How YouTube’s biggest stars game its algorithm

Simon Owens
Jan 28 · 5 min read

Of all the algorithms that influence our daily internet browsing habits, few are more closely scrutinized than the one that governs YouTube. Through the homepage, the recommendations that appear on the side of videos, and the trending tab, YouTube’s algorithm has the ability to shower a video with millions of views and transform its unknown users into overnight stars.

It’s because of this very influence that so many people get angry about it. Whether it’s YouTube stars who are worried about their ability to reach their fans or liberal critics who say YouTube promotes right-wing extremism, there are plenty of politicians, journalists, and activists who are up in arms and ready to accuse YouTube executives of all sorts of nefarious evil.

But how many of these accusations are merely conspiracy theories born out of paranoia? To answer that question, I interviewed Chris Stokel-Walker, a journalist who covers YouTube for an online magazine called FFWD. Stokel-Walker and I went deep on the YouTube algorithm and the ways its biggest stars game it to their benefit.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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The transcript has been edited for clarity

How the algorithm causes paranoia

It’s the black box that drives everything on YouTube. It’s the thing serves up the videos that we end up watching. You will watch a video and then end up in some sort of rabbit hole where you’re 10 videos down, you’re unshaven, and you feel the urge to go to the bathroom. That is because of the algorithm. It’s designed to keep us entertained, designed to keep us watching, and creators who treat this as a business from which they can make money have realized it’s important for them to learn how the algorithm works and to try and reverse engineer it in order to gain popularity.

You have to remember the algorithm is important because of the scale of YouTube. 500 hours of footage are uploaded every single minute. You cannot possibly watch that in the time that you have on this planet. You can’t even watch a minuscule amount of that. So the algorithm is the sifting tool. It’s the thing that separates the wheat from the chaff.

The algorithm is the thing that controls the destiny of YouTube; it’s kind of the Norse God that you have to please at all times. So creators are fixated on it. And when they’re doing well, they praise the algorithm because they think that it has looked beneficially upon them, and when they’re doing badly, even if it’s because of the quality of their content, they somehow think they offended the algorithm and it is punishing them.

I have this maxim where I say if you get more than two creators in the same space at any one time, the conversation will immediately turn to the algorithm and people will voice their pet theories about how it works. I’ve seen that firsthand. I’ve been at these conferences where they talk about the algorithm like it’s black magic.


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How the algorithm causes burnout

The algorithm rewards high quality posts. So people have to like it, they have to engage with it. The videos have to be long — 10, 20 minutes or more, and they have to be uploaded frequently. That’s why the most subscribed channel is a Bollywood film and music TV channel.

It creates an awful lot of stress because, if you think about it, creators are not just on camera talent, they are often entrepreneurs, as well as producing what is essentially a network TV show by themselves. They’re also expected to deal with the licensing, with brand deals, and then you’re also dealing with social media platforms and engaging with your audience. The on-camera stuff is only a very small part of it. It’s a huge amount of work that used to be done by huge production companies and teams of people. And a lot of those small creators, when they first start out there, are shouldering that burden themselves.

Why YouTubers get so mad about the trending page

It’s massively influential because it essentially puts your video in front of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. The reason that people complain about it so much is because it is dominated by traditional TV on late night TV hosts. There’s a reason for that. The trending page is YouTube’s showcase to the world and, having had so many problems in the last few years with its reputation, it wants to make sure it presents a squeaky clean face to the world. So it goes for the pre-vetted, sanitized stuff from network TV, and that’s to the detriment of homegrown YouTube stars because they are not necessarily vetted. They don’t go through standards and practices or compliance.

Why YouTube keeps offering lucrative contracts to gaming streamers

We are seeing guaranteed contracts being laid down for streamers, particularly game streamers, to secure their services for a prolonged period of time. And YouTube is having to enter that market because they are competing against Mixer, which is backed by Microsoft. They are competing against Twitch, which is backed by Amazon. They are competing against Facebook, which has billions of dollars to throw at anything. There’s a gold rush going on.

Live video is vitally important. But what’s interesting is that these platforms aren’t necessarily just looking at e-sports. I wrote a story for FFWD maybe six months ago about how Twitch had bought the rights to USA Basketball and it was doing pretty good viewership numbers for Twitch. Amazon Prime video here in the UK is buying premier league football soccer matches. So the idea that traditional broadcast companies have a monopoly over live sports is certainly not guaranteed.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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