In recent years, it has become almost passé – and all-too-easy – to blame the ever-encroaching behemoths of social media for a whole host of problems. Because of the continued weight given to matters of state, scrutiny of these corporations has overwhelmingly focused on their alleged capacity to engender electoral upsets and remove entrenched power elites – often at the cost of installing a yet more freakish, less predictable iteration of the departing political class.
However, this relentless focus on a single apparent consequence of mass social media adoption has effectively obviated discussion of considerably more profound impacts that these historically new technologies are having on both society and the individual; in this context, the YouTube algorithms which suggest new video clips to the end user based on previously-viewed content merit serious attention.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, video has assumed a primacy within the media sector such that it is in an unparalleled position to shape human consciousness. Digital television, the evergreen DVD format and streaming services together now dominate how we perceive the world beyond our immediate surroundings. But just a single streaming website – YouTube, which Google acquired back in November 2006 – can claim to be making the next leap: guiding us, whether consciously or otherwise, into new and deeply personal cultural realms.
Uniquely amongst video content portals, YouTube possesses a truly enormous and phenomenally diverse back catalogue of televisual fragments – and a truly massive community which is continually uploading content, fusty and fresh, to its servers.
On a basic level, what this means is that only YouTube has the ability to continually present hyper-customised video recommendations to its users. This may sound borderline innocuous. But the consequences of this go far beyond the conventional platitudes of monetisation and engagement (although these are certainly encompassed by its emerging business model). Much more interesting is the fact that YouTube can effectively curate the cultural preferences and overall evolution of nothing less than the individual citizen – and maybe even the individual soul, particularly if recommended videos pertain to spirituality – to a remarkable degree.
Should this worry us? This is enormously difficult to state with any certainty, partly because no two users will experience YouTube in quite the same way. Additionally, the relevant algorithms are still quite clunky and easy to game – though whether they are broadly perceived as such is another matter entirely. But at the very least, this is a debate that should enjoy much greater prominence, both in regulatory circles and far beyond.