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YouTube's CEO catches up to reality

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A rule of thumb I have about covering big tech platforms is that generally you will not learn anythin
 
April 17 · Issue #317 · View online
The Interface
A rule of thumb I have about covering big tech platforms is that generally you will not learn anything useful about a company from talking to their CEOs. Even when the CEO is candid in their responses, which they often are, the platforms they run have long ago ceased to be under their direct control. A big tech CEO these days is more like a head of state: trying to nudge a large, unruly population toward progress through legislation and speech-making, while managing the chaos that the worst of its citizens are inventing every day.
And so I am grateful to the New York Times’ Daisuke Wakabayashi today for handing in a profile of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki in which we actually do learn something. We see how her status as a division chief within Alphabet’s complex corporate structure shielded her from some of the pressures faced by her peers at Facebook and Twitter. When they are first called before Congress, Wojcicki is not invited. While her peers have to answer to shareholders, she is able to keep her platforms’s financial performance private. While platforms run by their founders take the brunt of the criticism — the platforms are their ideas, after all — Wojcicki’s status as a hired hand has insulated her.
Of course, as CEO of YouTube, Wojcicki faces a huge amount of criticism daily. But the Times’ profile shows how for much of her tenure, that criticism has run in directions that have little to do with the way that misinformation or hate speech spreads on the platform. Instead, Wojcicki’s core constituents for most of tenure have been big advertisers, who make YouTube a viable business; and star creators, who populate the site with videos against which to sell that advertising. (To the tune of 500 hours of footage uploaded per minute, according to the report.) Wakabayashi writes:
One reason Ms. Wojcicki defies easy characterization is that her core function keeps changing. Today, her job is to be something like the standards czar of an anarchic civilization. Before that, when YouTube started home-growing celebrity icons, she was a budding media mogul. But in whatever role YouTube has needed her to assume, Ms. Wojcicki has not lost sight of the skill she learned early on at Google: how to keep advertisers happy.
Marc S. Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, who is responsible for one of the biggest advertising budgets in the world, said his company has had some rocky moments with YouTube in the last few years, and that Ms. Wojcicki has been a steadying presence.
With this context, it’s relatively easy to see how YouTube went from budding next-generation cable TV to the site described in Mark Bergen’s article for Bloomberg this month: continually caught flat-footed in the face of deadly viral “challenges,” murderous live-streams, conspiracy theorists, and white nationalists catapulted into popularity by YouTube’s own algorithms. It turns out that it doesn’t matter whether a platform is run by its founder or an outsider: the logic of a platform is to grow as big as you can as fast as you can, and promise everyone that you will clean up the resulting messes as fast as you can.
Like many of her peers who run platforms, Wojcicki comes across as sincere, determined, and skilled in the art of running a business. And yet coming away from the profile, I wonder if YouTube has yet to grasp the challenge ahead of it. Deep in the story, the CEO acknowledges that YouTube’s biggest challenges stems from so-called “borderline content” — videos that come close to breaking the site’s rules without quite going over the line.
Ms. Wojcicki said the third category, so-called borderline content, has been the most challenging. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was changing its algorithm to stop recommending material like conspiracy videos that can become a gateway to the unsavory.
Starting with the United States, YouTube said it would employ human raters from across the country to evaluate certain content. Those judgments will help inform what the recommendation engine flags. (Clearly, the algorithms need attention. This week, they mistakenly added information about the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks to footage of the Notre Dame fire.) YouTube said it plans to introduce the change to another 20 countries this year, deploying raters in each market to understand the preferences of local users.
What I don’t see here is an acknowledgement that borderline content is what YouTube incentivizes its users to produce. In a world of infinite video inventory, only the most strikingly original ideas stand out — and time ad again, what has stood out on YouTube is video that shocks, outrages, and offends.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg described this problem with admirable clarity in a blog post last year. He wrote:
Our research suggests that no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average — even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content.
This is a basic incentive problem that we can address by penalizing borderline content so it gets less distribution and engagement. By making the distribution curve look like the graph below where distribution declines as content gets more sensational, people are disincentivized from creating provocative content that is as close to the line as possible.
As a site where people come to catch up with old high school classmates and talk to fellow area moms, Facebook is better positioned to survive in a world where the most polarizing content no longer appears in users’ feed. YouTube, as a destination for entertainment, sits in a much different position. And so while I’m heartened that YouTube intends to prevent the spread of borderline content, it’s hard to overstate the degree to which the company relies on it today. Recall this chilling detail from Bergen’s story:
One telling moment happened around early 2018, according to two people familiar with it. An employee decided to create a new YouTube “vertical,” a category that the company uses to group its mountain of video footage. This person gathered together videos under an imagined vertical for the “alt-right,” the political ensemble loosely tied to Trump. Based on engagement, the hypothetical alt-right category sat with music, sports and gaming as the most popular channels at YouTube.
Perhaps YouTube will ultimately make good on its promises to de-radicalize itself. In recent months, the company has come under significant pressure to do so. Countries around the world are enacting legislation requiring the company to monitor user uploads more strictly, and even the Democratic speaker of the House in the United States is threatening to erode the safe-harbor provision in federal law by which YouTube is able to operate in its current form.
And the pressures are not just legislative in nature. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed reported that recently Google staffers were alerted that an employee had been diagnosed with measles. It took YouTube until February to de-monetize the many popular videos promoting the idea that vaccines like the one that protects against the measles cause harm. And while it’s too much to lay blame for a nationwide measles outbreak at Google’s feet, the case underscores the degree to which crises amplified on social media will not discriminate when it comes to choosing their victims.

Democracy
Aggressive new terrorist content regulation passes EU vote
European Parliament passes online platform rules placing new limits on Amazon and Google | VentureBeat
Machine Learning Identifies Weapons in the Christchurch Attack Video. We Know, We Tried It - Motherboard
Andrew Yang is the candidate for the end of the world
Canada group sues government over Google's Sidewalk Labs
How the far right spread politically convenient lies about the Notre Dame fire
Ukraine’s Election Is an All-Out Disinformation Battle
Elsewhere
Instagram Memers Are Unionizing
Facebook confirms it’s working on an AI voice assistant for Portal and Oculus products
Facebook shareholders are getting fed up with Zuckerberg but can’t do anything about him
Pinterest Shuns Social-Media Label That May Help Demand for IPO
Donations for Burned Black Churches Top $1M After Notre Dame Fire
Launches
Twitter will launch a reply-hiding feature in June as part of its latest moderation push
How-to video maker Jumprope launches to leapfrog YouTube
Instagram prototypes video co-watching
The Washington Post launches WhatsApp channel on India’s elections
Takes
Mark Zuckerberg: The 100 Most Influential People of 2019
And finally ...
Foxconn’s Gou: Sea Goddess Tells Me to Run for Taiwan President
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and a doctor’s note proving that you have been vaccinated for measles: casey@theverge.com.
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