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YouTube’s experiment with ‘personalized feeds’ is angering creators, viewers

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‘The final step in removing any control users have over content they see’

Ethan Klein
Ethan Klein of H3H3
H3H3/YouTube

YouTube is trying to make scrolling through subscription feeds easier by introducing an idea that, according to creators, threatens the ecosystem: personalized feeds.

The name sounds great. Why wouldn’t someone want a personalized feed? It infers that people are served the videos they’re most likely going to watch, and they won’t have to hunt those particular videos down. The move is a major departure for YouTube, which up until recently, listed videos in chronological order. Hypothetically, any video published by a creator a user subscribed to would appear in in the sub box at that time. At the end of a day, people could then browse through those videos and see every single video offered, choosing which ones to watch. That’s no longer the case at this moment.

Personalized feeds always sound great, but they rarely are. Just look at every other app that moved from chronological feeds to personalized or algorithm-defined. No one’s particularly happy.

“We are currently experimenting with how to show content in the subs feed,” a YouTube representative said on Twitter. “We find that some viewers are able to more easily find the videos they want to watch when we order the subs feed in a personalized order vs always showing most recent video first.”

The announcement caught most creators by surprise. Not only did it suggest a move that no one asked for, but it introduced even more concerns over how YouTube’s subscription boxes worked. As Ethan Klein tweeted, “The sub feed was the last place that was untouched by YouTube’s ‘optimization.’”

“Now YT can make ur channel completely invisible even to ur own subscribers. Stop wasting our time @TeamYouTube — just erase the sub button already and show us what you want us to watch,” Klein said. “The final step in removing any control users have over content they see.”

Multiple YouTube personalities, many of whom previously complained about their videos not appearing in people’s subscription boxes at all, echoed Klein’s comments. YouTube’s optimization efforts led to fewer views, less traffic and, most importantly for creators, less revenue. As Klein alluded to in his tweets, personalized feeds feels like the final nail in the coffin for so many creators.

YouTube’s goal is to increase engagement. That’s why Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all switched over. Companies believe the more someone engages with a creator or follower’s content, the more likely they are to want to see more of that person’s posts. It’s a logical concept, but one that doesn’t work in reality. As Jordan Crook wrote at TechCrunch when Instagram unveiled its algorithmic feed, moving away from the much preferred chronological display. Crook wrote:

Meanwhile, I also follow @thefatjewish and @fuckjerry. I don’t like many of their pictures because my likes don’t really make a difference to them (kind of like my vote for president). Still, I read and giggle at almost every one of their posts. I’m not friends with either of them on Facebook; they’re not in my address book.

And now, they’re nowhere to be found on my Instagram feed, either.

This is the issue. Someone who comes home and checks their YouTube feed may not immediately find a creator’s video because it hasn’t surfaced on their feed. There may be 10 or 15 videos they have to scroll past just to find H3H3 or Phil DeFranco or Sailor J’s videos — and if they only have time to watch a couple of videos, that means certain videos go unnoticed and unwatched.

Demonetization is the unspoken word at the heart of this issue. Creators already struggle to put their videos in front of people, fighting against growing restrictions, YouTube’s promotion of traditional Hollywood-type content (late night show clips, for example) and an ever changing notification systems for people who are subscribed to their channels. The subscription feed, as problematic as it is, remains one of the few ways for creators to connect directly with their audience, and ensure those people will at least see new videos when they publish.

This isn’t just a change in displaying videos; it’s a security threat to creators. At least, that’s how they see it. It’s a escalating pain for creators who are trying to find a way to not only remain relevant in a sea of constant changes, but seen — and heard.

Update: A YouTube representative offered the following statement following Polygon’s article:

With more videos coming to YouTube every minute we’re always experimenting with ways to help people more easily find, watch and share the videos that matter most to them. We’re testing a setting that allows users to sort the subscriptions feed based on the content a user usually engages with the most. This is one of many small experiments we run all the time on YouTube. We use both quantitative data as well as user and creator feedback to make decisions on which features to launch.

The company has experimented with the new format since February 2018, and will let YouTube users decide if they want to view their subscription feeds chronologically or by preference.