YouTube doesn't have to be awful

YouTube can be, and mostly is, awful. I’m not talking about the general proliferation of unboxing, reaction, or livestream videos. Those are very much not my thing, but a lot of people enjoy them and they’re mostly harmless. I have my enjoyable trash and you have yours.

I’m talking about the hate-breeding swamp of grifters and loathsome goons who live in symbiosis with YouTube’s toxic recommendation engine and autoplay funnel.

Was it always like this?

I first encountered YouTube in the summer of 2006. I was up in Toronto for a few days from New Brunswick, looking for an apartment with my soon-to-be roommate, Arthur. On a break between scouring the Annex neighbourhood for listings, he fired up his computer to show me a new video sharing platform. We spent the next couple of hours watching Skinny Puppy music videos and David Lynch interview clips. It was awesome.

close up of director david lynch's face with a microphone in front of him and a red curtain in the background

David Lynch famously dissing film watching on iPhones circa 2008 (not 2006, I know).

That’s really all it was in the beginning. A cool platform for people to upload, watch, share, and comment on videos. I have a few old ones up since that era for exactly that purpose. It was because of this that YouTube wound up being a massive mainstream phenomenon which inevitably (sadly) led to a huge market valuation and eventual acquisition by - who else - Google.

That’s where the sinister parts really started coming into play. YouTube was originally more-or-less a public service without much of a revenue model. For the first years under Google’s looming shadow, it continued in mostly the same vein. Over time, however, YouTube became an advertising and data harvesting platform, deeply tied into Google’s search, analytics, and marketing monopoly. Whatever primitive recommendation programming existed before, based on titles, tags, length, author, etc., was rewritten and over-engineered in that distinctly “big tech” way that we’re all so painfully familiar with by now. Rather than enjoying some fun stuff from creators around the globe, YouTube’s prime objective became keeping your eyes glued to their parade of ads while logging your habits for as long as possible.

The rabbit hole

This becomes a vicious cycle because content creators know very, very well how this works. They generate regular, scheduled videos of a sweet-spot length to attract as much viewership and circulation as possible while delicately stepping around banned words or subject matter that will get a video de-monetized. YouTube rewards regularly published content of a specific length because it allows them to sell targeted ads to a constant, captive audience. They profit from wider reach and more views because that means more people watching ads and feeding more viewing data into the platform. They punish words and thoughts which generate complaints or controversy for their advertisers.

While contributing to the ocean of dumb, trashy content (again, no judgement), it also generates the perfect environment for spewing hate, cooking up reactionary rage, and radicalizing those who are particularly susceptible to that variety of content.

The next time YouTube recommends a pile of videos to populate your feed, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I already agree with what they’re showing me?
  • Am I being fed simple answers to the things that frustrate me?
  • Would my friends and family be uncomfortable with what I’m watching?
  • Is this just making me angry?
  • Is this content giving me a target person or group for my anger?
  • Am I jumping into the comments and duking it out while watching the video?
  • Will I likely share this on other social media platforms?

grid of dozens of youtube thumbnails

Revealing my recommendations, packed with bread tube, news clips, and late night hosts feels very intrusive.

So what can you do?

Take the questions above for a start. You may not think of it, but YouTube is a powerful drug. Many factors, including video editing, music choice, timing of ads and auto-play, clickbait titles, and larger concerns around manipulation and parasocial dynamics all combine to block your brain’s critical thinking abilities and leave you open to the worst kinds of grifters.

Here are a few suggestions for keeping your defences up and your brain intact.

Down with autoplay

Disable autoplay. Just do it. Disable it on every device you use. If you are going to watch 10 videos in a row, you should be choosing each one of them. They may be garbage, but at least they’ll be your garbage. There are numerous stories, told by people who have recovered from radicalization, of how the autoplay and recommendation funnel took them from cringe compilations down a dark and filthy tunnel straight to red pilling and incel-dom.

Stay out of the comments

Avoid browsing the comments. There be all variety of trolls and monsters in there. Even the most innocuous children’s videos can be poisoned with a desolate ocean of goons in the comments. For every good one, there’ll be a dozen Russian bots and copy-pasted conspiracy theories.

Suspect recommendations

If YouTube recommends you a video or channel, regard it with utmost suspicion. They will only recommend what is most likely to pull you in for longer and engage more actively. This is not about your interests — it is about your eyeballs and sweet, sweet data.

Challenge assumptions

Are you watching only content you agree with? We’re all trapped in increasingly smaller bubbles based around our interests, fears, experiences, politics, and preferences. Poke your head out for air now and then. Watch something you wouldn’t think you’d like.

Seek outside perspectives

YouTube can be one hell of an empathy machine if you use it right. Like the internet in general, the platform gives you access to the thoughts and experiences of people around the globe. Try it out now and then. Check out videos from creators who don’t match your race, gender, orientation, age, or background. If you’re like me (30-something straight, cis, white male), this step is even more important. If you look like me, you are very likely to encounter a lot of bad ideas online from other guys who look like us.

Beware the explainer

Did you know explainers are their own genre now? You can search and filter by them. The format is flexible but the mechanism is simple: a host or narrator walks through concepts and points, building a rhetorical argument and pulling you in. These can be riddled with deceptive or downright fabricated facts and evidence. They exist to drive a thought into your skull and convince you it is true. YouTube does not require citations or a comprehensive bibliography — there is no fact checking. Much as I hate to admit it, this goes for documentaries too.

Anger leads to hate

I can’t stress this one enough: avoid content that riles you up. If the creator you’re absorbing is raging against a group - especially those less powerful or privileged than they are - tread carefully! This is a gateway through the radicalization funnel that YouTube is uniquely gifted at providing. If you share those same attributes as me (listed a couple of sections back), this is an especially vital one. Historically, when guys who look like us get angry people get hurt.

Curb your conspiracy

No one should have to say this one, but conspiracy theories can lead down dark, toxic, dangerous paths. Always be critical about the wider world, but if your skepticism uncovers a shadowy cabal of international elites, you are well on your way down the rabbit hole.


taco restaurant sign with spaced apart letters reading "fr e sh a voca do"

You have your makeup tutorials and I have my FREE SHAVACADOO!

I could write another couple of thousand words on this, but I’ll leave it here. I enjoy YouTube for a lot of stuff. I use it to learn just about everything related to woodwork - from keeping my fingers intact to the finer details of crafting my own hand tools. Everything I’ve learned about the perspectives and life experiences of transgender and non-binary people has been from YouTube, and I feel I’m growing as a person because of it. Same goes for my scratching-the-surface level of learning about the experience of black, brown, indigenous, and other people navigating life in modern North America. And then there are plenty of video essays about Zack Snyder’s awful DC universe, or hours of dashcam crashes and Vine compilations. We all have our trash.

YouTube has the power and potential to be a great tool for bettering humanity. We just need to tweak some features, update settings, change the channel, and maybe shut it off once in a while.

Keep the discussion going

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