Does the algorithm work for you, or do you work for the algorithm?

As a Veritasium subscriber (I’m not a YouTube subscriber but I follow the RSS feed of the channel), I just watched one of Derek Muller’s latest videos: Clickbait is Unreasonably Effective. It is another great video from the channel, but I found this one particularly interesting and well made, to the point where I could see it being shown to students in schools: more

Last year, I made a video about asteroids, which I thought was really good. I called it Asteroid‘s: Earth’s biggest threat, which is something Stephen Hawking said. People were very positive about the video, they thought it was maybe one of my best, but the performance was well below average.

In its first day Asteroids was ranked 9th out of my previous 10 videos. It was probably on target for about 1,5 million views. So, I tried different titles and thumbnails like: Asteroid impact: What are our chances? or Asteroid impact: What could we do? But, none of these changes got much traction.

And then on day 3 after launch, I changed the title and thumbnail to These are the asteroids to worry about, and immediately the video started doing better. It quickly shot up from almost my worst performing video to my best. It now has 14 million views. Nothing about the video changed, just that one image and 38 characters. But because of that it has reached nearly 10 times as many people as it otherwise would have.

The fact that YouTubers have to worry so much about titles and thumbnails to get enough traction is both depressing and understandable. YouTube is not only the platform on which creators upload their videos and where they get subscribers, it is also a huge portal managed by the mighty YouTube algorithm.

As Muller explains in his video, it is obviously very beneficial for YouTubers to get as many views as possible. More views means more subscribers, which means more views, which means more chances to be featured on the YouTube homepage and the recommended videos feed, which means more views, etc. You get the idea.

As a creator, Muller wants to share his work with as many people as possible, to be able to educate as many viewers as possible on the topics he cares about. So he has no choice but to improve his titles and his thumbnails as much as he can, using experimental clickbait techniques, and to its credit without crossing the line of being deceptive and manipulative.

I said that I find the focus on this aspect of “distribution” depressing because it means that the YouTube algorithm has too much power.

Having a big number of subscribers on YouTube helps, but it is not enough. Without even mentioning the misinformation controversies surrounding YouTube and the flaws of its recommendation engine, I find it sad that content has to “dress up” like this and obey the “clickbait code” to get noticed as much as it deserves.

That is why I avoid logging into YouTube, that is why I only use RSS to “subscribe” to the YouTube channels I like instead of going to the homepage: so I can watch the videos without having to face the algorithm. That is also why I set up a keyboard shortcut so that I can start a YouTube search without having to go to the YouTube homepage first.

Have you seen the YouTube homepage recently? It’s terrible.

For instance, if you go to the YouTube homepage using your browser’s private mode, meaning you are logged off and YouTube doesn’t know what videos you watched before, you can see how hard YouTube is trying to get you to fall into their video rabbit hole: most of the homepage videos are atrocious, their titles as clickbait-y as ever, and the thumbnails are borderline ridiculous, if not provocative.

The thing is, if you are not doing short videos for TikTok or Instagram, YouTube is the only place to go for an independent video creator. Between the attractive monetisation potential and the quality video hosting provided for free, there is no alternative today. YouTube has no equal, no competition in its segment, comfortably positioned between social media Stories and Netflix-like content providers.

I get that without this clickbait approach to their content, creators would not be as successful and able to do more videos. I get that the YouTube homepage is a huge purveyor of views for many, and that it can be a great way for users to find fresh, entertaining content. If you’re a YouTuber, it means that you have a YouTube channel for your videos, for free, and it also means that you have a precious access to the biggest point of entry for video discovery on the internet: the algorithmically organised YouTube homepage, and you basically can’t have one without the other.

Maybe this is what is bothering me. It is a reminder of why RSS has failed to catch on, why Twitter defaults to the “Top tweets” feed instead of the arguably better chronological one. Algorithms work. They generate more engagement, more views, more money. Algorithms are helping creators to make a living out of their passion, out of their talent, and algorithms are providing viewers with engaging content.

So what is the problem? Well, algorithms are also making platforms and aggregators like YouTube impossible to avoid, strengthening their position of power and control. As Ben Thompson reminds us:

YouTube is actually one of the more creator-friendly Aggregators: what you earn is pretty closely tied to how many views you achieve. That, though, means a hampster wheel lifestyle of constantly churning out content and begging for subscribers, even as it requires ever more views to achieve the same amount of money. And, of course, YouTube could de-monetize you at any time, for any reason.

Interestingly, the hegemony of the algorithm platforms seem to play a big part in the success of podcasts and newsletters in the age of social media and platforms : two small villages of indomitable creators still holding out against the algorithms.