YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki Needs to Step Down
A change of leadership could not be more urgent.
One of Google’s very first hires was Susan Wojcicki. She was brought in initially to serve as the company’s first business hire. Given this background, when Wojcicki was eventually propped up to become CEO of YouTube from her role as VP of ads and commerce, there was little to no doubt that she was going to lead the company with a mindset putting growth before responsibility.
The problem arises when YouTube’s unconditional growth clashes head on with a moral obligation of protecting its users it does not want to assume. YouTube has been accredited the rise of the far-right, conspiracy theories, and a whole litany of content that explicitly violates its community guidelines — but a great majority of it ends up staying there due to executive overreach, or in the most extreme of cases, a signature Silicon Valley belief in openness, at the expensive of maintaining civil order by moderating the propagation of harmful ideology.
After numerous calls to reform, and a near-consistent playbook of doubling-down then apologizing, YouTube’s golden days are considered to be way long past. In the absence of a willingness to see that pattern change, it has become an imperative, now more than ever, to duly reconsider Susan Wojcicki’s role at the company. She’s a great businesswoman precisely because she plays capitalistic interests to their fullest extent, but a platform to which many entrust their news delivery and information, has to run with an ethical mindset above all, conscious of what it promotes its users.
Why YouTube has turned from this video sharing platform where being bitten by exotic animals was about as violent as it could get, to now becoming a recruitment ground for the political fringe across the globe could only be properly conveyed by outlining a cohesive chronology of early online video, Google’s acquisition of YouTube, and a consecutive showing of blaring mismanagement by Wojcicki since taking over the company. Only after that, does YouTube’s unique position as both incredibly powerful and deeply irresponsible starts to make sense.
Planting the seeds for Wojcicki’s rise into power
It was 1998. Larry Page, and Sergey Brin were two desperate computer scientists looking for a place to field their own idea of what they thought to be a worthwhile endeavor in the yet-to-be modern internet. The dream of a global telecommunications platform on such a scale was still in its early conception phases. Infrastructure was lacking, and the belief in a world whose financial spoils were largely immaterial was non-existent. Back then, it was simply unfathomable for information that predominantly exists in the digital space, to become the cogs without which our lives would cease to work today. But yet, Page and Brin’s bet was successful, and their baby child, Google, turned out to be a paradigm-shifting product, completely altering the way we consume information in a matter of less than two decades.
Who decided to house Page and Brin when the idea was but a fresh drawing on a blank canvas? Susan Wojcicki.
Google’s founders could not pay the infamous Silicon Valley living tax, much less afford to build a corporate empire. They were but two Ph.D. students at Stanford who did not make the pristine salary of an engineer in Silicon Valley, so they had to make due with little. Susan Wojcicki — looking to cushion the blow of a steep mortgage in Menlo Park, California — charged Page and Brin $1,700 a month to operate from within her garage. The common stereotype of nerds hammering away at keyboards and writing code was at its uttermost exemplified.
Back then, the mere idea of Google’s existence was that of pure function and utility. Navigating the internet was non-intuitive, and any and all attempts at properly cataloguing it were marred by the defining characteristics of the old internet — the will to make things easier was there, but the execution left often a lot to be desired. Google was the antithesis of all that — it sought to make sense of the ever-growing mass of data on the internet. The field was ripe for disruption, and disruption is what Page and Brin did. The whole face of what we’ve come to recognize as the internet today, would not have been were they not to scratch their creative itch.
The beginnings of online video
In the early aughts, online video wasn’t the juggernaut that it has become today. The hosting costs were ridiculously high, and the infrastructure through which video is served was fairly premature. The FCC estimates that the median download speed of American households when Google was founded barely scraped above standard dial-up speeds — a ludicrous notion to entertain by today’s standards — and when YouTube was founded, speeds were not forthcoming either — coming at a meager 3 Mbps. So even if Google considered to make video a core part of its business — unlike the botched job Google Video was — no amount of wherewithal was going to account for the fact that most of its customers were not going to have a pleasurable experience consuming video on its platform.
But to some, that was part of the charm. Making online video in the mid-2000s was an exercise in great patience and resolve. Videos took long to upload, the communities watching them were as small as the ones putting them out. A great sum of them were littered with encoding artefacts as the bitrates at which they were delivered were insanely slim, and some, who didn’t have the luxury of springing for an expensive piece of software to edit their videos, had to make due with a giant ugly watermark as they opined about their daily tribulations, beneath the shades of a poorly-lit college dorm room.
For a while, YouTube was a wild west of poorly-conceived content, bootleg versions of traditional media content, and most of what lived under it was a chief personification for the platform’s biggest problem — its lack of any identity. YouTube lived, mostly to serve what its users thought it could provide, but Google saw in the platform greater than what anyone else did — an early chance to capitalize on a globe-sweeping future trend where online video, would not only become an archive of comedy skits and awkwardly-filmed smartphone footage to boot; but the new standard by which video, as means of entertainment and information conveyal, is primarily consumed.
Google took out its only competitor
Shortly after YouTube was born, it became Google’s own, for $1.65 billion — a steal in retrospect — as of October 10, 2006. It’s a move that Susan Wojcicki insisted on making despite the overwhelming amount of risk present. “This is the next step in the evolution of the internet,” Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt said. Chad Hurley, who was YouTube’s CEO at the time, affirmed that “[he’s] confident that with this partnership [they’ll] have the flexibility and resources needed to pursue [their] goal of building the next-generation platform for serving media worldwide.” And sure enough, Google would funnel much of the advancements it made in optimizing its own infrastructure, to bolster the scale at which YouTube was able to distribute video, making the then-unprofitable startup a global household name.
But before YouTube would be the behemoth that it is today, numerous doubts were made of its financial viability. Bob Garfield — media critic and host of WNYC’s On the Media — wrote back in December 2006 for WIRED about the rough road YouTube would have to navigate before it would become profitable. “But even 100 million daily streams and $1.65 billion into the evolution of this species, how it will actually thrive is a mystery,” Garfield posited. “As somebody once said, 100 million people can’t be wrong. They can, however, be useless. It turns out that success is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent monetization.”
What Garfield said back then was true, but the ways in which such a scheme would be achieved was greatly colored by mainstream media’s perception of what the platform’s biggest flaws were — chiefly, that copyright violations were going to put it out of business long before any operation costs would. But as YouTube continued to expand, and as its tools for tackling unlawful reproduction of copyrighted content grew more complex, the challenge was no longer to avert legal scrutiny — it was rather to make its current base watch even more videos than they already did.
YouTube’s early algorithm tweaks were in direct servitude to solving that problem. In 2012, YouTube’s biggest areas of concern were how the focus of its recommendation algorithm to prioritize views, led to viewers burning through videos like wildfire through a dry pine forest. Cristos Goodrow, VP of Engineering at Google and responsible for Search & Discovery on YouTube, realized that users were frantically chasing one video after the other with the algorithm rarely serving them what pertains directly to their viewing patterns or the video they were currently watching. “Instead, we realised that if they didn’t leave a video and continued watching, that seemed like a better estimate of the value they were getting,” Goodrow said. Julian D’Onfro remarked for Business Insider that “the more time people spent on YouTube total, the more ads they’d see overall, and the more money YouTube would make.” This would become the guiding principle by which YouTube continues to improve its recommendation algorithm, and it’d soon become their heaviest anchor of criticism.
Susan Wojcicki’s ascent into the Iron Throne
Google’s 16th employee, its first marketing executive, once garage-renter to the company’s now-affluent founders, and then-Google’s VP of ads and commerce Susan Wojcicki, was named CEO of YouTube as of February 2014. After making a hard push for Google to acquire YouTube back in 2006, things have decidedly come full circle. “Susan has a healthy disregard for the impossible and is excited about improving YouTube in ways that people will love,” said current-Alphabet, then-Google CEO Larry Page. Wojcicki’s role would not be only to lead YouTube in the still-volatile space of online video, but it was also to turn the tides in favor of a product that historically bled its parent company more money than it made. The race was on to make it so, and its unlikeliest savior would come in the form of a technology whose proven value was still very much in the air — that being, artificial intelligence.
Shortly after Wojcicki taking the lead, in 2015, Google’s AI division undertook a radical project to enhance its YouTube recommendation algorithm. This project — Google Brain — was able to mimic the more esoteric functions of human intellect, where it was able to establish improbable links between individual users’ past and current viewing behaviors, and extrapolate from that a sound recommendation for what they’d be most inclined to watch after. “Whereas before, if I watch this video from a comedian, our recommendations were pretty good at saying, here’s another one just like it. But the Google Brain model figures out other comedians who are similar but not exactly the same — even more adjacent relationships. It’s able to see patterns that are less obvious,” Jim McFadden, tech lead for recommendations at YouTube told Verge’s Casey Newton. By any measures of success, the boons of integrating Google’s neural network had vastly exceeded expectations. Casey Newton goes on to relay that “integrating Brain has had an immense impact: more than 70 percent of the time people spend watching videos on the site is now driven by YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations.” So now that YouTube managed to funnel the majority of its viewership through its recommendation algorithm, all that was left to do is make iterative changes until it most-closely resembled Google’s idealized conception of its perfect form.
Despite the efforts waged, YouTube’s profitability was still very much in limbo. Wojcicki said as much at the Fortune Most Powerful Women summit in late 2016. “We’re still in investment mode,” Wojcicki assured, citing a declining interest from the 18–24 age category in traditional TV as a potential venture for growth. Little did she know, that YouTube going after traditional TV’s lunch would not only be curtailed by their subsequent interest in the streaming market as all the big players gear up to launch their services late this year and early next year, but it also highlighted TV’s main qualities as a medium where broadcasting content is wholly informed by a human vetting process — YouTube has no such measure for screening content, and it became a major thorn in Google’s side as it weathered a new wave of criticism for its inability to enforce its rules in subsequent years.
When YouTube’s woes started to unfold
Early 2017 is the likeliest culprit for when YouTube’s unconditional strive towards profitability started becoming its greatest liability. On the Official YouTube Blog, Cristos Goodrow announced that the year prior, YouTube had finally hit the illusive “billion hours per day watched” milestone. To put this in perspective, Goodrow likened it to spending 100,000 years watching video, during which time the Milky Way could be crossed from one side to the other at light-speed.
This was huge. As YouTube was looking to maximize its base of monthly active users, eking out of them every last drop of engagement was an imperative lest Google wanted to drown in operation costs an unwieldy ad compensation rate can barely foot the bill of. But as time went on, it became clear that crossing this threshold did not only bring along it YouTube’s much-desired dream of near-profitability, but it also introduced a whole new host of concerns creators, advertisers, and audiences alike would all frequently raise about the platform — especially regarding its inability to enact sensible moderation decisions, as well as provide them the financial stability they’ve so painstakingly — and perhaps also naively — sought.
The first would come in the form of the infamous “Adpocalypse”. Declining ad rates for all creators usually accompany a controversy of some kind that forces advertisers’ hands into momentarily suspending their investment until the issue is resolved. In early 2017, YouTube would reckon with its first after rolls from major brands are spotted running alongside Hezbollah recruitment videos, and an unmistakably anti-Semitic video by PewDiePie in which two men hold a banner saying “Death to All Jews”. How such videos got past YouTube’s monetization barriers after it invested heavily in AI precisely to prevent that from happening remains a mystery. But it didn’t deter Susan Wojcicki from coming out and assuming responsibility of what happened, apologizing “for letting some of [their advertisers] down,” and promising that “[YouTube] can, and [it] will, do better.” This apology — which conveniently left out the creators who were most affected by the Adpocalypse — was accompanied by a sweeping change in monetization directives another month later, which would’ve presumably helped YouTube sustain a greater deal of confidence in sustaining advertiser money — but alas, it wouldn’t take long for that notion to prove erroneous.
While that saga was playing out, YouTube was under heavy fire for systematically demonetizing LGBT+ content. Testimonies ranged from smaller creators to multi-million subscriber juggernauts who all faced this wave of discrimination. YouTube initially chalked it off to an honest error, further clarifying that YouTube does not target content specific to any group. And however early the platform’s response to the controversy was, it did not deter from the fact it took YouTube more than a year to acknowledge wrongdoing, saying that “they’re sorry and [they] want to do better,” only after it’d been heavily scolded for putting anti-LGBT ads next to LGBT creators’ videos.
That same year, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel and Remy Smidt blew the lid on a story revealing a secret side of YouTube where child abuse and exploitation ran completely unchecked. Matan Uziel — video producer and activist at Real Women, Real Stories — tried to raise the issue to YouTube, but to no avail according to BuzzFeed. Warzel noted that the algorithm kept dumping users down a rabbit-hole of such problematic content, with no discernable cut-off point. “While the company noted that this will be an ongoing fight, it suggested that machine learning will play an important role to address the issue at scale,” YouTube told Warzel. But spoiler alert: the promise of an AI moral-rectifier turned out to be more fiction than reality.
With 2017 being such a dumpster fire for YouTube’s public reputation, it seemed as though things could not possibly get worse — but yet, give it to YouTube to disappoint even when expectations have hit rock-bottom. Just before the year uttered its very last breath, Logan Paul uploaded what now has become a landmark, era-defining moment in YouTube’s existence — live footage of a man who died by suicide in Japan’s Aokigahara forest. “Despite numerous calls on Twitter for YouTube to ban Paul for posting the inflammatory content, this outcome seems unlikely,” reported Verge’s Megan Farokhmanesh. And in a pattern all-too-familiar, the ones to go first on the chopping block were YouTube’s smallest creators. But despite YouTube refusing to ban Logan Paul from its platform, it drafted in February 2018 a new set of “exceptional measures” guidelines, which would in theory allow it to have more of a leg to stand on when addressing rules violations by its biggest creators.
Being reactionary has been YouTube’s MO for quite some time. It meant that the company didn’t always act in the public’s interest, and was instead just looking to fend off controversy, and potential advertiser backlash. It is why not that long after, PewDiePie was right back resuming his anti-Semitic antics with little to no prospect of accountability.
As recently as May of this year, when YouTube could’ve best put its new coping measures to the test, it came out on the blunt end of a full-scale controversy after it allowed conservative commentator Steven Crowder to issue homophobic and racist comments against Vox journalist Carlos Maza with no substantive repercussions against his channel. Reverberations of YouTube’s ill-considered decision struck far and wide within the company, so much so that a fringe collective of Google employees — dubbing themselves Googlers for Human Rights — came out in stern support of Carlos, decrying anti-LGBT sentiment at YouTube. The rules YouTube had drafted when Logan Paul made his infamous suicide forest video were not invoked, even when staving off the tide of homophobic and racist remarks by Steven Crowder and his following should’ve been the top priority.
Public opinion is slowly degrading
The last several months have painted quite a grim picture at YouTube’s premises. Ex-Googler Guillaume Chaslot wrote for WIRED about YouTube’s vicious feedback loop, and its natural propensity to push its users towards more extreme content as the rabbit-hole deepens. This corroborates an earlier report by BuzzFeed which described in detail how this effect operates. In both scenarios, the research seemed to suggest that YouTube will naturally gravitate towards sensationalist content, regardless of its veracity. This applies for alternative news outlets pushing a skewed read of a story, but it also applies about similarly for YouTube’s biggest creators whose mastery of the algorithm has become only second to their video-making abilities.
At its peak, the algorithm had caused a great sum of estranged white men to adopt racist and misogynist doctrines promoted by the alt-right. A blockbuster report by the New York Times recently shed a light on these suspicions, wherein former radical Caleb Cain broke down in minute detail how he’d come into contact with harmful radical ideology. Part of it comes down to basic manipulation. “When I found this stuff, I felt like I was chasing uncomfortable truths,” Cain told New York Times’ Kevin Roose. The much-loathsome rabbit-hole effect preyed upon white men’s deepest insecurities, lunging them straight on a path to committing mass atrocities. The Christchurch Mosque shooter, the Poway Synagogue shooter, and the El Paso, Texas Walmart shooter all professed to ascribing to “the Great Replacement” doctrine, something which had been brought forth into the forefront of political discussions on YouTube by a Lauren Southern video, which, as these words are being written, has yet to be taken down.
Before June concluded, the algorithm had claimed another casualty — children. The FTC pursued an investigation into YouTube as a New York Times report revealed that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm was aiding child predators in finding content relating to minors. The fight lead to a pathetic $170 million fine, but was at least instrumental in YouTube taking greater consideration at removing children’s content as its attempts to stave off its exploitation by malicious actors were repeatedly met with failure. This fine came with the caveat that YouTube must invest some of its own money to make original content for children — but given YouTube’s track record, failure to comply is very much a possibility.
Elsewhere, the speculation surrounding YouTube’s favoritism were confirmed to be true by a recent story from the Washington Post. “The moderators interviewed by The Washington Post say that their recommendations to strip advertising from videos that violate the site’s rules were frequently overruled by higher-ups within YouTube when the videos involved higher profile content creators who draw more advertising,” reads Elizabeth Dwoskin’s eye-opening report. Some of the creators mentioned by name include PewDiePie, Logan Paul, and Steven Crowder — all reminders of when YouTube’s content moderation decisions fell short. “YouTube’s stance is that nothing is really an issue until there is a headline about it,” a moderator told the Washington Post, confirming a suspicion many had, but were justifiably hesitant to embrace.
The platform’s flirting with fringe ideas had hit its apogee when a recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that YouTube was a main actor in Brazil’s collective shift to the far-right. “Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grassroots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine, ”the report reads. Further accentuating the perpetuity through which YouTube’s political fringe exploit the platform’s algorithm disregard for context and facticity, the report very much confirms that “however implausible any individual rumor might be on its own, joined together, [conspiracy theorists] created the impression that dozens of disparate sources were revealing the same terrifying truth.” For a country whose main source of news was YouTube, Susan Wojcicki’s wishy-washy stance on censoring misinformation and radical rhetoric was to its ultimate detriment. Jair Bolsonaro — who YouTube essentially appointed to power — is now in the thick of controversy for relaxing deforestation oversight, effectively causing widespread damage to the Amazon rainforest. This makes YouTube directly responsible for accelerating the pace at which natural ecosystems are collapsing within it, boding dire implications for climate change, which the platform has already shown an aversion to combat misinformation about according to a recent study.
And even as the platform continues to tout its efforts in combating the problem of conspiracy theories, it ended up diverting most of that viewership into just a more official, more corporate-looking version of the same old ideas — FOX News. Why this happened, has to do with YouTube’s recent push towards more “authoritative sources” when major stories break, but Guillaume Chaslot’s research suggests that the platform heavily favors FOX over any other cable network, according to HuffPost. “Perhaps it’s not surprising that Fox News is gaining traffic from viewers coming over from conspiracy videos. As a regular mainstream mouthpiece for extremist ideologies, Fox has invited far-right activists onto its prime-time shows and afforded them a platform to spew their propaganda to millions,” says Jesselyn Cook. By all measures of subjective media analysis, this very much bears out every single time. FOX News — as much as it would want it so — isn’t just a right-wing version of its left-wing counterparts; it’s now become a network where figureheads of the New Right and peddlers of conspiracy theories get precious airtime to broadcast their views to a great sum of white Americans, and even influencing Donald Trump’s policies on a more-than-superficial level. It seems as though every time YouTube tries to make a problem go away, it only ends up making it worse.
Change is abound, but Wojcicki isn’t forthcoming
Google is now weathering an antitrust probe signed off on by 50 attorneys general across the United States. What this has come after, is a mounting regulatory scrutiny following the ineffectual action taking by US federal agencies against Big Tech companies for failing to comply with their most basic demands of accommodating for competition, and letting new players pump new blood into a space that has been largely stagnant — those being in the case of Google, Search and Video.
Both conservatives and liberals have a stake in this. While Republican Senator Ted Cruz continues to peddle the notion of a bias against conservatives— notoriously likening YouTube’s moderation efforts to violating a God-given right to free speech — other members of Congress like Democratic Representative Ro Khanna have made it clear they want to see a more concerted effort from Big Tech companies to actively combat misinformation.
Whom a bipartisan bill may eventually end up serving more is a subject for much debate, but it’s clear that conservatives have somewhat held the upper hand, as YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki herself contributed a weirdly-worded entry to YouTube’s official blog, where after citing many creators whose content is explicitly apolitical, goes on to claim that “a commitment to openness is not easy,” adding that “it sometimes means leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive.” This is followed up shortly by what could only described as an attempt to gaslight audiences, reporters and creators alike on YouTube’s track record of addressing controversy:
One assumption we’ve heard is that we hesitate to take action on problematic content because it benefits our business. This is simply not true — in fact, the cost of not taking sufficient action over the long term results in lack of trust from our users, advertisers, and you, our creators. We want to earn that trust.
The problem here is that what Wojcicki cites as signs of a declining trust in the YouTube brand are already showing — and it is a direct manifestation of the platform’s inability to quickly act when content clearly violates its rules. This proved constant every single time YouTube was faced the choice to either side with their bottom-line, or side with users in the interest of the common good. Wojcicki had confirmed that sentiment in a profile for the Guardian, professing she doesn’t know where to draw the line of free speech, nor whose voices to suppress.
In the absence of a clearly-worded take on this particular issue, let me insert myself briefly into the story and try to make it as clear as possible for Wojcicki on what to do: You do not amplify the voices of those who seek harm to those who have been historically harmed. You do not promote that a planet on the verge of becoming uninhabitable, is on any different course but complete ecological catastrophe. You make sure that voices — even co-signed by many — are vetted to the same degree equally and across the board. You can’t resurrect the fallen, but you sure as hell are fully within your capability to veto any decision to uphold hateful speech and put an end to nationalism’s spread on the platform right here, right now. But since that isn’t the case, all we’re left with are futile efforts to swim against the tide of a falsehood-amplifying algorithm, leaving us but the bluntest of tools to battle a whole army of malicious actors whose YouTube’s unwillingness to kick off the platform has further emboldened them to keep beating the fabric of reality down to a pulp.
If all Susan Wojcicki has us to offer is apologies and frivolous mental gymnastics, then it might be time to hang it up. Hand over the project to someone who thinks of YouTube as more than a money-making machine. There’s merit to the idea that capitalism had made it inherently impossible for us to have a social media platform operating on basic ethical tenets, but in the here and now, Susan’s stay at the company is hardly doing us any favors.
YouTube’s role as a great diversion in times of great despair can no longer be severed from its ability to empower the very worst in humanity. The spread of nefarious ideologies and conspiracy theories is ultimately one that YouTube management — atop of which is Susan Wojcicki — chose to allow. Thus, Susan’s removal from the position of CEO is no longer a simple calculus of internal company politics — it is the quickest way we can ensure that serious measures are taken to avert the very present risk of eroding the legitimacy of our democratic institutions by way of bolstering fascist movements across the globe.
It is now more than two years since Wojcicki has pledged to “do better” and we’re yet to see the fruits of that. Either those efforts were unsuccessful, or they weren’t even conducted in the first place. But the clock is ticking, and time is far too short for us to keep squabbling over who did it, when we’ve great evidence that the one who could’ve undid whatever was done, chose not to do it.