Right now the front page of YouTube for me looks like this: every channel I subscribe to splashed with some hip hop videos. On the left-hand side there are links to subbed channels sitting below three menus that lead to “Social” — which I’ve never used once — “My subscriptions” and “What to watch,” which again, brings up videos from subscribed channels.
For a little variety, YouTube has featured on the right-hand side “Recommended channels.” These channels include a sponsored BuzzFeed channel followed by channels I’ve watched yet don’t subscribe to, or channels that have no interest to me whatsoever.
All of this is to say that the YouTube frontpage, and by proxy the algorithm that sorts recommended content, is deeply flawed. As Google rolled out “One Channel” earlier this year, the idea that YouTube’s ultimate goal is television-style viewing was reinforced heavily. The focus was subs and extended viewing. Thus, the YouTube front page was built to reflect that focus.
Yes, this is a call to “bring back the YouTube we once loved” that will go unheard by Google as did the millions that came before it. But why should anyone accept that? In the past, YouTube sported an insanely diverse recommended video menu with a central hub dedicated to actually discovering new talent. It seems we’re stuck with a YouTube that does very little to foster new discovery and is instead built with the intention of keeping us glued to the same channels.
Last year, YouTube posted on their official creator blog informing partners that the recommended videos algorithm was being retooled:
“The last time you went channel surfing, did you enjoy (or remember) the 20 TV shows you flipped through, or just the shows you watched all the way through? Would you recommend the 20 you surfed through to a friend, or the ones you actually watched?”
The idea is that recommended videos and channels should be tailored to your specific viewing habits, which to YouTube’s credit is something they did well but ultimately too well. The current YouTube frontpage is represented with nothing but sure things — channels they know you’ll watch for an extended time simply because you are subbed to them. It’s an endless loop of guarantees that viewers won’t stray out of their comfort zones.
The quick fix is the search bar, of course. Want videos on knitting? Type in knitting, and there they are. However, not everyone comes to YouTube with a purpose. Sometimes, your sole reason for visiting the video site is to kill time and boredom. What better way to do that than some digital channel surfing?
Google is quick to write off mindlessly flipping through channels, yet that’s how great shows are found sometimes. If YouTube nurtured viewers breaking out of their comfort zones, maybe it would free up opportunities for less well-known creators to be discovered. Come on, YouTube, give us something to be excited about again.
For more on the future of YouTube: