For years, YouTube has been one of my primary sources of entertainment. I have used it to search for videos on specific topics, but mostly I’ve used YouTube as a source of casual watching. My list of ever-changing recommended videos has been an interesting mix of entertaining and informative content about topics I am interested in. But something has changed. YouTube is not as entertaining to me as it once was, and I’m finally giving up on YouTube as a source of casual entertainment. And there are three reasons for it.
The mid-video ads
I don’t mind ads on YouTube. Ads is what makes the platform work: it provides income for content creators as well as the company, and watching ads (most of which I can skip anyway) is a small price to pay for great content. But as I wrote in my previous blog post, ads in the middle of videos are a big mistake. Unlike on TV, where ads are shown at more appropriate times (often introduced by a show’s host), ads in the middle of videos on YouTube appear very suddenly and abruptly. A video can be cut in mid-sentence so abruptly that my heart skips a beat. This is a terrible way to show ads, and it makes for a terrible viewing experience. And some videos, even short 5-10 minute videos, have up to three such ad placements in their videos. There are only so many abrupt and invasive ads one can take before getting really agitated. And they seem to become more and more popular, as more videos have mid-video ads.
When casually watching recommended videos I’m very dependent on YouTube’s algorithmes to find content that I like. While I’m fully aware of how these processes create a filter bubble where I’m only exposed to one type of content, casual viewing requires some sort of selection process being done for me. And this has worked well, for a long time. But in the past year I have noticed something going very wrong with the algorithmes. They seem to be hypersensitive to what I watch: If I watch just one video on a new topic, even if it was because of an interest in that video alone, YouTube floods my recommended videos list with that topic.
As an example, a while back I watched a video about debunking the 9/11-conspiracy. But since then, I have been recommended hundreds of conspiracy videos about secret governments, lizard people and the Earth being flat. While I do find conspiracy theories fascinating, I’m not interested enough to spend my whole day watching them. It has come to a point where I have to be careful about which videos I watch, because I know that introducing myself to a new topic may lead to that topic dominating my recommended videos list for weeks – as well as my search results. Recently I searched for a documentary on ancient Assyria, and in stead of getting scientific history-documentaries, my search results were filled with “documentaries” about ancient aliens.
I can certainly see why some academics are warning us about the filter bubble. If I actually believed in conspiracy theories about ancient aliens or the Earth being flat, YouTube’s recommendations would have sent me down a wild and speculative rabbit hole of confirming content. But for me personally, the problem is that YouTube seems to think that just because I have a momentary casual interest in a certain topic, that topic should now dominate my YouTube experience.
I’m not really learning anything
While my previous two points is about YouTube and the way it functions, this last point is more about me. I like watching educational videos about science, history and technology. But I have come to realize that I’m not really learning anything from them. Once I’ve finished watching one 15 minute video and start another one, I may feel like I know something that I didn’t know before. But it doesn’t take long to forget what I’ve watched. The brain isn’t built to passively receive 10-15 minute chunks of information and store it before receiving the next chunk. It’s only when I stop after watching a video and truly consider what I’ve learned that I actually learn it. That’s why it’s often the last video I watch in day that sticks with me. So I’ve spent many hours of my life thinking I was adding to my pool of knowledge, when in reality the acquired knowledge is quite small compared to the time I’ve invested.
So, I don’t learn much from YouTube – but there’s still the entertainment. There’s more to life than learning, and it’s perfectly fine to just sit back and relax with some purely entertaining videos. Accept it isn’t anymore, as my first two points still stand. A hypersensitive algorithm makes it difficult to search for videos and to watch random recommendations, and mid-video advertisement is a pain.
I’m not saying that I will never use YouTube again. I can still use it to search for specific things when I need it, like how-to videos or tips about how to train my dog to behave. And every time I watch a movie, I want to see if there’s an “Honest Movie Trailer” about it. It’s the casual, passive watching that’s become a problem for me. The recommendations that I’ve been so dependent on are going crazy, and the videos are being abrupted by the most horrible ad placements sense people started tattooing company logos on their forehead for money. So for now, my need for casual watching is just going to have to be fulfilled by Netflix and HBO.