Study Hacks Blog

The Platform Exceptionalism of YouTube

January 27th, 2020 · 26 comments

The major social media services are often described as fundamental platforms of the internet age. The companies that control these services use this argument to justify their astronomical valuations, and their critics use it to validate the need for regulatory intervention.

As longtime readers know, I’m often skeptical of this digital deification.

Services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram aren’t really platforms: instead of providing core functionalities on which others can build a diversity of useful applications (the standard definition of a platform), they instead offer closed ecosystems in which they carefully monitor and control user behavior.

These services are also far from fundamental. Nothing about web teleology, for example, implies that Twitter’s arcane mix of short-message formats, ampersands, and retweet ratios is an unavoidable technological advance. If Jack Dorsey shut down his Frankenstein’s monster tomorrow, few would wake up a year from now really missing what it added to the online universe.

Recently, however, I’ve been grappling with the idea that there’s one immensely powerful social service about which my skepticism doesn’t seem to neatly apply. I’m talking about YouTube.

To start with, unlike tweets or tagged photo sharing, streaming video is fundamental. The original HTML- dominated version of the web democratized and decentralized the publication of the written word. Online streaming video is doing the same for the moving picture, an equally, if not more important form of media for many people.

Furthermore, YouTube, unlike its peers in the pantheon of social media giants, really can act like a platform. Though it still offers a purposefully addictive and creepily-surveilled user experience at YouTube.com (few rabbit holes run deeper than those excavated by their algorithmically-enhanced autoplay suggestions), the service also allows its videos to be embedded in third-party websites, enabling it to behave like an actual platform that can support a wide array of non-affiliated communities.

I was thinking about this the other day when visiting Tested.com, a technology-oriented web site, primarily built around original videos hosted on YouTube.

A site like Tested could never exist if they had to develop their own reliable, international, low-latency, multi-platform delivery network. But with YouTube providing these core services, the site’s founders could instead focus on innovating content.

And with the advent of low-cost HD cameras and tunable LED light boards, the content on sites like Tested is starting to get pretty damn good, rapidly approaching the quality and user engagement of an old-fashioned cable channel, but at a fraction of the price. I’m equally happy watching the always fantastic Adam Savage in a One Day Build video on Tested.com as I am watching an episode of his current Discovery Channel show, Savage Builds, and yet the former cost thousands of dollars to produce while the latter required many millions.

(There’s still a lot of innovation required before these independent video sites reach their full potential — replacing a blog-style timeline format with a Netflix-style interface , for example, might go a long way to encouraging more engagement — but the potential is clearly there.)

YouTube, of course, would probably prefer that this long tail challenge to television would occur entirely within their own chaotic, and often wildly uneven web site, but this isn’t crucial to their survival: they can still play ads on videos embedded elsewhere and split the revenue.

I don’t mean to be an apologist for YouTube, as there’s a lot I don’t like about how their core web site operates, which somehow both numbs your mind while pushing your buttons, and has a way of leaving you feeling vaguely uneasy after too much time spent browsing offerings that bounce chaotically from solid to sordid.

But nonetheless, something interesting is happening with its platform functions. Whereas Facebook, Instagram and Twitter built their fortunes trying to tame the decentralized energy of the original web, forcing users into their walled company towns where behavior is tightly controlled, YouTube might just end up eclipsing them all in importance by enabling the opposite; boosting instead of dampening the ability of the individual to try their hand at building something original.

26 thoughts on “The Platform Exceptionalism of YouTube

  1. Tiffany says:

    This was an interesting read. I’ve personally used Youtube before to upload and embed videos onto a website for one of my classes before, which has been very convenient. However, I don’t know if I’d consider it to be a social medium. While it does have like/dislike buttons and comment sections like traditional social media sites do, I feel like the “scrollability” of Youtube is much less. It’s easy to pull out your phone and look through an endless feed of Twitter or Instagram posts, but with Youtube, the content that you’re there to see isn’t pictures or text, it’s video, which requires more focus. You can look at social media posts whenever, but if you want to watch a Youtube video, you have to set aside a dedicated amount of time to do so and give it your complete attention. I do believe that Youtube is addicting, just in a different way from traditional social media. It’s not something you compulsively check since video content requires more effort to consume, but on the occasion that you do, it’s easy to get lost in it.

    1. I disagree, respectfully.

      I don’t have other social media platforms, for essentially all of the reasons that Cal outlines here and in many other posts.

      YouTube can be a powerful social media tool. For all its problems, YouTube’s algorithms basically guarantee that the majority of users viewing individual content *really* want to see that content.

      This means that the comment section can be a haven of like minded individuals and foster interesting discussion that often goes far beyond the content of the video itself (of course in can in some cases have the opposite effect, but rarely in my experience).

      It’s actually rather easy to get sucked into scrolling through YouTube comments because in my experience, they often have a lot to offer.

      This environment creates the feeling of a community far more effectively than any other social media outlet ever did for me.

      The simplicity of having some simple like buttons, and a comment section (where your comments can be edited indefinitely), and upvoted is probably a lot more appealing to users who are otherwise disenchanted with the increasingly Orwellian style UX of other social media platforms.

    2. Hunter says:

      I disagree that you need to set aside time and focus on the video you’re watching. You can bounce from video to video on a second monitor while you play games, or if you have YouTube premium, you can listen to videos in your earphones with your phone’s screen off in your pocket for hours. There are ways to consume YouTube which are just as mindless and leave you in a state of constant attention switching all day. In fact, YouTube is the thing I find hardest to avoid mindlessly using for hours at a time.

  2. Stephen says:

    “digital deification”. Cal…you cunning linguist!

  3. Jeremy D says:

    Very true – YouTube is currently a great publishing platform. However, this assumes that YouTube will not one day make changes that pull people in to its own walled garden where it can suggest and endless stream of autoplay.

    At the moment you can embed a video into your own website and specify that YouTube doesn’t auto-suggest other videos at the end. How long will this last? How long before they effectively force the YouTube walled garden experience into the embedded player on 3rd party sites? Or alternatively, start charging for us to embed videos into our own site (in the way that Google Maps has started to do, even though it was always offered as a free service – yet companies now find it very hard to move away from that having written a lot of their sites around the service).

    1. Study Hacks says:

      This is definitely an interesting question. Will YouTube be content becoming like a powerful cable company, or will their ambition be grander?

      They are, however, more vulnerable to competitors than say something like Twitter, as they you don’t need a massive user base to be a good video embedding platform, just good technology.

    2. Linda says:

      “At the moment you can embed a video into your own website and specify that YouTube doesn’t auto-suggest other videos at the end. How long will this last?”

      Hin before 2018 you could do it, but YouTube doesn’t give that option anymore.

  4. Shane says:

    This is a really great point, Cal, and something I’ve been grappling with a lot too as part of a juggling of (a) the unprecedented power and potential to spread messages and create positive change vs (b) the corrosiveness effect on our mental and physical wellbeing wrought by the increasingly habitual and typical use of modern technology.

    YouTube is the one social communications technology I haven’t dropped since January 1st. For example, the UFC 246 Embedded series (maybe 75 minutes of video in total) was without doubt a net positive to my life. When I dipped into Twitter and Facebook this past week (two very fleeting visits…), I could almost feel the stress hormones spiking within me.

    NY Times have done some good work to expose the underbelly of YouTube and its algorithms (e.g. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/11/world/americas/youtube-brazil.html), so it still isn’t an easy path for me at all, but it (and other Google services, I feel…) seem intrinsically more “open” than the walled garden / echo chambers of other social networks.

    Keep up the good work.

    Shane

    (PS I saw this blog the day you published because I set up Feedly as a feed reader in a bid to extricate the worst parts of social networks from my digital life… So far so good…)

    1. SomeGuy says:

      Something I can heartily recommend is the Filtering option in uBlock origin. Essentially, it lets you filter out CSS sections on any webpage, and create rules for those things. I deselected the autoplay option, then filtered out all the ‘suggested videos’ section. This means I need to manually select the next video I’m going to be watching. This has been excellent for me not needing to see Youtube’s awful recommendations.

  5. Liam says:

    I’ve had success implementing Youtube into a digitally minimalistic lifestyle using a Chrome browser extension called ‘Remove Reccomendations Youtube VK Facebook’.

    As a student, I find Youtube a great learning resource, especially for programming, computer science, and mathematics. In fact, I’m sure there’s a channel for just about any skill and hobby you would like to learn that provides content and advice for free.

    Where the browser extension comes in is that it allows you to remove all of it’s distracting elements such as home reccomendations, the right side reccomendations and comments. So after deleting Youtube from my smartphone, if I want to use it, it needs to be from my desktop computer, and all I have is a blank white screen with a search bar instead of unrelated content pulling at my attention.

    Highly recommend to other readers.

    1. David says:

      Another option (only for Chrome Users) would be “DF Youtube” (Distraction Free Youtube).
      You can customize which parts are shown and which ones aren’t including Comments, Subscriptions, Recommendations, etc..

  6. Grace says:

    “few rabbit holes run deeper than those excavated by their algorithmically-enhanced autoplay suggestions”…
    I hear you, sir.

    Youtube is the one thing I am having a great difficult staying away from. DF Youtube is very helpful (https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/df-tube-distraction-free/mjdepdfccjgcndkmemponafgioodelna), since I can open youtube, research what I want to watch and not have the comments section and really clickable suggestions.
    It is quite helpful.

    Also: my analog January challenge is doing great! I got to finally tackle those coloring books I bought and am listening to my Doctor Who audiobooks (they are sooo good). I feel like I’m 13 again, but yup, one step at a time! >_<"

  7. Lesedi says:

    Great. I always wanted to hear your thoughts about Youtube. I used to feel so damn useless after going through the rabbit hole of video suggestion after suggestion. I managed to only watch the video that I need to watch for personal improvement or learning, and only go through a bit of a rabbit hole if I want to watch videos for entertainment purposes. But I have noticed that even the time I intentionally watch youtube for entertainment; if I did it a bit too much there is a background of unease afterward like you mentioned above.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      The future I’m rooting for is one in which you don’t spend much time on YouTube.com. If there’s a particular self-hop topic you’re interested in, there would be a standalone website, that helps organize the videos, and perhaps even support conversation around them, without requiring you to ever go to YouTube.com, or see auto-play suggestions, or idly browse.

    2. Ben says:

      I feel exactly the same. Even though YouTube can be helpful and instructive, I blocked it completely for my analog January. I even modified the “hosts.etc” file for that ^^.
      I was never into typical social media, but YouTube got me.

  8. EA says:

    Do you think the future will see more platforms such as Jordan Peterson’s ThinkSpot will come to light?

  9. Reminds me of a report published back in 2017 – https://www.rsph.org.uk/our-work/campaigns/status-of-mind.html in which only Youtube got a net positive rating by young people. The other platforms were deemed to be net negative in terms of their impact on young people’s health.

  10. CGTII says:

    Hello Cal,
    I’ve been a lurker on your blog for the last several months. I also recently bought three of your books: Digital Minimalism, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and Deep Work. I am wondering: would you ever consider devoting a series or category of posts to the subject of entrepreneurship? Some things that would be useful are:

    1. How to sustain self-motivation when you are full of doubt
    2. How to recover your schedule when unforeseen things have derailed it
    3. How to build professional networks of fellow practitioners who can push you to do deliberate practice

    Thanks!

  11. Devyn Hawke says:

    I’m a sophomore in college. Typically I’m surrounded by people who look at their phone more than each other so I decided to write an informative speech on your book, “Digital Minimalism”. I hope my speech to change at least one life and causes a ripple affect. It’s one thing when someone is actively looking to be better and comes across a book like this, I think it’s more important to help the people who didn’t realize they needed it. Big fan of yours Calvin, keep up your excellence!

  12. Pedro says:

    As a McLuhanite, and a huge fan of Neil Postman’s “Amusing ourselves to Death” (a book still very much worth reading), I sense that Youtube combines the power of TV with the “pull” of the Internet. What I mean by this “pull” is as opposed to the “push” of regular TV.

    That just means you select what you see by pulling it, instead of getting it pushed in your direction by some executive choice. Youtube viewership is infinitely more fragmented than TV viewership, and harder to control ideologically.

    Apart form these pseudo-philosophical considerations, let me leave every one a simple, practical tip: my browser bookmark to enter Youtube is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXOdnfvGCuU , which is a link to a non-existant video, which gives an error. This, along with my use of Adblock, ensures that when I enter Youtube I DON’T get any “push” propositions from them: I can just type my search without seeing any “recommended” videos (flow-breaking distractions).

  13. Pedro says:

    A bit off-topic in this post, but relevant to Cal and the viewers here, there is a new initiative called Online-OffLife which educates about some of our modern distractions:

    http://onlineofflife.com/

    There’s a nice video, and interesting statistics.

  14. YouTube is a tool. It functions in some respects like social media but I believe it is a lot more than that. It has it’s challenges, quirks, drawbacks, and problems. BUT to me someone who is not a traditional social media user, it has its applications. I find it a helpful learning tool after you wade through a lot of the dreck…and don’t get bogged down in comments. You’ve presented a lot of positives and negatives about YouTube, but in terms of value it is way above Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, et al.

    1. Joe says:

      YouTube is exceptional in the realm of things like learning how to do basic home maintenance, starting a garden, and other hands on skills. I’ve also found quite a bit of value in realms like personal finance, investment strategy, etc. Thankfully, the stuff that really drives the platform is so big that I doubt they’re paying too much attention to the useful niche items which is a bonus for all of us.

  15. AmyCarol says:

    YouTube made Khan Academy possible, for which I for one am very very grateful. (long time lurker and big Cal Newport fan)

  16. John Moore says:

    That the platform is so important makes its arbitrary exercise of censorship just that much more dangerous. Facebook censors far less, and while Twitter is as bad as YouTube, it is not nearly as important. YouTube routinely censors or restricts videos which its monoculture management dislikes. The most clear example is the censorship of Dennis Prager’s videos, which cover American history and politics in an excellent way. But, since Prager is a conservative, many of his videos are limited to viewing by adults, apparently because young people are only supposed to get a selected version of facts.

    We can only hope that YouTube will behave like a platform, rather than a publisher hiding behind the Section 230 platform protections. I hope that those protections in the law are eliminated for *any* platform that censors. Free speech and press is far more important than freedom from annoyance or even from disinformation.

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