I Don’t Watch YouTube (Like You Watch YouTube)

I was watching a recent YouTube video by Derek Muller (Veritasium), My Video Went Viral. Here’s Why, and I came to a realisation: I don’t watch YouTube like most people – probably including you! – watch YouTube. And as a result, my perspective on what YouTube is and does is fundamentally biased from the way that others probably think about it.

The Veritasium video My Video Went Viral. Here’s Why is really good and you should definitely watch at least 7 minutes of it in order to influence the algorithm.

The magic moment came for me when his video explained that the “subscribe” button doesn’t do what I’d assumed it does. I’m probably not alone in my assumptions: I’ll bet that people who use the “subscribe” button as YouTube intend don’t all realise that it works the way that it does.

Like many, I’d assumed the “subscribe” buttons says “I want to know about everything this creator publishes”. But that’s not what actually happens. YouTube wrangles your subscription list and (especially) your recommendations based on their own metrics using an opaque algorithm. I knew, of course, that they used such a thing to manage the list of recommended next-watches… but I didn’t realise how big an influence it was having on the way that most YouTube users choose what they’ll watch!

Veritasium explains how the YouTube subscriber model has changed over time
“YouTube started doing some experiments… where they would change what was recommended to your subscribers. No longer was a subscription like ‘I want to see every video by this person’; it was more of a suggestion…”

YouTube’s metrics for “what to show to you” is, of course, biased by your subscriptions. But it’s also biased by what’s “trending” (which in turn is based on watch time and click-through-rate), what people-who-watch-the-things-you-watch watch, subscription commonalities, regional trends, what your contacts are interested in, and… who knows what else! AAA YouTubers try to “game” it, but the goalposts are moving. And the struggle to stay on-top, especially after a fluke viral hit, leads to the application of increasingly desperate and clickbaity measures.

This is a battle to which I’ve been mostly oblivious, until now, because I don’t watch YouTube like you watch YouTube.

Veritasium explains the YouTube "frontpage" algorithm.
“You could be a little bit disappointed in the way the game is working right now… I challenge you to think of a better way.”
Hold my beer.

Tom Scott produced an underappreciated sci-fi short last year describing a theoretical AI which, in 2028, caused problems as a result of its single-minded focus. What we’re seeing in YouTube right now is a simpler example, but illustrates the problem well: optimising YouTube’s algorithm for any factor or combination of factors other than a user’s stated preference (subscriptions) will necessarily result in the promotion of videos to a user other than, and at the expense of, the ones by creators that they’ve subscribed to. And there are so many things that YouTube could use as influencing factors. Off the top of my head, there’s:

  • Number of views
  • Number of likes
  • Ratio of likes to dislikes
  • Number of tracked shares
  • Number of saves
  • Length of view
  • Click-through rate on advertisements
  • Recency
  • Subscriber count
  • Subscriber engagement
  • Popularity amongst your friends
  • Popularity amongst your demographic
  • Click-through-ratio
  • Etc., etc., etc.
Veritasium videos in my RSS reader
A Veritasium video I haven’t watched yet? Thanks, RSS reader.

But this is all alien to me. Why? Well: here’s how I use YouTube:

  1. Subscription: I subscribe to creators via RSS. My RSS reader doesn’t implement YouTube’s algorithm, of course, so it just gives me exactly what I subscribe to – no more, no less.It’s not perfect (for example, it pisses me off every time it tells me about an upcoming “premiere”, a YouTube feature I don’t care about even a little), but apart from that it’s great! If I’m on-the-move and can’t watch something as long as involved TheraminTrees‘ latest deep-thinker, my RSS reader remembers so I can watch it later at my convenience. I can have National Geographic‘s videos “expire” if I don’t watch them within a week but Dr. Doe‘s wait for me forever. And I can implement my own filters if a feed isn’t showing exactly what I’m looking for (like I did to strip the sport section from BBC News’ RSS feed). I’m in control.
  2. Discovery: I don’t rely on YouTube’s algorithm to find me new content. I don’t mind being a day or two behind on what’s trending: I’m not sure I care at all? I’m far more-interested in recommendations curated by a human. If I discover and subscribe to a channel on YouTube, it was usually (a) mentioned by another YouTuber or (b)  linked from a blog or community blog. I’m receiving recommendations from people I already respect, and they have a way higher hit-rate than YouTube’s recommendations.(I also sometimes discover content because it’s exactly what I searched for, e.g. I’m looking for that tutorial on how to install a fiddly damn kiddy seat into the car, but this is unlikely to result in a subscription.)
Robot with a computer.
I for one welcome our content-recommending robot overlords. (So long as their biases can be configured by their users, not the networks that create them…)

This isn’t yet-another-argument that you should use RSS because it’s awesome. (Okay, so it is. RSS isn’t dead, and its killer feature is that its users get to choose how it works. But there’s more I want to say.)

What I wanted to share was this reminder, for me, that the way you use a technology can totally blind you to the way others use it. I had no idea that many YouTube creators and some YouTube subscribers felt increasingly like they were fighting YouTube’s algorithms, whose goals are different from their own, to get what they want. Now I can see it everywhere! Why do schmoyoho always encourage me to press the notification bell and not just the subscribe button? Because for a typical YouTube user, that’s the only way that they can be sure that their latest content will be seen!

Veritasium encourages us to "ring that bell".
“There is one way… to short-circuit this effect… ring that bell.”
If I may channel Yoda for a moment: No… there is another!

Of course, the business needs of YouTube mean that we’re not likely to see any change from them. So until either we have mainstream content-curating AIs that answer to their human owners rather than to commercial networks (robot butler, anybody?) or else the video fediverse catches on – and I don’t know which of those two are least-likely! – I guess I’ll stick to my algorithm-lite subscription model for YouTube.

But at least now I’ll have a better understanding of why some of the channels I follow are changing the way they produce and market their content…

Jon Snow oh oh EXTENDED REMIX oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

This epic video (which contains spoilers for Game of Thrones through the third episode of season eight The Long Night). If you’re somehow not up-to-date, you can always watch the earlier iteration, which only contains spoilers through The Spoils of War, the fourth episode of the seventh series.

And now my bedsheets smell like Jon Snow.

A Conspiracy To Kill IE6

This article is a repost promoting content originally published elsewhere. See more things Dan's reposted.

The plan was very simple. We would put a small banner above the video player that would only show up for IE6 users. It would read “We will be phasing out support for your browser soon. Please upgrade to one of these more modern browsers.” Next to the text would be links to the current versions of the major browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, IE8 and eventually, Opera. The text was intentionally vague and the timeline left completely undefined. We hoped that it was threatening enough to motivate end users to upgrade without forcing us to commit to any actual deprecation plan. Users would have the ability to close out this warning if they wanted to ignore it or deal with it later. The code was designed to be as subtle as possible so that it would not catch the attention of anyone monitoring our checkins. Nobody except the web development team used IE6 with any real regularity, so we knew it was unlikely anyone would notice our banner appear in the staging environment. We even delayed having the text translated for international users so that a translator asking for additional context could not inadvertently surface what we were doing. Next, we just needed a way to slip the code into production without anyone catching on.

The little-told story of how a rogue team of YouTube engineers in 2009 helped hasten IE6‘s downfall by adding a deprecation warning to the top of the site’s homepage… without getting the (immediate) attention of the senior developers and management who’d have squashed their efforts.

The Family Vlog

Those of you who’ve met my family will probably already have an understanding of… what they’re like. Those of you who haven’t are probably about to gain one.

My sister devours a mango.
Did you did you… did you know that: Becky can eat mango, all by herself?

It started on a weekend in April, when my mother and I went to a Pink concert. The support act were a really fun band called Walk the Moon, who finished their energetic set with I Can Lift A Car, with its’ catchy chorus hook “Did you did you… did you know know: I can lift a car up, all by myself?” Over the weeks that followed, perhaps because of its earworm qualities, this song became sort-of an inside Rickroll between my mum and I.

A series of text messages from me to my mum, telling a story about separating large and small particulates of granulated agar, and culminating with "I can sift agar, all by myself" - a clear reference to "I can lift a car."
For example, this Bel-Air-meme style text message used a shaggy dog story to deliver a play on words.

At one point, she sent me a link to this video (also visible below), in which she is seen to lift a (toy) car. My sister Becky (also known as “Godzilla”) was behind the camera (and, according to the credits, everything else), and wrote in the doobly doo: “I think I’m gonna start doing family vlogs.”

She’d experimented with vlogging before, with a short series of make-up tutorials and a “test video post” on her blog, but this represented something new: an effort to show off her family (and guest appearances from her friends) as they really are; perhaps this was an effort to answer the inevitable question asked by people who’ve visited them – “are they always like that?” Perhaps that’s why she chose the name she did for the Family Vlog – “IRL”.

Becky and Sarah in the front of Becky's car, as seen in "IRL - Week 8". Sarah's boyfriend Richard, and my mother, can be seen in the back seats.
The essential Family Vlog (“IRL”) scene is the car scene, with the camera facing backwards from the dashboard. See also my second review…

At the time of writing, Becky (on her YouTube channel) has produced eight such videos (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight), reliably rolling out one a week for the last two months. I thought they were pretty good – I thought that was just because they were my family, but I was surprised to find that it’s slowly finding a wider reach, as I end up speaking to friends who mention to me that they “saw the latest family vlog” (sometimes before I’ve had a chance to see it!).

Me reviewing me reviewing my family, from Review 6.
As I was visiting Preston, I ended up featuring in “IRL – Week 6”. My review (click on the image for it), therefore, seemed to be equal in parts recursive and narcissistic.

Naturally, then, the only logical thing to do was to start producing my own YouTube series, on my channel, providing reviews of each episode of my sister’s vlog. I’ve managed to get seven out so far (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven), and I’d like to think that they’re actually better than the originals. They’re certainly more-concise, which counts for a lot, because they trim the original vlog down to just the highlights (interrupted only occasionally by my wittering atop them).

The widget above (or this playlist) will let you navigate your way through the entire body of vlogs, and their reviews (or lets you play them all back to back, if you’ve got two and a quarter hours to spare and a pile of brain cells you want killing). But if you’re just looking for a taster, to see if it’s for you, then here are some starting-out points:

  • The best review? Probably five or six.
  • The best episode? My favourite is six, but number two has the most views, probably the keywords “lesbian foursome” are popular search terms. Or possibly “girls peeing”. I’m not sure which scares me the most.
  • Of if you just want to drop-in and have a taster, start from the latest review.

Update: the family vlog now has an official website.