The Power of You Algorithm


20 September 2019

Five hundred hours of content uploaded every minute.
One billion hours of videos watched every day.
Two billion users logged in every month, from more than 100 countries.

YouTube is ubiquitous.

YouTube is a video platform, search engine, a recommendation engine, and social media site that wields a great deal of influence over how billions of users around the world access and interpret information.

People of all demographics turn to the site for everything from cooking tutorials to homework help to music streaming to news and political commentary.

The website boasts the second highest web traffic behind Google, and dominates global downstream traffic share, particularly on mobile.

Users who visit the site regularly place a higher value on its importance for learning about world events. Both more- and less-frequent users consider the site to be very important in helping them figure out how to do new things, according to survey data from the Pew Research Center.

In India — YouTube’s biggest audience, with close to 250 million monthly users — it is often the go-to source for all information.

“...for many Indians, the video app is their first stop for medical advice, financial tips, research for travel and even religious learning,” wrote Eric Bellman of The Wall Street Journal. “In other words, YouTube is their Google.”

“YouTube, as one of our primary windows into the world, is shaping our understanding of it,” wrote NBC News reporter Ben Popken.

In a time of growing concerns about how algorithms are used to drive everyday decision-making—such as calculating credit scores, evaluating university applications and job resumes, and predicting prison recidivism rates—it is important to also consider how they are shaping our perception of, current events and information.

“Pretty much the entirety of the world’s population with an internet connection is on this platform, and so it needs to reflect some of the morals and the values that we have in real life, because it is society,” said Chris Stokel-Walker, journalist and author of “YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars”.

YouTube’s recommendation engine counts for 70 percent of time spent on the website each day, and yet its design — and its influence — are not well understood. The company itself is largely inscrutable, making it very difficult to interrogate the powerful systems that drive such a monumental part of the online experience.

The level of trust in and reliance upon the platform makes users vulnerable to potential exploitation by malicious actors, including through the spread of misinformation and extremist ideologies.

In recent years, the platform — like others of its magnitude — has had to seriously reckon with the unintended consequences of its algorithmic decision-making. Though the company insists it is continually making changes to make the user experience safer, more educational and more enjoyable, there is continuous evidence to the contrary.

As YouTube continues to grow in influence and scope, it is important for all parties — creators, users, regulators — to pay attention to the way in which it’s affecting access to information and civil discourse around the world.


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