Did YouTube Just Save My Life?

Original article was published by Sana Tariq on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Is The YouTube Recommendation Algorithm Emotionally Intelligent?

YouTube’s recommendation algorithm decides what you watch on YouTube more than 70% of the time. The algorithm knows what people want so well that the average mobile viewing session lasts 60 minutes, the average YouTube video is about four minutes. The algorithm brings YouTube much of its revenue and is perhaps the most rewarding and large-scale implementation of a recommender system of its kind.

The recommendation algorithm is to YouTube what the Secret Coke Recipe is to Coca Cola.

While most of us don’t mind YouTube’s friendly suggestions, they have still managed to attract a fair share of criticism from across the spectrum that raised some questions in my mind as well. For example,

  • Did YouTube know how I was feeling that night?
  • Was it the algorithm’s lucky guess, or was I feeling suicidal because of being unconsciously fed with countless depressing YouTube recommended videos?
  • Do YouTube and Google have a dark side?

A few weeks after the incident, I decided to investigate this myself. So first, I dug a little deeper and found out that according to YouTube, the algorithm is basically a “real-time feedback loop that tailors videos to each viewer’s different interests.” The algorithm’s goals are twofold: find the right video for each viewer, and get viewers hooked to stay on the platform. Therefore, the algorithm is watching user behavior as closely as it watches video performance. It then primarily impacts three key places, the search results, recommendation streams, and the YouTube homepage accordingly.

Though the algorithm may seem like it’s emotionally intelligent, it is not. It is just very good at finding and connecting you to things you seem to love on YouTube.

After finding this out, I immediately checked my YouTube history to clear my doubts. According to my two-month watch history, I had in fact, consumed a tiny portion of what you may call “depressive content” in the said duration. However, I had also watched a lot of educational videos to learn more about depression and anxiety to help me cope up with them.

So Did YouTube Actually Save My Life?

Maybe. Maybe not.

To answer that question, we first need to have a closer look at how the YouTube algorithm influences recommended videos. As recommendation stream is a twofold process, the algorithm first ranks videos by assigning them a score based on performance analytics data such as,

  • impressions vs. views
  • watch time or retention
  • engagement
  • view velocity, rate of growth
  • session time

Second, it matches videos to people based on their watch history and what similar people have watched. It doesn’t look for “good” videos, but instead, it matches viewers with videos that they want to watch. The end goal is to make people spend as much time as possible on the platform. (Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t revolve around saving lives, I knew it was too good to be true!)

And just for the record, there are three other places the YouTube recommendation algorithm makes a significant impact:

  • Trending Videos
  • Your Subscriptions
  • Your Notifications

Judging by how the algorithm influences the recommended videos, I think I pretty much saved myself (that’s right, I am my own hero!🦸🏻‍♀️), or at least I helped YouTube save me by allowing it to learn about me through my behavior online. (This shouldn’t sound confusing to you now!)

Should You & I still Rely On YouTube For Health Advice?

Absolutely NOT!

YouTube has acknowledged that the algorithms can lead users to harmful content, but is yet to release the data.

In any case, YouTube (and I) highly recommends that you always seek a professional opinion. Remember what we were taught as kids: Do not trust strangers and do not consume anything if you’re not sure about where it came from. The internet is a stranger, and while it can help you learn more about you and your body, it might not be the right place to seek help when something goes wrong with you. Always be mindful of what you consume over the internet because if it’s free, there’s a good chance that YOU are the product that’s being consumed.