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How To Train Your Algo

It’s the ancient part of the mind that pushes you into sleeping in, having sex, stuffing your face, or otherwise consuming resources and making your inner Paleolithic-era self happy.

The Communications Age has created a new method of rewarding the amygdala: new media. My vice is YouTube. There’s nothing more satisfying for my lizard brain than clicking my URL bar, typing “y, o, u, enter” and firing up the first video that comes up.

They get you, dear reader, through advertising: pre-roll ads running before, after and during videos you’re watching, plus a little something beneath the video and a little something to the side. While it’s great that ads ostensibly allow creators to make a living from what they create (debatable, but not within the scope of this missive), they also incentivise YouTube to reach out its technological claw and squeeze your amygdala for all it’s worth.

I needed to make YouTube think I was intelligent again.

By seeing what I’ve watched and for how long, the algorithm uses world-class artificial intelligence to work out what I might want to watch next. These recommendations are powered by keywords, predefined topic areas, what other people similar to me are watching. Often it just recommends more of the same channel I’m already on. Anything for more watch time, more ads, more revenue.

A few weeks back, I came to the profound realisation that YouTube thought I was a blithering idiot.

It had seen the videos I was watching and decided, “What Alex really wants are Pokémon fan theories, ironic TikTok videos, the Eric Andre Show, dogs with subtitles and meme compilations.” Where was the learning? Where was the self-betterment? Where was the SELF-ESTEEM?! In the act of relaxation, I had let myself become controlled. I had been categorised as “Interested in Pokémon,” put in a box and shipped out to have my attention strip-mined by advertisers. I was no longer in command of my behaviour. My amygdala was running the show, cheered on by a YouTube algorithm with a megaphone.

“The more data you let them mine from you, the less you exist.” Reading that quote, from Rob Shields’s Neon Wasteland, was the turning point for me. It was clear that my identity was being quantised out of existence, and I needed to get it back.

I needed to make YouTube think I was intelligent again.

The first night of the fightback was a roaring success. I knew that the YouTube algorithm rewarded watch time—that if I watched a particular category of video for a really long time, it would recommend that type of video much more than if I’d only watched it for 30 seconds.

I asked myself: what’s a smart people thing that takes a long time to watch?

The answer? Talks! Any talks, it didn’t matter. Lectures, conference keynotes, you name it. The content had to be over 20 minutes, I had to be interested in what it had to say, and it had to be deeply intellectual.

I watched a few pieces here and there, none of them enormously long. The first was maybe 25 minutes, the next was 24. I knew it would take some time for the algorithm to start picking up what I was putting down, so I searched for most of these directly. Finally, after a few hours of this training, the algorithm came up with something amazing: A 2011 lecture by Leonard Susskind on Holographic Universe Theory. Amazing, unprompted, long-form thinking by a well-respected physicist in an area I knew nothing about.

I wish I could say that the same persisted for the weeks after, but after going out of my way to make my YouTube experience as intellectual as possible, I have concluded that the platform simply doesn’t want you to discover niche content. Some of the best, most interesting lectures on the site are sitting at 800 views or so. It takes a lot of effort to get the algorithm to show you a video with fewer than 100,000 views. It’s just not a good match.

Elsewhere on the intellectual side of the YouTube spectrum is a preponderance of popular science videos. Slickly produced, just barely scratching the surface of the subject matter at hand. These are pretty decent viewing, and certainly much better than meme videos, but I get the feeling that I’m being categorised here too. Just show him some more 10-minute videos about trilobites or something. That’ll shut him up.

YouTube just doesn’t seem to be able to work out types of people. I spent two weeks trying to paint a picture of an intelligent, curious person. All YouTube threw back at me were more videos by the same creators I’d already watched. There’s no sense of wonder or exploration inherent to the algorithm. Just more monetised content to harvest my eyeballs.

It seems that in the world of data barons and platform services, there is no escaping your servitude. Even the astronomer is a subject of the king. Better hope you get out of all this with your amygdala intact.

Maybe read a nice book.

→ Want to know the real enemy? Read here if you dare: YouTube’s scientific paper on their inner workings

Photo: Everett collection 1918

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