In 2018, YouTube is a nightmare. Neon thumbnails and meaningless titles litter the trending videos page, a state far removed from the platform’s humble beginnings in 2005. Ruling over this state like a distant sovereign is the algorithm, a power that prioritizes quantity and view count over quality. At the algorithm’s whims, YouTube’s top creators endlessly churn out videos and sacrifice their sanity.
As it stands today, YouTube’s algorithm prioritizes a metric called “watch time” over a video’s view count. Watch time is calculated by multiplying a video’s view count by its “average view duration,” or how much time someone spends watching that video. While watch time is still dependent on views, there are other factors: how often the account uploads content, how much time the viewer spends on YouTube in general, and when viewers click on and off the site.
The algorithm has then produced a compulsion to repeat. A creator strikes gold with a prank video and find themselves compelled to endlessly try out different combinations of keywords and thumbnails in an attempt to reproduce their success.
This isn’t a new phenomenon—film and television executives have also tried to perfect the ratio of same-but-slightly-different content throughout the histories of those mediums, seeking cheap and easy-to-produce projects with big financial payoffs—hence blockbuster sequels, reality shows, and spinoffs. But on YouTube, this repetitive onslaught of content has a darker side—especially when that content targets children.
Peppa Pig Drinks Bleach
Repetitious kids’ content on YouTube focuses on popular characters from children’s media—often in crossovers that play out like surreal fanfiction. Videos that feature Peppa Pig, Paw Patrol and other characters amass millions of views, incentivizing channels to animate and produce videos featuring these characters in a dizzying array of scenarios. Writer James Bridle wrote an essay on Medium—which later became a TedTalk—about the effect this trend has on children and what it means for the future of the internet at large. In short: it doesn’t look great.
While this trend began with animated videos, it quickly migrated to live action. A channel called Webs & Tiaras sparked controversy (dubbed #Elsagate) with its unusual kids’ videos, which featured real people performing skits as Elsa, Spider-Man and the Joker.
In just two months after its inception, Webs & Tiaras became the third most viewed channel on YouTube with 1.7 billion total views. Skeptics have attributed their success to automated bots or click farming, but this has been refuted by Webs & Tiaras who claim the majority of their views come from YouTube’s suggested videos feature, which tends to draw clicks from children. Their videos feature no dialogue, only the characters acting out various scenarios—from skits about Rapunzel’s big butt to Elsa and Spider-Man drinking out of a toilet—underscored by cheerful royalty free music.
YouTube has made some efforts to combat this problem. In November 2017, the service terminated dozens of popular channels for producing graphic sexual and violent material and deleted or age restricted videos that accounted for potentially tens of billions of views. Videos of Elsa from Frozen having an emergency birth with Spider-Man and Iron Man or Peppa Pig drinking bleach slipped past YouTube’s filters and were initially deemed appropriate because of their innocent keywords.
YouTube developed YouTube Kids in February 2015 as a way for children to explore educational and age appropriate videos and subsequently received backlash after these kinds videos quickly dominated the site. But while videos from Webs & Tiaras were targeted at children, YouTube claims that the majority of views on these videos were from the all-ages version of the site.
At its peak, Webs and Tiaras accumulated 3.7 billion total views. After the purge, the channel has 29 videos and just over 100 million views.
But while violent and sexual content in videos for kids has taken a sharp decline, unsettling and robotic performance art is manifesting in other ways on the platform.
The Algorithm Disciplines Bodies
Papa Jake is the self proclaimed king of box forts—large scale structures made out of cardboard that can act as a stage for intense and immersive role plays, from zombie fortresses to prison escape rooms. Before box forts, Papa Jake made gaming videos, often playing the Grand Theft Auto series or staging wrestler match-ups in UFC 2. In May 2017, Papa Jake posted his first box fort video. It went viral, and he’s made almost exclusively box fort videos since.
The cardboard king has managed to force box fort content down every possible avenue: he’s made box fort mansions, put box forts in the ocean, and even made a box fort pizza restaurant. He’s referenced his own content with a music video called Box Fort Baby, which features Papa Jake and his brother Logan rapping about the unlimited number of box forts they can make and has nearly 10 million views.
And Papa Jake still pumps out videos on a massive scale—he currently has over five million subscribers and one billion views and, according to SocialBlade, his channel averages 4,000 new subscribers and 1.2 million views daily.
Each of Jake’s videos is typical of the content highlighted on YouTube’s trending page—colorful thumbnails, exciting titles with emojis and capitalized words, and a description so full of keywords it’s almost incoherent.
As strange as the content and presentation may be, the production process is perhaps even more bizarre to consider.
Papa Jake is a 23 year old man who generates his income by making theatrical sets out of cardboard and duct tape. But he doesn’t just make these structures—he creates and acts out fictional scenarios not unlike the live action fanfiction of Webs & Tiaras. In one video he pretends to hide from zombies, matching up realistic gun sound effects to a nerf gun and fending the monsters off from his box fort. In another he pretends to be a prisoner, donning a black and white striped jumpsuit and giving himself twenty four hours to make it out alive.
This is a qualitatively different phenomenon from television entertainers of the past like Mr. Rogers or Bill Nye—instead of appealing to human producers or an audience of children, YouTubers are bending to the whims of an algorithm. In order to sustain their livelihood, these creators are forced to endlessly churn out the same content on a rigorous schedule—desperately chasing views and flirting with an algorithm to survive.
And because of this repetition, this content also loses some of its heart. These creators aren’t evil machines and of course, they certainly do care about their young audiences. And compared to some of YouTube’s most popular creators, their content is relatively harmless. But by prioritizing an algorithmic system over than their human audience, it feels likely that their videos will become more and more mechanical.
The Twenty Four Hour Escape
Twenty four hour challenges and escape room videos are especially popular on YouTube. Chad Wild Clay and Vy Qwaint are a married couple who make this kind of content targeted at children. They each produce videos at least once a week with a focus on surviving twenty four hours in abandoned houses, battling fictional hackers and uncovering conspiracies. According to SocialBlade, Vy Qwaint gains an average of 9,000 subscribers and 1.5 million views each day. Chad Wild Clay gains an average of 12,000 subscribers and three million views each day. Their most popular series involves Chad and Vy trying to save themselves and other YouTubers, including Papa Jake, from a mysterious hacker.
In one of their videos, Vy and Chad have been trapped by this hacker in an abandoned school bus. Chad transfers his fingerprint via pencil markings and tape which triggers the bus door to open, but it closes before Vy can escape. Vy tries the fingerprint trick and it doesn’t work, so she tries to escape through other means. She crawls on the bus floor and searches for clues, all while explaining everything to the audience at home. Eventually she finds a mystery clue and has to do some math to solve it, then checks the comments of a video that has not been posted to she if she got the right answer—reminiscent of characters encouraging the audience to participate in children’s television programming like Dora the Explorer. But rather than an animated child, here the viewers are playing along with a woman in her thirties.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine that there are people behind these absurd, mechanical videos. And yet there are—not just “YouTubers” or “content creators,” but living, breathing human beings who day in and day out put on a persona to work the algorithm in a kind of ritual complete with costumes, masks, and props. And this theatricality of production often feels stiff and robotic, ironically alienated from the kind of free play associated with childhood.
In order to sustain themselves under capitalism, creators are facing a losing battle—one where they have to discipline themselves to suit the desires of a technological system that isn’t capable of desire in the first place. In doing so, they behave more like technological systems than people. In a sense, this is no different from the demands of any job in a capitalist economy, but now this obedience is put on public display.
At some point this has to burn someone out—while it hasn’t yet been studied, the daily stress of a YouTuber’s lifestyle seems overwhelming. And when these creators have their physical and mental selves puppeteered by a looming algorithm, there have to be some ramifications.
These creators are also making personal sacrifices—Vy and Chad’s marriage is practically dependent on this surreal business market and Papa Jake is spending his twenties building an empire made of cardboard. But is there a point where this ends? If there is, it’s likely that it will be because creators cannot sustain the demands of the system forever—and as malleable and valuable they make themselves to the platform, there’s no beating an algorithm.