A Case Study In Freaky YouTube Algorithms

The machines are training us, to increasingly stupid results

You've probably heard your favorite YouTubers or recently-unemployed content creators complaining about algorithms, the mysterious software that secretly manipulates the flow of online information in ways that may be destroying civilization. Here's an example I ran across recently that I can't get out of my head:

In January of 2019, a YouTube channel based in Cambodia uploaded this fascinating video of a woman catching fish with her bare hands. She silently cooks the catch over an open fire and then eats it with a fresh sauce she prepares on the spot. There's no narration or flashy production, no clickbait or politics. It's not romanticizing her lifestyle or asking for your pity. It's just, "Here's a tranquil look into the everyday habits of a person whose life looks very different from yours, presented by that actual person and not some pretentious travel show host."

That video, as of this writing, has 1,829 views. You might think that's miniscule by internet standards, but most content creators will be lucky to ever see such numbers. I actually think it's kind of wholesome and sweet, a couple thousand people from all over the world just watching her quietly make dinner. The channel would continue publishing similar videos to similar success for a couple of years, some featuring other members of the woman's family. Then, in November 2020, they would finally go viral with this video, which rocketed to 1.5 million views thanks to YouTube pushing it into its recommendation modules. 

"But this video, while very cool, is exactly like the last one," you might be saying. "She's just grabbing fish out of the mud. Did it get featured on Tosh or something? Wait, is Tosh still around?" But any of you who've made content on literally any platform can probably guess what happened. Here, my friends, is the preview image (aka "thumbnail") for the hit video:

For the first time, the woman - or whoever manages the channel - used a thumbnail featuring her leaning over, showing some cleavage and hiking up her skirt as far as she could without being indecent. The YouTube algorithm did the rest. "Wait, you seriously think 1.5 million people clicked based on the promise of some G-rated cleavage and a millimeter of exposed underwear? The internet isn't that horny!" is what none of you are saying because of course you know that the internet is exactly that horny.

I also assume that I don't need to explain that the allure here isn't seeing a woman's panties, but rather the suggestion that you'll get to see them against her will. "She's just lifting up her dress so it doesn't get wet! She doesn't even know we can see! Teehee!" I mean, there used to be an entire popular subreddit featuring "CreepShots", aka, pics secretly taken of women out in public wearing skirts that were a little too short or leggings that were a little too sheer.

The algorithm doesn't care about the "why," though, it only knows that people clicked. It's up to the creators to adapt and, yes, this is foreshadowing. This channel would continue posting these fascinating fishing/cooking videos but without "provocative" preview images. They immediately returned to the previous traffic levels of a few thousand views each.

Then, on December 2, they would hit nearly 400,000 views with this video and you already know that its preview thumbnail once again suggested cleavage and maybe, just maybe, a glimpse at a busy stranger's underwear:

The YouTube machinery had set the pattern. Their next few videos, all with chaste thumbs, returned right back to the previous low traffic...

...then in January, they had yet another hit with 760,000 views and this thumbnail:

The algorithm made it very clear what it wants from this woman who enjoys catching fish and preparing them for her family using traditional recipes. The previews must contain, not just a pretty woman, and not just a pretty woman showing some skin - that kind of thing is everywhere. No, the algorithm, in its infinite wisdom, demanded this woman in this exact pose.

It looks like the creators resisted for a while, trying various other thumbs and experimenting with title formats - the algorithm didn't budge. Finally, a couple of months ago, they just settled on this, "Crouching with cleavage and exposed undergarments" thumbnail format for all of their videos, using it almost exclusively:

The algorithm had successfully trained them, just as it has trained me and you and everybody sharing Ben Shapiro clips on Facebook.

I hate everything about this. 

And obviously I am not mad at this woman or anyone involved with making these videos. These are common people trying to fight a gigantic, unfeeling machine designed by and for assholes. None of those shots are even frames from the videos - she posed for them separately, to create custom preview images. In the videos, she's always dressed modestly and actually goes to great lengths to not do what she's doing in the thumbs:

Not that there'd be anything wrong with it if she did, I'm just saying that the content itself didn't change. It's still just a soothing portrayal of the difficult but immensely satisfying process of making a dinner truly from scratch, from catching to cooking to eating. But if she wants an audience to actually see it, well, this is the price. If your impulse is to blame her for "tricking" viewers, then either you're a world champion at missing the point or you landed here from some Incel subreddit.

Below, you can see where, a few weeks ago, they even tried uploading one more with a neutral pose (upper left, 2,400 views) and immediately followed up with an upskirt thumbnail that drew almost ten times as many clicks. As of this writing, they haven't dared attempt any non-panty previews since:

She does it, because YouTube made it clear that no one will see her videos if she doesn't. Oh, you'll never find such a demand spelled out anywhere. The algorithm famously doesn't come with instructions and its creators claim it's purely a neutral black box driven by the tendencies of the audience. But if you're depending on the meager income from the channel (and I'm thinking even YouTube's shitty payouts would go a long way in Cambodia), then the numbers will tell you what you have to do to survive. Today, that involves navigating a giant corporation's inscrutable rules and an internet culture that somehow is simultaneously hypersexualized and repressed.

To one degree or another, this is what it's like to create content on the internet in 2021, from the struggling newspaper to the ten year-old dancing on Tiktok: You are performing a series of rituals and hoping the gods reward you with rain. You could hand a smartphone to an alien on his first day on earth and, within ten uploads, he'd be tweaking his act - and maybe his whole personality - for maximum engagement, only to watch his audience vanish because the algorithm altered a single line of code. Within a few months, he would be convinced that he'd been lured into mankind's most devious form of psychological torture and he wouldn't be wrong.

I'm getting worked up here, so let me end this on some kind of positive note: 

That first big hit video has a 77% "like" rating on YouTube. This implies that, when all of those horny people clicked on the thumbnail and then never saw this woman's underwear, they mostly liked it anyway. Creator and audience found each other and made their connection after all. They just had to crawl through this weird, gross labyrinth to do it.

Jason Pargin used to write as David Wong, he is a New York Times bestselling author and the former Executive Editor at Cracked.com. You can get his columns sent to your email inbox by subscribing below (it’s free). You can buy his latest book here.

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