Welcoming the Videocracy

I’m currently reading Videocracy (Allocca, 2018). As the Head of Culture and Trends, there is a clear bias but the breathlessness of the writing is intriguing. Has YouTube style become writing style?

Allocca highlights some interesting videos and extrapolates these into trends and themes. Some are long lasting such as the power and use of education videos, but others really are much shorter. It is a harum scarum rush through various trends that have popped up. Some have disappeared, such as Gangnam Style, and others are longer term, such as education and teaching. YouTube becomes the final place for these videos, that culture is purely video. There is no contextualisation within literature or sounds.

The main driver is the metrics, showing (naturally YouTube) growth, within graphs. Naturally they are impressive and upwards trending. When there are spikes, we do not appear to necessarily get a reading for why the trend goes downwards. Also the numbers are aggregates and raise other questions about how they are constructed. Are the analytics looking at unique or repeat visits, visits where the user left half way through or were pushed there by the recommendation algorithm? Given the amount of time that has gone into these, one wonders how a human visitor is modelled out of this data, and what the links across the Google product family provide?

Allocca does describe some of the algorithms and how they determine what to show, though I am sure not in the depth that they really work. (Lewis, 2018), in the Guardian, looked at how the recommendation engine promotes divisive material. Allocca provides a metric driven tour through the site but there is little consideration of the way that the site determines and drives what is seen through the search box or the right hand side.

From personal experience, I have noticed that the recommendations get narrower quickly if I limit what I watch to a small set of videos. The right hand side echoes this and seemingly encourages it through the options shown. It promotes niches, rather than random discovery. Ironically I find the print media better for random things appearing. Adding some of these choices does widen the choices but not for terribly long.

Technological determinism, “new technologies … which then sets the conditions for social change and determinism” (Williams, 1974:13), underpins this book. In considering the way that sharing has changed he opines that “[t]he internet changed all that, but it took platforms like YouTube to show us the true power of unfettered distribution” (Allocca, 2018:19). Given the other players in the game (existing or not) and how the site has changed, the focus is on the technology and the digital.

Two words do strike me. His use of ‘internet’, and I wonder if he means the the Web. Certainly education has been using the internet and its various protocols to share data, though the web appears to have changed traffic use, suggesting that how it is embedded in society (Emsley, De Roure & Chamberlain, 2017).

Secondly ‘unfettered distribution’ raises eye brows. The web has certainly changed methods of being able to access media and has changed, for better or worse, distribution models. The phrase suggests that YouTube is a distributor but there is no mention of owner’s rights or rights to the material. YouTube itself will block videos from playing on rights grounds, so this becomes an interesting elision. The rights issue is contentious and one that requires fixing. Reading the book would make someone wonder if there are any other ways of distributing media and that YouTube itself is distribution. The phrase also assumes that internet access is equal over the world. These are contentious issues.

The book veers away from the political, ethical, cultural and social issues that it touches on. This is an issue given the mounting criticism of technology companies. I feel that I have been reading a partial dashboard of metrics, designed to make me look in a particular direction and to read in a certain fashion. I am intrigued that Allocca has used an older medium, the book, to spread the message. What came through very strongly is that the site is trying to rethink how one ‘watches’ or ‘views’ through a set of opaque algorithms and to be the place to do this mediated action.

Allocca, K (2018) Videocracy: How YouTube is Changing the World … with Double Rainbows, Singing Foxes, and Other Trends We Can’t Stop Watching. Bloomsbury, London

Emsley, I, De Roure, D and Chamberlain, A et al., (2017). A network of noise: designing with a decade of data to sonify JANET. AM ’17 Proceedings of the 12th International Audio Mostly Conference on Augmented and Participatory Sound and Music Experiences, Article: 36. 10.1145/3123514.3123567

Lewis, P (2018) ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth, The Guardian, URL: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/02/how-youtubes-algorithm-distorts-truth, last accessed 16 February 2018

Williams, R (1974) Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Fontana, London