6 min read

YouTube is at the center of content creation, content distribution, and advertising activities for some time now. The impact of YouTube can be estimated from the 1.8 billion YouTube users worldwide. While the YouTube video hosting concept has been a great success story for content creators, the video viewing and recommendation model has been in the middle of a brewing controversy lately.

The Controversy

Logan Paul was already a top rated YouTube star when he stumbled across a hanging dead body in a Japanese forest which is famous as a suicide spot. After the initial shock and awe, Logan Paul seemed quite amused and commented “Dude, his hands are purple,” then he turned to his friends and giggled. “You ever stand next to a dead guy?”. This particular instance was a shocking moment for YouTubers all across the globe.

Disapproving reactions had poured in and the video was taken down 24 hours later by YouTube. In those 24 hours, the video managed to garner 6 million views. Even after the furious backlash, users complained that they were still seeing recommendations of Logan Paul’s videos. That brought the emphasis back on the recommendation system that YouTube uses.

YouTube Video Recommendation

Back in 2005, when YouTube first started out, it had a uniform homepage for all users. This meant that every YouTube user would see the same homepage and the creators who would feature there, would get a huge boost in their viewership. Their selection was based on their subscriber count, views and user engagement metrics e.g. likes, comments, shares etc. This inspired other users to become creators and start contributing content to become a part of the YouTube family. In 2006, YouTube was bought by Google. Their policies and homepage started evolving gradually.

As ads started showing on YouTube videos, the scenario changed quite quickly. Also, with the rapid rise in the number of users, Google had thought it to be a good idea to curate the homepage as per each user’s watch history, subscriptions, and likes. This was a good move in principle since it helped the users to see what they wanted to see. As a part of their next level innovation, a machine learning model was created to suggest or recommend videos to users. The goal of this deep neural network based recommendation engine was to increase watch time of every video so that users stay longer on the platform.

What did it change and How

When Youtube’s machine learning algorithm shows a few videos in your feed as “Recommended for you”, it predicts what you want to see from your watch history and watch history of similar users. If you interact with any of these videos and watch it for a certain amount of time, the recommendation engine considers it as a success and starts curating a list based on your interactions with its suggested videos. The more data it gathers about your choices and watch history, the more confident it becomes of its own video decisions.

The major goal of Youtube’s recommendation engine is to attract your attention and get you hooked to the platform to get more watch time. More watch time means more revenue and more scope for targeted ads. What this changes, is the fundamental concept of choice and the exercising of user discretion. The moment the YouTube Algorithm considers watch time as the most important metric to recommend videos to you, less importance goes into the organic interactions on YouTube, which includes liking, commenting and subscribing to videos and channels.

Users get to see video recommendations based on the YouTube Algorithm’s user understanding and its goal of maximizing watch time, with less importance given to user choices.

Distorted Reality and YouTube

This attention maximizing model is the fundamental working mechanism of mostly all social media networks. But YouTube has not been implicated in the accusation of distorting reality and spreading the fake news as much as Facebook has been in mainstream media. But times are changing and so are the viewpoints related to YouTube’s influence on the global population and its ability to manipulate important public opinion.

Guillaume Chaslot, a 36-year-old French computer programmer with a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence, was one of those engineers who was in the core team to develop and perfect the YouTube algorithm. In his own words “YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online. The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.” Chaslot explains that the algorithm never stays the same. It is constantly changing the weight it gives to different signals; the viewing patterns of a user, for example, or the length of time a video is watched before someone clicks away.” Chaslot was fired by Google in 2013 over performance issues. His claim was that he wanted to bring about a change in the approach of the YouTube algorithm to make it more aligned with democratic values instead of being devoted to just increasing the watch time.

Where are we headed

I am not qualified or righteous enough to answer the direct question – is YouTube good or bad. YouTube creates opportunities for millions of creators worldwide to showcase their talent and present it to a global audience without worrying about country or boundaries. This itself is a huge power for an internet application. But the crucial point to remember here is whether YouTube is using this power to just make the users glued to the screen. Do they really care if you are seeing divisive content or prejudiced flat earther conspiracies as recommended videos?

The algorithm can be tweaked to include parameters which will remove unintended bias such as whether a video is propagating fake news or influencing voters minds in an unlawful way. But that is near impossible as machines lack morality or empathy or even common sense. To incorporate humane values such as honesty and morality into an AI system is like creating an AI that is more human than a machine.

This is why machine augmented human intelligence will play a more and more crucial role in the near future. The possibilities are endless, be it good or bad. Whether we progress or digress, might not be in our hands anymore. But what might be in our hands is to come together to put effective checkpoints to identify and course correct scenarios where algorithms rule wild.

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