Unhook Your Mind from YouTube’s Manipulative Algorithm

Photo by Dan Asaki at Unsplash

“Just this one,” whispers the voice in your head. “And then I’ll get back to work.”

Do you ever catch yourself getting stuck — watching endless loops of YouTube videos? Following those alluring video recommendations? One after the other.

Notice how those hours quickly fly by? Delaying everything you’re supposed to work on. Everything that truly matters to you.

I’m sure you experience this. Almost daily. Or maybe occasionally.

You are not alone.

And here’s why this is concerning.

People upload over 500 hours of videos on YouTube every minute. That’s 720,000 hours of new content every day.

They watch over a billion hours of videos every day. That’s more than Netflix and Facebook video combined.

In 2020 alone, people watched 100 billion hours of gaming content. There are now over 40 million active gaming channels.

A Foggy Maze

YouTube is a sacred pedestal for most content creators, I agree. But its algorithm is highly deceptive. A subtle mind hacker that keeps you trapped in the platform’s near-infinite content maze for hours.

Remember the Lotus Casino scene from the Percy Jackson movie?

“No, Percy. Don’t eat the flower.

It dulls your senses. Keeps you a prisoner here.”

In our case, it isn’t flowers or pills. It’s those witty, well-timed, video recommendations that keep us in the content loop. It’s what pushes us into deep rabbit holes.

To become more conscious about your time on YouTube, the first step is to know the algorithm’s manipulative ways of working. How it lures your mind into the platform’s content maze. And how it traps your attention for hours.

Let us consider this algorithm as a highly intelligent, conscious entity at work.

It is always active in the background — watching you watch, learning your behaviour and interests. Gauging your attention span and your instincts.

It records and analyzes your clicks, your search history, and your watch time on each video.

It then tracks your perceived satisfaction as you slowly make your way through the content maze.

Then, based on your perceived behaviour and your prior activity, it creates an insanely addictive, personalized stream of video recommendations — using deep neural networks and machine learning. These recommendations are near-infinite, making it near impossible for your brain to snap out of.

The Implicit Bias

Recommendations can often change your behaviour. As you move through the maze, it is hard to determine whether you clicked on a video because you liked it, or you just did it because it was recommended to you.

This means, over time, YouTube’s algorithm can take you further away from the content you actually want to watch. It can hijack your instincts and manipulate your behaviour. Subtly, of course.

The Homophily Effect

A recent study — published during this pandemic — showed that more pro-vaccine videos (64.75%) than anti-vaccine (19.98%) videos existed on YouTube. Of these, 15.27% were neutral in sentiment.

Turns out, YouTube is more likely to recommend pro-vaccine videos and neutral videos than anti-vaccine videos. But there is a homophily effect, observed in the recommendation system, in which pro-vaccine videos are more likely to recommend other pro-vaccine videos than anti-vaccine ones.

This homophily effect, however, appears to be a two-edged sword. Because anti-vaccine videos are less likely to lead users to pro-vaccine videos, study finds.

Pro-vaccine video recommendations have skyrocketed during this pandemic. This suggests that YouTube’s recent demonization policy against toxic content — among other changes to their algorithm — might have reduced the visibility of anti-vaccine videos.

Looking at the current situation, YouTube’s rabbit hole goes far deeper than our minds can fathom. It’s far more complex than we could imagine.

It is imperative to raise our awareness and ask the right questions:

How do we protect our minds from these subtle manipulations?

How do we consciously escape this incredibly complex maze we often find ourselves in?

Here’s what you can do to use the platform more consciously:

Use YouTube Like You Use Wikipedia

Not as an entertainment medium.

Like Wikipedia, YouTube has, over the years, transformed into a great knowledge resource.

See and treat it for what it is — a knowledge resource that you can rely on any time, anywhere, and on any device. A hub where you can gain insights that can help you accomplish your most important tasks. That’s it.

Once you gain those insights, you need to make sense of your tasks at hand, leave the platform as quickly as you came in. Without getting sidetracked by highly relevant — yet sometimes shallow — content recommendations. Shown on the right side of your screen. This brings us to my next action point.

Watch Long Form Videos

In full screen.

I couldn’t stress more on this. But this one is the most overlooked strategy that’s readily available to you.

You have the choice of watching videos that are long, highly informative and deeply engaging. Then why watch videos graced with shallowness? (Unless you love spending hours watching bite-sized cat videos.)

Get into the habit of consuming high-quality information. Sourced from credible, authoritative channels. On a platform where content creators constantly urge you to turn towards shallow content for increased views.

That’s how you take responsibility for your mental hygiene. That’s how you genuinely try to solve your urgent, yet seemingly subtle issue — weak memory.

By focusing your attention on one long-form content at a time, you strengthen your long-term memory.

Next time you enter YouTube, stop yourself from running all around the place as you do in shopping malls. Instead, consume long videos that cover a lot of ground around a specific topic.

For instance, if you need deep insights on a specific topic. Let’s say, Apple’s new M1 chip. Consume one or two (20+ minutes) long-form videos about that on an authoritative channel, like this one here. Better if your topic comes under that channel’s niche area.

Or if you’re into documentaries or thought-provoking interviews, watch a long one.

By doing so, you train your mind to prioritize and focus on quality over quantity. You consciously allow it to chew on value-packed information and process it for hours. Helping the information sink deep into your subconscious. When you need that information for real-world application, or to make a purchase decision. Or to simply enrich an argument. Your mind will be able to easily retrieve those core insights in their most original form.

Build a Rock Solid Willpower

Then practice ‘essentialism’

This one is by far the most effective way to tame the algorithm. But it’s difficult, I agree. Because your brain craves distractions all the time — more than you realize.

The only way out is to restrain your mind from getting sucked into the maze. Rigorously train your brain to take in only what’s essential and value-packed. And then, get into the habit of watching videos only when you need them.

“You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”

— Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.”

To control video recommendations, install the YouTube feed blocker extension if you need to. This option is limited to Chrome Desktop users. Or use this screen time extension if you’re a Chrome user. Or Mac’s system screen time tool if you use Safari.

The Bright Side

We’re going through a pandemic, I understand. And YouTube is a great way to find connections, entertainment, and to share moments with friends and loved ones.

This game of content we’re playing right now — on YouTube and across social media — is getting more and more complex. And intense. We just don’t fully understand, yet, how these platforms influence our society at large.

I believe we are at the cusp of figuring things out. Governments are scrutinizing tech giants. Stricter rules are now being enforced to closely monitor harmful content on these platforms and to control their influence on users.

But until these policies get deeply rooted in the system. You, on an individual level, must take full responsibility for your mental wellbeing. Be more conscious about what content you consume on YouTube and across social media. Yes, this can be hard when every screen, every app, and every digital platform seeks your attention — every waking minute.

Understand that anything above normal can and will, slowly, in subtle ways, harm your mental health.

Less is more.

Weaving thoughts on technology, communication and digital minimalism.