and came to the conclusion that (a) nobody was driving this particular bus, and (b) some people would do anything to make a buck, especially if they could do it by exploiting technology. In other words – not family friendly, and definitely not kid safe. A few years after that, Google announced YouTube Kids – a walled-garden subset of age-appropriate content that parents could trust to entertain their progeny, and we had a brief glimmer of hope that someone at Google noticed their space needed some adult supervision.
It’s no secret that children’s content is an evergreen but highly competitive industry. Prior to the internet, media companies would spend millions chasing short attention spans in the hopes of cashing in on an ephemeral merchandising craze, eg. Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-me Elmo and Baby Einstein videos. Now, thanks to the popularity of crowd-generated content, YouTube is a top destination for Internet “Gold Rushers” with children’s videos a particularly profitable and exploitable “vein”. The problem is not with the creators of these freaky videos – capitalism and Internet make for some strange, but predictable bedfellows. It’s that YouTube is yet another example of a system that has gotten away from its creators, and despite their attempts and promises to close yet another Pandora’s box, the sheer size and scale of the Internet continues to overwhelm and surprise the companies that laid the groundwork for its current dominance.
To sum up: it should come as no surprise that when the Internet gets ahold of something and everyone’s too busy watching the scenery to drive the bus, we can end up on the wrong side of town with no idea how to get back. Add YouTube to the crowd of monsters (Twitter, Facebook, Equifax, Wikileaks etc.) that have gotten away from their masters in service of agendas outside of their control.
Image courtesy of TAW4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net