“Nutritious and Delicious.” Inside YouTube’s Early, Failed Attempt To Recommend Videos That Are Good For You, And Enjoyable Too.
Well before the social media backlash, YouTube tried to recommend videos based on quality, not just engagement. It didn’t work.
Hi Everyone, my aim at Big Technology is to cover the machine, not just the outputs. To learn why Big Tech acts the way it does, we must understand its systems, not only what they produce. That’s why I’m excited this week to publish a story that reveals YouTube’s long-running struggle to tune its optimization algorithm. The story below is adapted from Mark Bergen’s new book, Like, Comment, Subscribe, and contains new, original reporting about the company’s decade-long quest to recommend videos that are both enjoyable and nourishing. I hope you enjoy it! Yours, Alex
By Mark Bergen
Almost every day, YouTube’s engineers experiment on us without our knowledge. They tweak video recommendations for subsets of users, review the results, and tweak again. Ideally, YouTube wants more “valued watchtime” — its term for time spent on videos most viewers find agreeable, or at least not detestable.
Since the extended backlash against social media starting in 2016, all major internet platforms have pledged to refine their metrics in this manner, moving beyond optimizing for pure engagement. Facebook vowed to track “time well spent.” YouTube promised valued viewing. The hope is to keep regulators and other critics at bay.
Trouble is, valued watchtime often eats into overall watchtime, YouTube’s gold standard, which is something the company’s known well before 2016. While reporting for my new book on YouTube’s history, Like, Comment, Subscribe, I discovered that prior to its recent pledge, YouTube’s tried several times to rank content qualitatively, but either never figured it out or gave up trying.
It started around a decade ago. Back then, YouTube strove to treat all videos equally. If footage didn’t break copyright or graphic violence rules, YouTube thought it belonged on its site and in its promotional machine. “Look, if it’s not good enough to recommend, it just shouldn’t be on…