• Daniel Kephart

Addict: Escaping YouTube's Autoplay

It's a truism by now, but the internet is the most important innovation since the printing press. And few things embody internet culture like YouTube.

And when it comes to YouTube, one feature has changed the whole way we approach content: Autoplay. Whether we realize it or not, Autoplay and its humbler cousin, Suggested Videos, are decided what content we spend our time viewing.

Here's some data to think about: Every day, we watch two billion hours of YouTube. And that's not some crazy math I've done in my head, that's the official statistic from Google, YouTube's owner. And, just in case you're looking for a frame of reference, in 2012 we watched four billion hours of YouTube per month. The world of 2012 took two weeks to watch as much YouTube as the world of 2020 watches every day.

But maybe all this talk of hours is simply too abstract. Here's an analogy that might be more helpful for those of us who are sports fans: The world is spending as much time on YouTube per day as it would take to watch well over half-a-million professional American football games (including postgame shows).

Now let's be clear: This article is not attempting to villainize YouTube. As a platform, YouTube has made education more accessible by orders of magnitude. I benefited immensely over the past year from a free Yale University course on John Milton. There's a lot to be said for how YouTube is making knowledge easier to obtain than ever.

But sometimes finding that great content isn't so easy. There's a lot of garbage on YouTube And while we certainly have easier access to great learning resources than ever before, the quality of our engagement with these resources is somewhat more questionable.

When Joe Schmoe or Jane Doe picks up a book, they know they have to maintain a certain level of engagement with it to have even a cursory knowledge of the content. Even video games, demonized as they have been for years, require a high degree of user-input to generate the viewing experience. With platforms like YouTube, however, it can be easy to simply let the content wash over us, playing idly in the background or flashing across our phone screen. And perhaps the worst part is that now we no longer even have to ask for a new video.

How many videos do you choose to watch?

How many videos do you let "autoplay" choose for you?

Social media "detox" is a popular subject right now in western culture. There's a growing perception that there is something quasi-addictive about the "scroll and double-tap" nature of Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and many other such platforms.

But what about YouTube? What about this platform with a scrolling feature all its own? The world's second most visited site (after Google) receives 70% of its views from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Now as alarming as all of this can sound, we shouldn't jump to conclusions that this data is inherently problematic. Again, YouTube is a great way to learn skills or learn more about the wider world. Many, many people spend their time on YouTube consuming great content about history, the arts, and more.

And those are the people who should perhaps be the most concerned.

The seventeen-year-old who just got back from their shift at Dairy Queen and is lounging around in nothing but their underwear watching Minecraft videos knows that they aren't really being productive.

By contrast, it is very easy to consume "educational" YouTube content as a student or young professional and feel that something is being accomplished. But consuming, while necessary, is not the same as producing. Observing is not the same as experiencing. Mere observational learning is fundamentally weaker because it lacks the engagement required by experiential learning.

There is obviously an ideal balance: Observation should shape and inform experience. When I was a young child, I watched my father tie his necktie just about every day. During my late-teenage years, I can remember looking up a YouTube video with instructions on how to tie a variety of tie knots. When the time came in high-school and in college, I was able to tie my own necktie in several different knots--which meant that I was able to wear a wide variety of neckties in all different widths and materials. My observation informed my experience and made the learning process less formidable.

Especially when it comes to motivational, education, or arts-based topics, however, YouTube can give us a false sense of learning. By providing us with surface-level details regarding a subject that are easily regurgitated in conversation, YouTube teaches us to parrot the ideas of others in order to win public appeal.

And this false display of knowledge leads to what we casually term imposter syndrome. Watching a YouTube video where someone else summarizes the writings of one of history's great thinkers is not the same as grappling with those writings for oneself. These summaries can be useful, of course, functioning as a sort of "gateway drug" for the works of thinkers like Aristotle, Aquinas, or Annie Dillard. But they can also instill an unsettling sense of false-superiority.

In Book II of The Republic, Plato engineers a conversation between two characters, his own mentor Socrates and his fellow Athenian Glaucon. Over the course of their conversation, Glaucon repeatedly presses Socrates to answer a short question:

Is it better to be just or to seem just?

The exchange that follows is among the most famous in western thought. Socrates argues that it is more important to actually possess a beneficial quality (to be) than simply to be believed to possess it (to seem). Day-to-day experience tends to confirm this, as there are few things more unsettling than to walk away from a conversation being heralded as knowledgeable on a subject that one knows, deep down, is completely beyond one's comprehension.

Yet YouTube makes it so easy to take this step, parroting the opinions of a disembodied voice behind a flashing screen, and escaping the temporary embarrassment or inconvenience of being revealed as stupid. And this is one of the great tragedies of modern living. Traditionally it has been our right as human beings to safely be stupid when first learning something.

The anonymous and often misattributed proverb reads, "better to be silent and thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

But now we can open our mouths and be thought a genius, when deep down we know that we are all still ignorant fools. This deception is the sort of lie that our hearts cannot bear, because it cuts us off from receiving the real learning experience that we genuinely need. We need to wrestle with our own thoughts and words, and to experience the struggle and the glory of discovering truth through the experience of true conversation.

And the conversation may begin for you as it did for me, by holding-down the YouTube icon on my phone and pressing "disable." I still use YouTube on the computer for this or that. Now, however, I am no longer falling asleep watching videos that an algorithm has chosen for me. I am no longer waking up and urgently craving a hit of audio-visual dopamine.

I am no longer one of YouTube's addicts.

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