What YouTube Sees in Me | Peter Funt

Many of us are overdosing on YouTube during coronavirus confinement, and we’re used to the fact that, like it our not, we’re being monitored. Things we shop for online invariably pop up in ads accompanying the videos.

Lately, however, I’m struck by the fact that the videos themselves are tracked. Watching one leads to suggestions for others — the product of YouTube’s AI, which blends genius with quirkiness.

YouTube has some 1.3 billion users and they upload over 7,000 hours of video each day. Even sheltered 24/7 there’s too much inventory to navigate without YouTube’s help, as I learned in a recent session. It began innocently enough when I heard President Trump mention at a briefing that he had glimpsed shots of deserted streets in Manhattan. So I searched for that.

Sure enough, YouTube delivered live video from cameras overlooking Times Square. At 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday there were more of us lurking (504) than were walking the streets. This feed began March 7 and has registered 28,000 “likes” and 1,700 “dislikes.” (Note to self: Don’t try to find meaning in the voting patterns of quarantine victims.)

Anyway, when I refreshed YouTube its algorithm had apparently determined that I’m a fan of random street views, so it suggested one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, overlooking the Pizzeria Caldera in Town Square (104 watching; 45,000 likes). Another click and I was transported to an intersection in La Grange, Kentucky (140 watching; 10,000 likes). I counted many more cars and pedestrians in downtown La Grange than in Times Square, and no one was wearing a mask.

The Kentucky view included train tracks. Naturally, AI assumed I’d enjoy a page provided by Virtual Railfan. With 886 others I watched a live stream of the rail yard in La Plata, Missouri, “for people who enjoy watching trains.” The description added, “Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passenger train stops here twice a day.”

YouTube then determined that I must love subways. This resulted in “Good Samaritans Confront Man with Hatchet on NYC Subway Train,” which led to “The Ugliest NYC Subway Station,” and then to “New York’s Incredible Subway Dancers.”

After a while AI must have concluded: This guy is really into transportation! So I watched a fly-over video of a place in Victorville, California, where some 400 commercial planes are parked during the coronavirus shutdown. And that took me to “10 Things You Should Not Say to Car Dealers.”

Eager to escape the transportation thread, I tried to trick AI by searching for “suggested YouTube videos.” The first recommendations was a video titled “YouTube Suggested Videos Suck!!!”

Clearly, YouTube knows itself even better than it knows me.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.