YouTube is Terrifying.

And so is social media in general. Here’s why.

This article is avaliable on Odysee

Photo by Adem AY on Unsplash

I recently encountered this video by HealthyGamerGG that explores why it is so easy to start procrastinating and get distracted on social media platforms, such as YouTube.

They mention that we, as the end-user of these services, are essentially helpless against the billions of dollars of R&D that goes into creating social media algorithms. And that’s true. The fact that some of humanity’s smartest engineers and psychologists are working on how to continue feeding you more content, is genuinely scary.

But why are they doing this?

The rise of social media has been associated with a concept of “infinite growth” — at the time, it genuinely did look like these companies were going to continue growing, with no signs of stopping. And in publicly-traded companies that are beholden to the shareholders, they have the legal responsibility of making sure the shareholder’s wishes are fulfilled.

In simple words, they have to keep making more money than they did last quarter.

Now that these platforms have reached literally everyone that has internet access, they can’t really continue growing, can they? Unless…

Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

There are 24 hours in a day, and humans should be awake for about 16–18 hours of those (please, get some sleep). And while previously, people might have been using social media for just 30 minutes a day, and maybe only saw about 10 ads, some smart cookie somewhere probably asked, “what if we just got them to spend more time on the platform?”

And this is where we get the race to take up as much time as possible. There are various ways to do this:

  • Design a ridiculously accurate recommendation algorithm that keeps you watching (e.g. YouTube)
  • Show you more ads (e.g. YouTube. This doesn’t really increase the amount of time you spend on the platform, but it does give them more money per hour you spend)
  • Design the user-experience to involve dopamine as much as possible — and uses some other predatory psychology tricks that I’m not qualified enough to talk about (e.g. TikTok, YouTube Shorts)
  • Design a recommendation algorithm that prioritises controversial content (e.g. Twitter, YouTube Shorts, Facebook)

IMO: It’s downright wrong.

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm might recommend some high-quality content, but I really don’t want YouTube to become a time-sink. Being a student takes up enough time already. I imagine students my age that use social media far more than I do are struggling even more than I am to balance time.

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

The user experience of TikTok and YouTube Shorts is designed to provide psychological rewards as quickly and easily as possible. The “swiping up” mechanic is both the most genius idea I have ever heard of, and also the most unsettling.

“Just one more swipe away from getting another hit of [psychological reward that I’m not qualified to talk about] — even better, you don’t know what the next video is, so you get twice the [psychological reward]” — is a terrifying marketing pitch, but that’s literally how it works.

The power to just “get more rewards in a single swipe” has completely destroyed my attention span. I can no longer enjoy long-form content, which sucks — because it’s often hundreds of times better in quality. Older readers that might not realise how bad this situation is — I challenge you to ask a teenager to watch a 20 minute YouTube documentary/educational video without skipping. They will probably die of boredom at about the 2 minute mark.

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

Here’s what’s even scarier: the fact that YouTube Shorts and TikTok don’t push the highest quality content to the top — it works primarily on viewer retention (% of a video watched). This means that a 3 second still image on YouTube Shorts will, in all likelihood, break the algorithm.

How is this fair? We’re penalising creators that create good content, and we’re eroding the attention span of viewers.

Social media has the power to be extremely dangerous. It already is — just look at the average teenager.

For the sake of our generation and the ones after us, I beg governments around the world to regulate the development of content-recommendation algorithms, so that they use less predatory psychological techniques, and so that they are designed to surface high-quality content.

And you, dear reader, if you recognise the significance of this, please spread the word. Share this article to your friends (if you have them) — the more people we have on board, the easier this journey will be.

That got very dark, very quickly. But there are ways around this. Especially since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, many social media alternatives have risen in popularity. Because they aren’t massive corporations and aren’t publicly traded, they don’t care about how much time you spend on those platforms — rather, they care about your experience. And that’s what we need here.

Mastodon — while a lot more complex than Twitter and therefore more difficult to sign up to, Mastodon doesn’t feature a content-recommendation algorithm. Instead, it just shows you posts from the topics/people that you follow. There’s no chance of seeing a controversial post — unless you’re following that topic, in which case… Get a life.

Odysee — GNET Research describes it as “the new YouTube for the far right”. While it is true, this is only an issue for those new to the platform. Choose a number of creators to follow that you like, and Odysee will show you things from those creators. Simple as that. Jordan Peterson will no longer haunt your recommendations.

Unfortunately as a result of their smaller size and lower budgets, the quality of these platforms is also much lower than that of mainstream ones (YouTube, TikTok, Twitter, etc). However, that might also be part of the reason why they are so effective at the complicated art of not wasting your time.

If you liked this, maybe Buy Me A Coffee?

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