I’ve had my own personal YouTube channel for a good many years now. I’ve used it to post primarily videos dealing with course material at the various universities I’ve taught at, plus a few other things. Most of it has been private. But like all of us, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking at YouTube, and been fascinated by the column on the right-hand side that provides an algorithmically driven list of potentially interesting videos for us. And like most of us, I’ve probably spent a great deal more time investigating some of the weirder elements of these lists than I probably ought to have.
This afternoon, I posted a new video regarding my course in case study research methods that I’m offering for Saybrook University this fall. It’s just a simple introduction – six or so minutes – discussing the course and how I came to be teaching it. Obviously, it’s of interest to no one except the couple of students who happen to be enrolled in the course. However, YouTube feels obligated to deal with my little course video on the same level that it deals with all of the other countless millions of videos people have posted today or recently. So, like everybody else, I get the algorithmically driven list of videos that might interest me, given the one I’m looking at.
Here’s my question. What can you deduce about me and/or my video and/or my video habits by looking at the list of other videos that YouTube has decided might interest me, based on what I posted? The answer to this is more than vaguely disturbing. Here’s the full catalog that YouTube has decided are properly associated with my little course video on case study research methods:
By my tabulation, there are 20 videos in the list. Of these, six actually relate to issues of behavioral science research and/or case study research methods. On the other hand, there are at least five of them that are explicitly anti-standard-science, either in support of the flat earth hypothesis or some other variety of fundamental challenge to current scientific paradigms. And then of course there’s the paean to the state of Idaho, where I’ve only been a few times in my life and have no particular desire to return to. And the 1000 steel balls.
Clearly, YouTube knows many things about me that I probably don’t know about myself. My online presence, like that of all of you, is largely unknown to me. On the other hand, YouTube, its owner Google, its competitors such as Facebook, and numerous other online applications not only remember everything I ever looked at; they’ve got it down in hard records somewhere, in proprietary formats that I couldn’t read even if I had access to them. And they are thoroughly prepared to take all that information and churn it through the mechanisms of their proprietary algorithms and turn it into recommendations about my viewing, purchasing, and generally relating to the world at large – recommendations available not only to me but to virtually every commercial enterprise on the planet, for the right price..
Considering that they know a lot more about me than I do, ought I not to respect their choices and recommendations with at least as much enthusiasm as I do my own? Perhaps they are simply telling me things about myself that I ought to know but am somehow repressing. Isn’t that potentially psychologically liberating? Or, on the other hand, is it more intimidating?
I don’t presume to have an answer to this question at the moment. It’s one of those vast unknowns that back in the 1970s and 1980s, those of us deeply concerned with the future of information technology never happened to concern ourselves with. Why we didn’t see all of the things that could go wrong with the information future is the subject of another commentary, coming soon. But there’s no question that the information future we are experiencing today isn’t a whole lot like the one that we anticipated all those years ago. Whether it’s better or worse remains to be seen.
While I contemplate the answer to these questions, I see that I have at least four or five flat earth videos that I really need to check out. I’m finding this hypothesis increasingly interesting, and I let you know what I conclude about it in the near future. In the meantime, I suggest you look at your own YouTube recommendations and see what they tell you about yourself – or at least what the giant cyber-companies think about you. I hope that provides more reassurance to you about yourself than my online presence provides to me.