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by Mark BergenPublished 2022 464 pages
Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination
I watch too much YouTube. I try to stay away from social networks but the stupid red squectangle drags me back again and again. I start with a cheeky 6-minute video over a coffee and then kick into a fugue state from which I awake, hours later, in the middle of a video called "Goat Math". I cannot figure out how I got here. I'm into YouTube, but I wish I wasn't. After reading a glowing review from The Verge, I figured my best option to get me off the site was to read about it instead.
The good stuff: the book is probably an accurate portrayal of the facts as they happened. It's pretty comprehensive. It's a straightforward history of the company, from its humble beginnings to its acquisition by Google (a lot earlier than I remember it), to the problems posed by massive scale. It's not riveting, but it isn't dull. But it reads like a tech insider's perspective of tech (which it is), and that means that it inherits a lot of the biases that Silicon Valley is rightly criticised for: optimising for engagement, optimising for financial return, optimising for sick perks at the office, often to the detriment of individual employees and users.
When problems arise—when YouTube gets sued for copyright infringement, or when ads are sold on hateful content, or when the algorithm is juiced to hook kids on videos of busty Disney princesses, or when perverts gather in the comments sections thereof, or when otherwise-sensible public health employees get sucked into Goat Math fugues—Bergen presents YouTube as the victim of its own success: they optimised too well! At the eleventh hour, the application of elbowgrease by clever dudes with compsci degrees saves the day. When things are good, shareholders and advertisers are happy and everyone gets fabulously wealthy. Bergen imports Silicon Valley's value system wholesale and doesn't elect to interrogate the problems that—to be clear—YouTube has created.
In short: YouTube is the hero of the story here—not the creators, nor the viewers, nor the moderators on the front-line, nor the content managers who try to stand up for minorities and get squeezed out of the company (oopsies!). At the turn of the decade, controversial content, shafted creators, and predatory dark patterns have all been left in the past. YouTube's algorithms have figured it out; no one is to blame; the machines are working as expected.