“YouTube has always been useful; since its founding in 2005, it has been a pillar of the internet. But over the past year or so, for me anyway, YouTube had started to seem weirdly good. The site had begun to predict with eerie accuracy what clips I might be interested in — much better than it ever had before. So what changed?
BUT OVER THE PAST YEAR OR SO, FOR ME ANYWAY, YOUTUBE HAD STARTED TO SEEM WEIRDLY GOODOver the course of 12 years, YouTube has transformed itself from a site driven by search to a destination in its own right. Getting there required hundreds of experiments, a handful of redesigns, and some great leaps forward in the field of artificial intelligence. But what really elevated YouTube was its evolution into a feed.
It can be hard to remember now, but at the beginning YouTube was little more than infrastructure: It offered an easy way to embed video onto other websites, which is where you were most likely to encounter it. As the site grew, YouTube became a place to find archival TV clips, catch up on late-night comedy, and watch the latest viral hits. Along with Wikipedia, YouTube is probably the web’s most notorious rabbit hole. Your coworkers mentioned the Harlem Shake at the water cooler, and so you went to YouTube and watched Harlem Shake videos for the rest of the evening.
Meanwhile, Facebook had invented the defining format of our time: the News Feed, an infinite stream of updates personalized to you based on your interests. The feed took over the consumer internet, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram to LinkedIn. YouTube’s early approach to personalization was much more limited: it involved asking users to subscribe to channels. The metaphor was borrowed from television, and had mixed results. A huge subscription push in 2011 had some success, but the average time a person spent watching YouTube stayed flat, according to data from ComScore.
CHANNELS NO LONGER DOMINATE YOUTUBE AS THEY ONCE DIDChannels no longer dominate YouTube as they once did. Open YouTube on your phone today and you’ll find them hidden away in a separate tab. Instead, the app opens instead to a feed featuring a mix of videos tailored to your interests. There are videos from channels you subscribe to, yes, but there are also videos related to ones that you’ve watched before from channels you may not have seen.
This is why, after searching for straightforward Dishonored videos, I started seeing the recommendations for stealth runs through the game and satirical reviews. YouTube developed tools to make its recommendations not only personalized but deadly accurate, and the result has lifted watch time across the site.
“We knew people were coming to YouTube when they knew what they were coming to look for,” says Jim McFadden, the technical lead for YouTube recommendations, who joined the company in 2011. “We also wanted to serve the needs of people when they didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to look for.