Tripping down the YouTube rabbit hole

“How did i end up here?” This was a question that Person had asked himself many times as he looked over at the clock on the wall of his small studio apartment; realizing that what started with him looking at old music videos had somehow ended several hours later with “Top ten musicians in the Illuminati”. A slight chuckle would leave Persons lips as he put his phone away and went back to work on his papers, which at this point were long overdue.

The last few weeks had been different: having recently dropped out of university due to the aforementioned papers, free-time was not exactly resource he was lacking. Often finding himself on his phone or computer watching self help videos in an attempt to figure out how to get his act together.

Soon enough the videos recommended to him by the site started to match his new interests. Filling his recommendations with a large variety of different topics: why keeping your room clean helps you keep a clear head, how to nail a job interview, and how looking at his phone could have signaled disinterest on his last few not so successful dates. There were even some videos about the problems with modern tax policy. Soon enough the Illuminati top ten videos were nothing but a memory from a simpler (if somewhat confusing) time.

As he started to watch more and more videos it did not take long before some of the videos recommended to him took a more… controversial slant. With topics like social justice warriors threatening free speech, your genetics determining your value in the “sexual marketplace” and how immigration is the reason the nearby steel mill had to close down. Always having been a curios person, Person watched a few of these videos. In general he disagreed with most of the points they were making but the people in them were entertaining and it was interesting to see things from a new perspective. But after only having watched a few of those videos, things changed.

This sort of video started to appear more and more frequently in the recommendations, and as their percentage increased so did his viewing hours. It all started to feel like he had gained access to all the secrets that the mainstream refused to confront, all the uncomfortable answers they knew were there but never talked about for the risks of losing their sponsors. Surely this must be the reason, cause if the ideas were wrong, wouldn’t he see videos giving counter arguments? But if those videos existed, they were now long gone; self help videos about clean rooms, job interviews, dating tips and tax policy now as much of a memory as the Illuminati videos. All replaced by a worldview that blames feminism for not getting dates, refugees for not getting any jobs and how everyone is against you. Soon enough Person has changed just as much as the videos he watches.

Now….. Did that sound like improbable nonsense written by someone far more concerned with making a point, than being remotely realistic? I would honestly not blame you if you said yes. The idea of someone falling into these sorts of ideas from simply watching videos online probably seems pretty silly to most people (especially to those who, unlike you truly, does not spend most of their time on the internet). This story is however, not something that I made up, but a barely modified version of the true story of Caleb Cain told by the New York Times. [1]

But how could something like that happen, I hear you say, so lets go through it. When your source of income depends on showing ads; your primary method of getting a higher income is to get people to stay on your site for longer periods of time. For a site like YouTube, this means that you need to get people to keep watching more videos. Through their personalized recommendations, YouTube has gotten so good at this that 70% of all time spent watching videos comes from those recommendations. [2] The unintended consequence of this is giving an advantage to videos that are provocative, conspiratorial, sensational or controversial. That sort of content is attention grabbing, which increases the likelihood you would click on it. It is letting you in to a special club, either being something taboo or letting you in on a secret that the rest of the world is to stupid to figure out or to afraid to accept. It is also easy to make, so there will always be more to watch.

“There’s a spectrum on YouTube between the calm section — the Walter Cronkite, Carl Sagan part — and Crazytown, where the extreme stuff is. If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.”

– Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google [1]

This of course does not only happen within political areas, like when people viewing sexually charged videos of adults, quickly were recommended videos of prepubescent girls performing gymnastics, taking ice baths and sucking on ice lollies. [4] Or perhaps you remember “elsagate“; when kids who started with watching clips from childrens programming eventually were led to videos of Frozens Elsa, Spiderman and the Joker engaging in sexual acts, public urination and using needles to inject weird liquids into their bodies…. [3] In other words, exactly the sort of things we want kids to see after putting on an old clip of Mr Rogers.

Outside of those previously mentioned there are many other instances of this pattern of being steered towards extremity: dieting tips leading to “why you should become anorexic”, anything that includes airplanes quickly sending you to nothing but crash landings, and of course conspiracy videos always popping up whenever you watch anything ever made in the history of mankind. Then once you have arrived at any of these extremities that the algorithm views as optimal for long term viewing, it would do whatever it could to keep you there.

“It was always giving you the same kind of content that you’ve already watched. It couldn’t get away from that. So you couldn’t discover new things, you couldn’t expand your brain, you couldn’t see other point of views. You were only going to go down a rabbit hole by design.”

– Guillaume Chaslot, former software engineer at YouTube. [5]

But hey at the end of the day some people out there are probably thinking, who cares? You managed to get all the way through a probably way to long post about the topic, so obviously you are intelligent enough to not be fooled by those silly super-computers (seriously though; amazing job, very impressed). It’s just one of the most culturally influential forces in the world pushing people towards flat earth conspiracies and pedophilia, not a big deal. Maybe all of them are also smart enough to not be dragged down the rabbit hole? So hey, if you do not see the problems this can have for society as a whole (that’s right I’m looking at you, BRIAN!), then maybe that is a topic for a later date.

So, What’s The Gist!?

To begin with i would like to set some thing straight; this post is not meant to just trash YouTube, in the past year they have stated that they are trying to fix the problems with their recommendation system, and if they manage it, great. The problem however runs deeper than that, as this happens all over the internet. This is mostly meant as a look at how the idea discussed in our previous post (2. Prelude: the Beast Is Born) can appear in the real world.

These companies are not trying to spread radical political ideas, promote pedophilia or showing children things an adult would be traumatized by. They are simply prioritizing the thing that is the most important to their bottom line, attention. The problem is that in doing that they end up promoting things that go counter to the values of the people working at the companies, and society in general.

Right now we are in a situation where we have to stop using these sorts of recommendation algorithms, unless these companies figure out a way to give good recommendations to us without promoting this sort of harmful content. Or we have to accept the problems that come with living in a world where our digital librarians keep pushing us towards the more…. questionable shelves.

Written by: Johan

Want to learn more?

These are the sources used when writing this gist. Primarily The Making of a YouTube Radical and Down the Rabbit Hole by Design.

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