You probably already knew this: YouTube is the second most visited website on the internet. In obvious first place is Google.com which also happens to be the parent/sister company of the world’s biggest video streaming site. YouTube has over 800 million videos (and growing) and gets over 17 billion visits per month (source), so saying they make a lot of money on that website off your eyeballs is putting it very mildly. The secret sauce, of course, is the algorithm that keeping must-see videos constantly into your viewing experience, and because it’s Google-powered, you can bet those engineers know exactly how build a data-driven, personalized algorithm that knows exactly what you want to see. Or does it?
One Algorithm to rule them all?
Based on the platform’s success and profitability it’s pretty clear that this algorithm is doing something right, but there is still plenty of criticism and scrutiny on YouTube’s content selection, especially in light of continuing misinformation problems plaguing all social media platforms. If you are a user of YouTube (statistically likely!) you are probably already familiar with the various tools you can use to supposedly tailor YouTube’s algorithm to only provide content aligned with your interests. There are even buttons to dislike, remove from recommendations, or report as misinformation, but according to research done by Mozilla Foundation (full disclosure: a non-profit research and advocacy organization that is funded by Firefox money and search engine royalties from Google, etc.), these buttons are essentially ineffective. My takeaway? YouTube is using the age-old marketing trick in offering the illusion of control, while still driving traffic to the videos and trends that make them the most money. The article is lengthy, but Mozilla helpfully provides an infographic summary that is a bit easier to digest and leads to the true reason they published these findings. In the end, Mozilla is an activist organization attempting to drill some transparency into the biggest content platforms. The only way this is going to happen is if enough people step up and ask for change. You don’t have to stop using YouTube, but recognizing their placebo controls might give you better insight into why true control over your feed feels elusive.
Image by Pablo Jimeno from Pixabay
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
On October 26 of last week, a number of popular, “cloud-based” services suffered multi-hour interruptions. Among the outages was Google’s App Engine, a platform that is used by thousands of other websites and internet platforms including one of my favorites, Passpack.com. Some of your favorites may have been impacted as well: Dropbox, Tumblr and even YouTube were affected. For many, this was a non-event, particularly those who operate and compute within enterprise-based platforms, or rely solely on the desktop and storage of their own computers. C2 Technology relies heavily on cloud-based services, primarily Google products, for our core information systems, and I use Passpack to track the multitude of passwords I need to do my work. So when those outages hit on the 26th, I found myself unable to access the keys to my various digital kingdoms, and felt very much like someone who finds themselves locked out of their car, and at the mercy of another person’s timetable. In this particular case, Passpack.com wasn’t even to blame, as their own reliance on Google’s App Engine service hamstrung their ability to deliver service to their customers, and the fine engineers at Google themselves were struggling with the outage. Everyone’s brand took a hit, and yet there was no one any one of us could blame for the outage – not even a radical hackivist group looking to ruin someone’s day for political currency.
What this means for you:
Very simply, “Never put all your eggs into one basket.” This homily, however pastoral-seeming, still very much applies to how you should use technology, especially when it comes to your core business processes. As an illustration of how this can be bad: I was using Passpack to store my Gmail password, which was complicated and impossible to remember, and instead relying on a complicated, but easier-to-remember passphrase to access Passpack to retrieve that password whenever I needed it. When Passpack went down, so did my ability to access Gmail and all of my client contact information. The lesson to take away from this: if you are going to store critical information online, have a back-up plan for continuing to operate without access to that information. Either back-it up locally (fraught with its own set of risks), or compartmentalize parts of your operations so that they aren’t heavily reliant on a single service provider, or the presence of the internet.
Image courtesy of “vichie81” / FreeDigitalPhotos.net