The film “WALL-E” (2008) is famous for a lot of reasons, but one stands out. “WALL-E” presents a vision of a dystopian future where people have built machines that do all of their work for them. This allows humankind to live a life of decadence. In this future, people ride on a never-ending cosmic cruise ship, watching TV and eating food that doesn’t require chewing.
This was Pixar’s vision of the future back in 2008 — when YouTube and social media were still young. And while we’re not at the point of pure decadence that “WALL-E” predicted, social media is pushing us hard in that direction.
Imagine YouTube as the world’s biggest library. In this library, there are more books than you’ve ever seen in your life, or will ever be able to see. Here, though, you’re not allowed to roam the aisles, looking for something that piques your interest. Rather, in this library, you’re only allowed to browse the bestsellers.
YouTube is very good at predicting what you might enjoy watching. But it’s not perfect. What happens when you want to watch something about a brand new topic you didn’t even know existed? What happens when you want to be surprised? Or intellectually challenged?
At Creator Handbook, we use a metaphor for classifying our content into three categories: meat, vegetables and ice cream. “Meat” represents content that people actively seek and that is immediately satisfying. “Ice cream” is content viewers don’t seek out, but they consume it as soon as they see it, even if it’s ultimately unsatisfying. “Vegetables” are pieces of content people don’t seek, and sometimes even avoid, but are good for them and help them be more effective in their endeavors.
On YouTube, meat is what you find in search results. Ice cream is what you find on the home page and in recommendations. Vegetables are covered in cobwebs somewhere in the deep corners of YouTube where no one goes.
That’s fine for YouTube’s bottom line, but people need vegetables to live a healthy life. So, where does one go to find video content that fills this role?
Traditional media offers one solution: human curation.
When you subscribe to a news publication or even an enthusiast publication like Creator Handbook, editors don’t only show you content we think you’ll find satisfying or enjoyable. We also provide information we feel is important for you, our audience, to know. We don’t hide it — we highlight it.
And this is where YouTube fails.
YouTube highlights content using an algorithm. The algorithm knows what an individual wants to watch, but it doesn’t know what the individual needs to watch.
It might know an individual wants to learn how to record music, so it shows them videos about recording software. But it doesn’t know the individual still needs to learn about the more boring topic of signal flow. They know that an individual wants to watch political opinion videos, but not that the individual still needs to understand the contextual history that leads to an opinion.
The irony is that YouTube contains enough information to fill a thousand libraries, and yet it’s impossible to treat it as such. Searching for vegetables on YouTube only results in meat, and browsing their shelves only turns up ice cream.
To rely on traditional media and educational institutions for enriching content is to waste YouTube’s potential. Online creators have knowledge and wisdom to share, yet YouTube makes it impossible to find. YouTube is the best platform we have that empowers us all to circumvent the gatekeepers of the publishing, media and entertainment industries. Its responsibility to society is extraordinarily high.
YouTube must update its platform to help people find obscure content — content that’s more edifying than it is engaging — if they at all hope to become the de facto repository of information published by independent creators.