Friday, September 1, 2023

Breaking the You Tube algorithm

I think highly of YouTube.  In fact I consider it one of the more useful elements of the internet.  If I want to learn how to fix an obscure fault in a 3D printer, or find vintage photos of Newcastle England, or dig up a half remembered poem read by JRR Tolkien, well its all there.

My problem with it is the crap it recommends to me.  Gee YT, no thanks.  I'll simply look up the things that interest me.

YouTube of course sees it otherwise.  They are owned by Google.  And they make money by selling information about me to advertisers.  Things I click on.....straight away get put into their database on me.  

The algorithm by which YouTube figures out my interests, and then sells them to hucksters and villains, is complex and secretive.  And as I've mentioned a time or two, about a year ago I set out to break it.

First of course you disable the Watch History function.  I mean, why make it easy for the Tubers?

You then get a scattergun assortment of what YouTube thinks you are or should be interested in.  Some are reasonable guesses.  Food.  Cars.  Disgusting videos of veterinarians draining horse abscesses. What?  Oh, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Now this is the time consuming part.  While doing other things, like listening to a ball game, pull up the YouTube page and just start rejecting things.  There are various functions to do this.  The blanket "Do not recommend this channel" and the more focused ones proclaiming things to be scam, child abuse, disgusting, etc.  Refresh and repeat.

I'll give the algorithm credit.  It tried everything.  Chess, RC cars, Malaysian political news, lots of vampy Tik Tok stuff. 

After a while it made its last stand on assorted music compilations.  These usually run for hours on end and have names like:  Jazzy Coffee, Cozy Rain, Chill Cafe Music etc.  Their niche market looks to be insomniacs.  Or people who are up all night studying.  I hit DNRC without mercy.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of tedious variations on the Coffee, Jazz and Rain to help you sleep themes.  After a bit I suspected YouTube was cheating, sending me channel recommendations after I had ordered it not to.  It took a while but after compiling a list (yes, I should have more important things to do) I caught them at it.  Clear cheating by repeat recommendations of Rain Sounds for Sleeping, Smooth Jazz BGM (that is back ground music btw) Cozy Coffee Shop Jazz and Coffee Relaxing Jazz.

At this point the algorithm was getting desperate, throwing puny, unconvincing recommendations at me like underage half trained cannon fodder.  It was also clearly swiping ideas from the handful of Youtube channels I follow.  Towards the end it was putting up drone videos of historic sites in England.  They had perhaps a dozen views.  Sometimes I was the first person to look at them.  All got rejected.

I almost felt badly for the unfeeling algorithm.  I'd hit refresh repeatedly and it would send me nothing.  There in fact was nothing left, I'd been shuttled into some subroutine where it just gave up.  Eventually it put up this note of abject surrender:

And nothing else.

So I have finally made Youtube into what I wanted it to be all along.  A place I can go to check in on a few channels I follow and to look up whatever specific things I'm interested in.

I sleep fine at night without 12 hour compendiums of Rainy Nights in Tokyo.  And if I ever do need to know how to drain a veterinary abscess I'll know where to study up, even if this is as I suspect just a punitive measure from an algorithm willing to commit small petty atrocities once it knew defeat was inevitable.


UK Houston said...

You know, of course, that turning off "watch history" just means that you can't see your history, but YouTube still tracks everything you watch for your permanent record.
I had history off for a while and there were just too many instances of "I want to get back to that video from the other day, but I don't remember the channel and I didn't put in on a list, dammit." "Don't recommend channel" seems to have some immediate effect, but they always find ever more ridiculous channels to recommend instead. Now I just lay back and let it happen.

Carl Bussjaeger said...

Your first mistake was using an account login to begin with. There's a better way.

Anonymous said...

I going to comment on this, but read Carl Bussjaeger's comment and realized that it was basically what I was going to say.

The only things I would add is that using a non-Chrome browser on an Android phone will also prevent the tracking. That works for searches and Youtube videos. Lastly, for both PC and Android phones, use a browser that will allow you to set it to clear cookies and history on exit.