YouTube is ground zero for the attention economy

The attention economy helps explain much of the news, politics, and media we see these days. The way people receive information has changed more in the last five years than in perhaps the whole of human history, and certainly since the invention of the printing press.

And YouTube, it seems, is ground zero for the hyper-refinement of data driven, attention seeking algorithms:

In some ways, YouTube’s algorithm is an immensely complicated beast: it serves up billions of recommendations a day. But its goals, at least originally, were fairly simple: maximize the likelihood that the user will click on a video, and the length of time they spend on YouTube. It has been stunningly successful: 70 percent of time spent on YouTube is watching recommended videos, amounting to 700 million hours a day. Every day, humanity as a collective spends a thousand lifetimes watching YouTube’s recommended videos.

The design of this algorithm, of course, is driven by YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, maximizing its own goal: advertising revenue, and hence the profitability of the company. Practically everything else that happens is a side effect. The neural nets of YouTube’s algorithm form connections—statistical weightings that favor some pathways over others—based on the colossal amount of data that we all generate by using the site. It may seem an innocuous or even sensible way to determine what people want to see; but without oversight, the unintended consequences can be nasty.

Guillaume Chaslot, a former engineer at YouTube, has helped to expose some of these. Speaking to TheNextWeb, he pointed out, “The problem is that the AI isn’t built to help you get what you want—it’s built to get you addicted to YouTube. Recommendations were designed to waste your time.”

More than this: they can waste your time in harmful ways. Inflammatory, conspiratorial content generates clicks and engagement. If a small subset of users watches hours upon hours of political or conspiracy-theory content, the pathways in the neural net that recommend this content are reinforced.

The result is that users can begin with innocuous searches for relatively mild content, and find themselves quickly dragged towards extremist or conspiratorial material. A survey of 30 attendees at a Flat Earth conferenceshowed that all but one originally came upon the Flat Earth conspiracy via YouTube, with the lone dissenter exposed to the ideas from family members who were in turn converted by YouTube.

Algorithms Are Designed to Addict Us, and the Consequences Go Beyond Wasted Time

Conspiracy theories are YouTube theories. Maybe that should be their new name.