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The Video Repository Educating the Masses While its Algorithms Chase our Current and Past Desires

By Brian Sodoma

Whether you need to change the tail light on your 2003 Toyota Corolla, watch your favorite retro music video, or lock in with a group of passionate sous vide enthusiasts, YouTube is likely your vehicle for connecting to these experiences.

Founded in February 2005 out of a garage in Silicon Valley by former PayPal employees, YouTube never took the time to toil in obscurity like many other startups. By July 2006, it was hosting more than 100 million daily views. By October of that year, Google swept in to purchase it. The rest, you could say, is modern history. Today, YouTube is home to millions of daily views of people displaying talent and skill and let’s not overlook that healthy mix of absurdity.

YouTube has also made its mark on education. Whether you want to join a group committed to deepening its knowledge on a subject or you’re in need of that one-off how-to tutorial, YouTube is delivering as an educational portal. How-Tos outperform all other video types, with more than 100 million hours watched annually. As the Wild West of video, YouTube does its job to help us with many needs, but as it educates, is it also indirectly shaping our views and targeting us a bit predatorily – all with the help of its good friend Google? The answer could be “yes,” but even with that, the deep fascination with these unique, albeit sometimes voyeuristic, educational journeys likely won’t end anytime soon.

Everyone’s an expert – kind of

YouTube has made the amateur an expert. Most educational videos are often created by laymen who are exploring every-day subjects themselves.

“I see it for women. You have these videos where you can learn to curl or style your hair. You have these beauty industry tutorials…Someone who is an amateur or hobbyist is getting hits on YouTube for this,” says Jamie Grolle, CEO of Spitfire Media, a Las Vegas-based social media marketing agency.

YouTube also has a deep well of “experts” reviewing and playing with children’s toys. While experience with Shopkins or the Rocktopus are far from educational, these personalities are shaping how youngsters interact with their toys. These “experts” are often children themselves, like 6-year-old “Ryan” whose “Ryan ToysReview” site earned him $11 million in 2017 alone.

“I see it with my five-year-old daughter…She will play with her toys the same way they were used in a video,” Grolle adds.

Some caution should be taken with all this seemingly benign kid stuff, says Benjamin Burroughs, assistant professor of Emerging Media in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV.

Advertisers target children, not unlike the way, decades ago, Saturday morning cartoons targeted them. However, the difference today comes with the always accessible nature of the videos. In the days before the Internet, yes, advertising around those Saturday morning cartoons targeted children, but it was for a set period of time. With YouTube videos, the content can be accessed anytime a child wants it. That advertising can literally be plugged into that child’s brain whenever that flustered or busy parent chooses to hand over the parental controls to YouTube in a grocery store, on an errand in a doctor’s office waiting room, you name it.

“I think we definitely need to be critical consumers…especially with children just watching for entertainment…We don’t realize how much the algorithm is working to structure their engagement,” Burroughs adds. “Kids as young as two years old can be targeted for content production.”

Education by algorithm

For video watchers, the journey may often start with education in mind, Burroughs says. However, once the first video is consumed, YouTube’s algorithm kicks in and starts making suggestions for more videos to the right of the original video. These suggestions are often, at least at first, related to the first video searched.

However, different suggestions start to creep in, clearly using data that has been gathered about you on previous journeys. That car you searched for the night before or that music video you watched the other day all may start to show up, too, along with other, seemingly related-to-your-tastes, video content.

Then there’s the need to sift through content objectivity, Burroughs says. Some videos are created by everyday people exploring subjects while others are created by companies or organizations trying to share or “teach” a view on a subject.

“I think now the content is all mixed with advertising. It’s all the same and kind of separating out what is advertising and what isn’t can be difficult sometimes,” Burroughs adds.

Some may not call it education, but YouTube can do its part to shape political views by its use as a news channel. One Statista survey of those willing to share their political ties as Republicans, Democrats, or Independents showed that between 32 and 43 percent of the respondents trusted YouTube as a news source at least half the time and some as much as all the time.

As live streams of tragedies and current events make their way to the site, seeing that raw footage can lend itself to news credibility in the eyes of some, says Burroughs, but videos can also be manipulated in ways to shape a political view and even support troubling views like white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Even with events like the Charlottesville protests, there was raw footage, but also no shortage of those trying to explain away or justify the actions through videos, Burroughs explains.

“The content can really intensify political emotions in really interesting ways and some problematic ways,” Burroughs adds. “These videos can be very persuasive in real time…The information is coming very fast in the wake of tragedy or something extremely controversial.”

Is it for you?

With YouTube’s growth also comes the attraction for the everyday person to want to become an “expert” or even a YouTube millionaire sensation.

Grolle works with a variety of businesses and the question sometimes comes up about using the tool in marketing – to brand an expert or position a company as an authority. Even without the need for a professional video, it still takes considerable time and resources to plan and shoot content, she explains. You can be an amateur, but if you are running a business and want to share your expertise, you’re going to need a more professional product. Even with that, you likely don’t stand a chance in competing with the likes of “Ryan ToysReview.”

“I’ve had to break a lot of hearts in telling people ‘you’re going to be spinning your wheels and wasting a lot of time,’” she said.

But with 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we’re sure someone else is willing to give it a try.

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