December 29, 2018

An ode to YouTube's recommendation algorithm

Much has been said about the harmful effects of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, from Zeynep Tufecki’s We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads to James Bridle’s Something is wrong on the internet.

While these are very important (and disturbing) analyses that need to be acknowledged, this post isn’t about that. It’s about my personal experience with YouTube’s recommendation engine, which has been overwhelmingly positive, largely due to the kind of content I constrain myself to watching while on the site.

A few years ago, when running became difficult due to joint pain, I started exercising on an elliptical, a strange exercise machine that I originally mistook for a stair climber.

The elliptical is strange to me because it doesn’t feel particularly physically taxing, yet I sweat a lot while I’m using it, so I guess it must be doing something good. And because it’s not very intense, it leaves my brain free to absorb content. I noticed other folks at my gym doing all kinds of things while on these machines, from taking conference calls to reading books.

So I decided to start watching tech talks. Mostly GDC talks, PyCon talks and talks from various JavaScript conferences at first, along with whatever other talks folks on the 18F Slack recommended.

Because my gym had a very spotty internet connection, I had to pre-download talks onto my phone with a public domain command-line program called youtube-dl. Eventually I made a simple desktop app to ease this process.

At some point I switched gyms, and the new one had a much better internet connection, so I dropped the pre-downloading step. Instead, I just watched the videos using YouTube’s app, which gave the site much more data about what I liked to watch.

After some time, I noticed that YouTube would start recommending tech talks to me. I had never heard of GOTO Conferences or the Code Sync family of conferences, but YouTube introduced me to them, and I found their talks worthwhile.

At this point I’ve discovered so many interesting channels of educational content that it’s hard to remember which ones YouTube’s algorithm introduced me to. I am pretty sure the following were, but they’re worth mentioning regardless:

  • 3Blue1Brown is an amazing channel that makes mathematical concepts intuitive through the use of ingenious visualizations. Its Essence of Linear Algebra series in particular is one that I wish I’d had access to when I took Linear Algebra in college.

  • Wendover Productions is a channel whose content seems quite diverse, from detailing how forest fires are fought to how Mount Everest is climbed to how the geographies of various countries affect their trajectories.

  • Vox videos have very slick production values and sometimes I feel like I’m watching a geopolitical thriller, which feels bad ass. When it comes to political content, I feel especially wary of potential bias, but I also appreciate how Vox makes some conflicts that have always eluded me easier to reason about. Their The Middle East’s cold war, explained and Johnny Harris’ Vox Borders series have been particularly illuminating.

  • AI and Games is a channel that I think may have been recommended because of the Procjam and Game Maker’s Toolkit videos I’ve watched.

  • City Beautiful is an excellent channel about the design of cities and urban planning. I think its An Urban Planner Plays Sim City video may have originally been suggested to me because of the other game development-related videos I’ve watched, but I’ve always been interested in urban planning too, so I appreciated this recommendation.

So, while I fully acknowledge that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm can be harmful, it’s also been enormously useful. That said, it has suggested some questionable things to me in the past, and I’ve had to be quite vigilant about what I watch on it, for fear that my recommendations will go awry. I suppose this is its own problem, but despite it all, I’m grateful that the algorithm has introduced me to a variety of content creators that I otherwise wouldn’t know about.

© Atul Varma 2017