How algorithms took creativity out of social media

In early January 2018, a shocking and disturbing video became one of the top ten ‘Trending’ clips on YouTube. The video – which prompted a global backlash and is now an infamous moment in YouTube history – saw then-22-year-old internet personality Logan Paul explore Japan’s Aokigahara forest, known as a site for suicide, before sharing footage of a corpse with his subscribers, which at the time numbered 15 million (now 23 million). After Paul deleted his video, third-party copies also reached YouTube’s Trending page.
A decade earlier, in early January 2008, YouTube’s featured videos looked rather different. One video promoted on the homepage, perhaps emblematic of simpler times, consisted of a three-minute clip of a female musician sat on the floor playing acoustic guitar. The artist sings what she calls a“simple little song” about people who are “freaked out by a little bit of genuineness”.
In the space of these 10 years, YouTube changed its approach to the videos it chooses to highlight. In 2008, instead of a Trending page, the platform showcased “Featured Videos”, which were originally selected by human editors. In a video explaining how to get featured, YouTube said “original work” was given the spotlight and that it favoured creators who were an active part of the YouTube community. It denied having a “magic formula” that valued view counts or being part of the “in-crowd”.

By 2015, Featured Videos no longer existed on the homepage, and YouTube had introduced its Trending tab, an algorithmically-generated, constantly updating list of popular videos ranked by “view count” and “how quickly the video is generating views”, among other factors (there are still humans on the team who help filter out inappropriate and misleading content).
In the future, social media giants should bring back more of the human touch. In the real world, trusted individuals curate our museums, galleries and music festivals – why don’t we have the same approach to creative content online?

Once upon a time, we did. In the early days of Instagram, a “community team” of employees handpicked interesting content to highlight; in her 2020 book, No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, tech reporter Sarah Frier documents how the team thought of themselves as a “democratising force” as they avoided “automated virality”. One employee named Dan Toffey changed the fortunes of a small dog named Tuna and his owner, Courtney Dasher, when he promoted her account on Instagram’s blog. Dasher was able to quit her job and become a full-time content creator, later writing a book.
The rise of algorithmic curation, where posts are selected largely by popularity, has meant that online creators have had to adapt. Today, “pods” are prolific on Instagram – these are groups of users who artificially inflate each other’s popularity by liking and commenting on one another’s posts in an attempt to boost their favourability to the algorithm. Influencers buying “fake followers” were estimated to have cost brands $1.3bn in 2019 alone.

On YouTube, creators do anything and everything to grab the algorithm’s attention. At the time of writing, the eighth most popular video on the Trending page sees a duo ask their followers to “comment below” six times in 22 minutes (including: “It’s supposed to rain… please, please, please comment below, it can’t rain” and “Pink and blue make purple, right? I forget… comment below”). A friend of the pair also asks viewers to “give this video a thumbs up” in order to “wish [them] well” after their recent miscarriage.
Many videos feel like a race to the bottom. A current trend sees creators make outlandish financial claims in order to pique interest, a recent example being “I Spent $2,000,000 On Pokémon Cards” from Logan Paul. Since the scandal around his 2018 video of the body of an apparent suicide victim, he has made videos entitled “WE WALKED IN ON THEM! (Embarrassing)”, “My Best Friend’s Painful Surgery…” and “WE DID IT ON A PLANE!”

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