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YouTube, everyone’s favorite playground of controversy

| Monday, March 4, 2019

Joseph Han | The Observer

Interwoven into the utilitarian fabric of YouTube’s music videos and makeup tutorials are an abundance of threats to the integrity of the platform and the experience of the users. The sheer magnitude of content on the monolithic website obfuscates many of these issues from the casual viewer, but a closer examination of YouTube reveals a technical and cultural progression towards digital dystopia.

YouTube, founded in 2005 by former PayPal employees Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim and Steve Chen, hosted its first million-view video within months of the website’s launch. Google then purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006, and the interface that viewers know today primarily results from developments following this acquisition. Like other early wonders of the Internet, YouTube provided a novel means of human communication ─ in this case, creating and viewing videos on a streamlined platform.

In light of modern video production, ancient viral videos such as “Charlie Bit My Finger,” “Chocolate Rain” and “Keyboard Cat” feel as organic and innocent as a child’s finger painting. By 2008, YouTube creators could earn their livelihood on the website by receiving monetary compensation for their uploads. With financial incentive for both quantity and quality of content, the YouTube economy has since prospered and expanded into services like YouTube Premium, Music and Kids.

YouTube resembles the macroeconomies of the world with its obvious utility but overall indifference to the preferences of the common user. The consequences range from irritating to egregious. These consequences are perhaps most evident in the platform’s copyright infringement system: Content ID. Content ID automatically compares new uploads to a vast database of intellectual property and alerts content owners when transgressions are detected, giving them the choice to remove the striked video or collect its ad revenue.

Unscrupulous corporations can jeopardize the achievements and income of YouTube creators for unfair usage as simple as a clip of a movie trailer or the soundtrack of a video game. Not all content owners choose to exploit Content ID, but negative review videos and ad-heavy channels have been curiously targeted. Google remains notoriously unapologetic and persistent in the preservation of a system that imperils the values of free expression under which YouTube originally flourished.

A plethora of more minor annoyances contribute to the dismal state of YouTube. Dislikes in the comments section are hidden from view. The recommendation algorithm shoves sensationalist and conspiratorial videos onto users. Multiple and unskippable ads span the entirety of a video’s length, many of which promote scams and (ironically) use copyrighted material to capture the attention of viewers.

Beyond technical follies and loophole ethics, YouTube’s issues are often inseparable from decisions made by users themselves. Famous YouTubers circumvent the site’s policies regarding hateful content and harassment until they’re caught committing atrocities at the scale of Logan Paul’s irreverent vlog with a corpse in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.” These online idols flaunt decadent lifestyles and glorify hazardous trends like drinking bleach and eating Tide Pods to their young audiences. Creators also endorse dubious sponsors like BetterHelp, an online counseling service that profits off promises of mental health by obscuring its own failure to guarantee licensed professionals for users.

Only the most sinister of violations seem to justify vigorous enforcement of YouTube policy. The Elsagate phenomenon, for example, named after the princess from Disney’s “Frozen,” involves the extensive concealment of violent and perverted content within colorful cartoons. Behind innocent titles and thumbnails, videos hide instructions for committing suicide and links to pedophilic resources in the comments sections. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki responded by increasing the size of the content review team in 2018, although other controversies such as Russia’s ongoing misinformation campaign remain unaddressed.

YouTube’s array of ailments should disturb its 1.8 billion monthly users, but can it deter them? The site’s features and library of videos thoroughly trounce the puny offerings of alternatives like DailyMotion and Vimeo. After incessantly expanding under the tutelage of Google, YouTube harbors an identical degree of immortality sustained by the love triangle between advertisers, creators and loyal viewers. The growing prevalence of Internet monopolies raises an alarming question regarding the viability of competition in the digital age, especially considering the current battle for net neutrality 

I’ll be right back. I’m sure there’s a video about that.

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