Bloomberg reporter Mark Bergen joins Niki remotely to discuss his new book “Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination.” We dive into the behind-the-scenes impact Google has had on shaping YouTube into the search juggernaut it is today. Mark details the outsized influence YouTube has on the social media landscape while remaining a “sleeping giant” largely ignored by regulators and protected from much of the “techlash” its competitors have faced.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech’ed Up. If you’re new to the show, a word of warning, yes, sometimes we talk about things that are not crypto and occasionally, that’s a look back into web2. My team wrote a line on this about YouTube being a dinosaur in tech years and has an outsized influence on culture like Jurassic Park, and to be honest I’m kind of taking that framing personally but also, it’s not wrong and is the topic of the day.
Thanks for tuning in!
Niki: Today's guest is Mark Bergen. Mark, thank you for coming on. I know you're in San Francisco, so it's early for you.
Mark: No problem. I've had some coffee.
Niki: You've had some coffee! [Mark: Yeah, Yeah Yeah] You're also thrilled to be here, etc., etc.
Mark: I'm thrilled to be here [chuckles] I'm thrilled and caffeinated. [Niki: laughs]
Niki: You have been a business reporter for your entire career. We know each other because since 2015, you basically exclusively covered Google and YouTube as a reporter. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah, that's right.
Niki: And you have just published a book called “Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination.”
This book is a capstone to your reporting on Google because, having spent so much time embedded in covering the company, you're gonna be pivoting to a new beat. So this is, in some ways, a, a moment in your professional career that sums up a lot of what you've been reporting over for years. Is that right?
Mark: Yeah. I just wanted like burn as many bridges on my way out as possible [chuckles] As I possibly can. [Niki: laughs] Yeah, and I think, I mean it, part of the reason I wrote the book is I, I feel like YouTube is so often covered as, like, people have been writing some really fascinating works about YouTube as a cultural phenomenon and, and the stars and celebrities, but it's really, like, the company story and, like the [pause] Google's impact on YouTube is kind of very undercovered and, and like not well known. How many people, like, know that, that Google even owns YouTube?
Niki: This is, yeah. [crosstalk] You're absolutely right. When I, so I, I worked at Google for eight years. I don't think you and I actually overlapped. When you started working on the beat, I had left Google in 2015, but that's sort of when we met each other. And I remember being on Capitol Hill trying to explain that Google-owned YouTube, but that is somewhat relevant to the business story, which is it operates in many ways as a standalone brand: it has a separate headquarters, it has a separate CEO.
Mark: Yeah, I think that's something that was pretty savvy from Google to do that, I mean, there's, to go out and say like, “Keep the brand separate,” and they will probably never do what Facebook has done of like, “YouTube brought to you by Google.” In part, because Google, YouTube is such a, like a recognizable and, and widely beloved brand.
Niki: Okay, so let's do this. [Mark: Mm-hmm] There are three topics I really like to cover off. One is the business story, one is the creator economy, which maybe we start with that because it was essentially a YouTube innovation, and then the final thing, which many people have talked about, but is, is still extraordinarily relevant, is the impact of YouTube on culture, on politics, on media, on even our brains. [Mark: Mm-hmm]
And so maybe we end on that. But let's start with the creators. We don't have to go all the way back to like Adam and Eve and the first cat video. But the creator economy, sort of how user-generated content became a thing, and how YouTube, as a startup, spotted it, and then Google capitalized on it. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Mark: It was remarkably early that YouTube started its partner program, like sharing ad revenue with- uh, they weren't even called creators back then, like “YouTubers” and just, like, “users”- 2007, May of 2007.
This was actually a really small, a relatively small group. They started off with at the few dozen, and then for a while, it was like this handpicked, it was, like, top creators.
And for a long time the, the team at YouTube, like, the business teams thought that user-generated content, like, amateurs weren't really gonna be what advertisers were, like, running to get in front of. I think that was kind of true. So their focus was, like, we're gonna get TV networks, sports leagues, and, like, movie studios to come put their stuff on YouTube, which was a really uphill battle for a very long time.
Niki: And actually what ended up happening with YouTube is it filled a space that now, obviously, how, you know, however, many years later, is obviously something people want, which is not highly produced, not scripted, not Hollywood [Mark: Mm-hmm] but just raw talent like people in their houses giving lessons on how to tie a bow tie. Last weekend I was at a wedding where zero of the men, 0.0% of the men, could tie a bow tie, several were on YouTube learning how, [Mark: Yeah] but they there was this idea that, well, people aren't gonna want this content. And, in fact, that's exactly what people wanted.
Mark: [deep breath] I think that's right to a certain extent. Like, yes. so they, there were these creators, they were like trailblazers and this new type of, like, online personality that it has a relationship with fans and an audience that's, lik,e very different than TV star, very different even than reality TV, right? Like, reality TV is enough that we know that people are kind of faking it. Like, they don't, you don't necessarily, [interrupts self] maybe some, like, “The Real World” stars had this [chuckles].
You don't have this relationship where you kind of feel like you know the person in this way. And part of it is because, like, the most, many of the most successful YouTubers are, are, like, very like, kind of, have, they open up their lives and they, like, perform this, this persona on screen that's like intimacy.
And at the same time, like a lot, y’know, I think music videos were a massive part of YouTube's library. Right? Like, and people still watch now, especially, like, after I think the past decade, late night TV, SNL, like, a lot of TV staples have started to upload to YouTube. Initially that was, like, a problem that YouTube had for as copyright. Once they solved the copyright problem, that's been just like a major part of, of, the platform.
So I, I mean, I think, and the company has, like, been really good about having it both ways, right? Where they're like, “We are, we love creators, and they're the heart of everything we do, and like we give so much money to them,” but they don't share how much of the advertising money goes to traditional media companies, which I think is a fair, fairly significant amount.
Niki: That's a really good point. So SNL posting, you know, the opening sketch, how much of advertising money is going to that person versus tutorials [Mark: Mm-hmm] and other…
Mark: Yeah. How much goes to NBC and Taylor Swift’s record label versus, like, the mom-and-pop [chuckles] sort of creators?
Niki: Right! And yet, Well, wait, [Mark: Mm-hmm] I wanna go back really fast to something you said, which was this idea that we sort of didn't realize, none of us realized that there would be this phenomenon that I only just learned the word for, which is parasocial- parasocial relationships? [Mark: Mm-hmm!] Which maybe you can explain, but it's like the people feel like they have a relationship with the creator.
Mark: Yeah. Parasocial Network was one of my title ideas, which was thankfully shot down. [Niki: I'm glad, Yes, no one knows] No one knows!
Niki: Thank you to Mark’s editor.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, yeah! Wiser people than I.
My understanding, it's like an academic term, but it's, I thought it was like really acute. And I talk about this creator, Ingrid Nilsen, who was an early, like, YouTube beauty creator. And she invented this, this thing called Vlogmas, which was like Vlogging every day, like the advent calendar ahead of Christmas. [Niki: Mm-hmm],
And she, I mean, she's charismatic. She, like, was perfect and, and, like, understood kind of, was one of many female creators that, like, built this”beauty guru,” like, this whole new way of talking about fashion, and beauty product, and, like, transformed the cosmetics industry and like. But also, like, some of her videos were just kind of, like, her, like, walking around the house, like, driving to the grocery store, like, making a tea. Right? And it is, like, you have to involve the fans and the audience in your life and, like, have them have a stake in your success.
Um, which we saw, like, that the other side of that is, PewDiePie. He was another, like, the most popular YouTuber for a long time. Fans felt so attached to him that, like, when he was wronged or when they felt he was wronged, they, like, swarmed in, right? And, like, he has this, he called it “The Bro Army” and they have this sort of militant loyalty to these creators. ‘Cause I think they're like invested in their success in a way that just never really, you don't have that in TV, in movies, like, in previous media.
Niki: Yeah! And I think, I'm not even sure, and I'm curious what you think about this, so I think the vernacular is really interesting.
So, it started as YouTubers, then creators. These are people who add revenue from ads placed next to their content, like, they're earning money and paying bills, doing that. It’s different than an influencer, which is someone on Instagram or TikTok, who, a lot of times, are shilling a product. Right? So, to me, there seems to be a, a difference that's maybe rooted in the business model itself. I don't know, but they seem slightly different to me.
What do you think?
Mark: Yeah, I think that's right in, in the sense- like, since 2017 when, we can go into this more, but YouTube had a major advertising boycott, and, like, they call it “the Adpocalypse”, was the term on YouTube.
Since then, we've seen a lot more, like, sort of the Instagram model. Um, y’know, we see a lot of YouTube videos that will have promoted content in there and, like, because like, shilling for certain brands or, like, merchandise, selling merchandise. And some of that is just diversification of, I think it's a good thing, like, online creators are finding new ways to, like, rely on something besides YouTube's ad revenue. Which is there, but not always consistent.
And some of that is because YouTube tightened the filters on its system, on its, like, dials for advertiser safety. And so they, like, creators have had to kind of flood, flock somewhere else for money. Facebook has really struggled to figure out a similar model.
TikTok is like the, the closest platform to actually find a way to pay a certain of, a larger number of creators. I think there's been a lot of criticism of their model? But what YouTube did invent is the way that the creators can just kind of have a, a relatively steady income.
Niki: We used to call it, obviously, when I was at Google [interrupts self]
Oh, by the way, I got feedback from someone who listens to this podcast [Mark: mm-hmm] that I always say “we,” when I talk about Google, [Mark: aargh!] even though, yeah, [Mark: uh-huh]. And it's one of my few employers that I do that with but I think it's because I worked there during [Mark: The Royal We] “The Royal We!”
It was, like, during this golden age of the internet. It was just, [pause] You know, we didn't know what these things were gonna turn out to be [Mark: Yeah!] and the impact they would have. So, so let's talk about the business for a minute. So, when Google bought YouTube, they paid; what did they pay? One point [trails off]
Mark: 1.6 billion.
Niki: Okay! [Mark: A cool 1.6 billion] A cool 1.6 billion for something that didn't have an obvious or immediate revenue stream. And I remember Eric Schmidt, who was the CEO at the time, was asked in an internal town hall, you know, “Did you pay the right amount?” [Mark: mm-hmm] Basically, like, “You overpaid.” And he said, “It absolutely wasn't the right amount. It was either way too high or way too low. [Mark: chuckles] And I'll tell you, in 10 years!“
Mark: [laughing] That's pretty good.
Niki: You almost can't start a YouTube without fiber optic cables, and tons of data center storage, and [Mark: Yeah] it can't have downtime. Right? You have to, even the monetary part, I know it's been bumpy, which obviously your book covers the way the algorithm has changed in the way payments have changed, which we should talk about, but- you almost needed the infrastructure of Google to make YouTube work.
Mark: Absolutely! I mean, I think they, they were running on, like, Steve Chen, co-founder, like, I guess before they got venture capital funding, Steve Chen, one of the co-founders, like, maxed out his credit card to pay for the server space. And, like, they had a lot of downtime and that was, lik,e where they focused a lot of their attention, and just, like, removing porn and keeping the site up and running.
I mean, I think that y’know, without Google swooping in, it's probably likely, like, YouTube would've been, if not sued out of existence, certainly had, like, a lot more legal problems.
I mean, there's a great scene at the, early in the book with, about Patrick Pichette, who was the CFO at, at Google before Ruth Porat, like, looking at the business in 2008, at YouTube and saying like, “This is a terrible business. like worst in the world.” Like, right? ‘Cause they, like, they lose a certain amount of money for every video they were hosting, and they had, like, meager ad sales at that point, and it didn't seem like they were getting any traction with their goal of, of convincing TV networks to come online.
So, I think that was, you know, even 2011, 2012, YouTube was this underdog, not just to television, but to Facebook. Like, Facebook had a bigger, came in and had bigger ad sales than YouTube. So, there was, like, this inferiority complex that [chuckles], that, like, drove a lot of what YouTube did. I think people inside have this kind of strange whiplash when they, now they're seen as, like, sort of too big and scary.
Niki: Especially because they operate really culturally, or have in many ways, separately from the bigger Google. Another thing that-
Mark: [interrupts] Yeah I know! I'm, yeah, Susan Wojcicki, who's run since 2014 is, like, as googly as they come.
Niki: She's, she's the original, [chuckling] I mean, she's the owner of the garage! [Mark: That's right] Right. [crosstalk] Where Google was founded. She's like as googly as they come, but it does have a slightly separate culture and has for a long time.
One of the business elements that I think is interesting- This is another Eric Schmidt quote, and yes, I worked for Eric Schmidt [Mark: chuckles] and yes, listen, I can't help it. Like am I, I don't know why I, I am forever a super fan of this company, but when he was criticized over, I think this was publicly, it was like, “This thing is not making any money.” Although they didn't break out the financials, [Mark: not until 2019] for a long time. Right. So, because, so it must not have been publicly that this was brought up, but, he, he used this phrase “URL”: ubiquity first, revenue later. [Mark: chuckles] Which was their strategy! Right?
Mark: Yes. And then, well, I mean, in 2008 ‘til after the financial crisis, it became, like, at least for people at YouTube, it was, like, “Okay, now I need to start making money,” and they brought in like, new management and you see the founders left then. And like, a lot of, like, old school Google, or sorry, [corrects self] YouTube people, like, “Well, everything was going well until they started[chuckling] trying to make money.” [Niki: chuckles]
Which is, like, a little bit flippant, but, like, I, I think that that was, you know, like, you're totally right that, that, I never heard that rephrase before “URL” is good. Unlike Google, which, like, had the benefit of, like, the internet was sort of evolving, like there was a lot of internet content, right?
YouTube had to kind of go into new markets, right? And help, like, convince people to, like, upload YouTube videos in different languages. [Niki: Right]
And I mean, there was just this like blitzkrieg attack to, to spread YouTube around the globe. Including even, like, working on something for China that never, never launched. But, yeah, there that, like, that was a really key to it success, right? [Niki: Right] Like Google was able to just subsidize this, this growth for a long time.
Niki: Right. Okay. Which leads us to, I think this is sort of the, one of the most interesting things about YouTube.
YouTube is often lumped in with Facebook and with Twitter because of like the political reality of our lives. [Mark: Mm-hmm] And yet, if you look back at what, I don't think that, people don't have that same feeling when they use YouTube that they sometimes feel when they use Twitter or Facebook of, like, “Ugh, I really wish I wasn't using this.” [Mark: Yup] They overall, it seems to me, have a positive experience with the app.
Mark: I, that's totally right. I mean, I can just anecdotally, like, my friends, right, are always trying to quit Instagram and Facebook and, and don't necessarily wanna [chuckles] do that with YouTube. But I don't think, in part, like, I don't- People will use it much more as a utility.
There are, for sure, there are, like, stripes of people and, and anyone, like, under a certain age, like, 24, maybe uses it much more, like it has a kind of addictive quality, or it's, like, replaced cable TV for an entire generation. [Niki: Mm-hmm] But even then, like they associate so much, I think this is part of the reason why it's kind of had less scrutiny.
Y’know, you might go on there for, like, a yoga video, right? Or, like, a how-to bake bread, right? You don't necessarily see uncle posting something, like, political on YouTube And so I think that is, is, it is just functionally different. And, that being said like, it does have it, like, YouTube is just, it's, it's so wide and in deep. It has everything, right? It has the uncles posting crazy political opinions, right? It's like the world's biggest music library, and kids entertainment service, and probably the podcasting platform, and, like, the, I could keep going on with all the superlatives.
Niki: Yeah, so it, it is, it's an enormous platform.
Mark: (interrupts] The latest they, they shared was 700 million daily, this is watch hours, so it's 700 million hours are watched every day on TV screens, not like phones and, and desktops.
Niki: Oh, fascinating. That's crazy! Yeah, I mean, I think it's also like there's, there's positive and negative in releasing those numbers because obviously the bigger you are, the more scrutiny you're gonna get. But I have a theory that if they eliminated comments from YouTube, it is not really a social media platform. It's just not. Even if somebody's uncle is taping themselves, [chuckling] ranting something. [Mark: Mm-hmm] It doesn't have [interrupts self] yes, and we should talk about this. Absolutely it has the problem of the algorithm recommending more and more content that if you are ending up in sort of a radical, niche area of YouTube you can, you can get more radicalized more quickly.
But, in general, it's different, I think, than interacting in the way that social media is a back-and-forth between the people you're following and the comments. It, this is really a broadcast platform, and I think if they got rid of comments, they'd get rid of a lot of people thinking of them as a social network.
Mark: That's probably fair.
Niki: What if it was just, yeah, “Like and Subscribe?” Scrap the comments.
Mark: You're [chuckling] yeah, you're like, your, your experience is not informed by like, your friends, your comments. I mean, I think that, like, that how we talked about the parasocial, like, that aspect of the fans relating to creators in like as if they know them.
I mean they get, YouTube did get rid of comments for kids' content after some controversy and after they were regulated by the FTC. So in many ways, like, kids’ YouTube is basically like a, a, a broadcast system. I think, like, y’know, I mean, is, is TikTok social media, right? Like, it's sort of lumped in there, but TikTok calls itself an entertainment platform and it is much more pure, like, purely, YouTube’s model, like, algorithmic recommendation.
Niki: It's just a surveillance mechanism for the Chinese Communist Party. [Mark: [laughs] No comment there! Anyone who listens to this podcast knows that's a, that's a theme of this podcast. You don't have to say anything. It's 100% true.
Mark: I well, I, I can weigh in on TikTok, like briefly. [Niki: Yeah, do it!] Like, I mean, YouTube is I like, I don't you have anyone who's, who's used YouTube recently can see like Shorts, like, their, their sort of TikTok copycat.
Like, I was talking to someone with like a creator manager that so that, like, you'd never seen YouTube move so quickly [chuckles] when they, like, responded to TikTok with Shorts, calling it, like, an “Allen Iverson crossover.” Son that was good. For the basketball fans out there, like [trails off]
Niki: Yeah, I known I got it. I'm from Indiana. I got it, but I just didn't laugh at it. Sorry!
Mark: Aah! So it, I mean, it is a threat to them because TikTok is, is not just competing for eyeballs, which for, for sure, it's like captured the Youth Generation and the zeitgeist, but it's also, like, competing for talent. But that being said, like, I think for Google, TikTok is this huge gift where you can see like they came out earlier this spring and talked about how, how many people are, are using TikTok for search.
And it's so funny, like, compared to Facebook, which is, like, doing a lot of work to, point out, like, TikTok’s Chinese ownership, my sense is that Google is, like, doing a lot of work to say, like, “look at this new competitor that we have that popped out of nowhere in the past few years, that proves that we are not a monopoly.”
Niki: Yes, absolutely. And why? [cross talk] Yeah.
Mark: It's a convenient political story for, for Google. Go ahead.
Niki: It's a good political story for Google, and you know, Google is sophisticated in another way, which is that Apple changes to allow for ad revenue has been as devastating [Mark: mm-hmm] or I think, impactful for Google as it has for Facebook. But Google doesn't talk about it, which I think is smart. [Mark: That’s totally true!] That's smart.
Mark: Yeah. Well, it hit, it hasn't hit search, but it definitely hit YouTube. And you're right, like, Facebook has decided to, for some reason to, to, like, try to make it, like, a political campaign against Apple, and YouTube has, like, said nothing, and I think that's probably savvy.
Niki: One of the prescient things about YouTube, and it wasn't even prescient cuz no one had any idea, is that what would hurt search is people would suddenly not go to their desktop or laptop [Mark: mm-hmm] and go to Google to search for things. They would just have apps on their phone and then search within those apps.
And YouTube is a very searchable app on your phone. So it provided another search outlet and advertising stream for Google as, sort of, standard search declined and took a hit with the shift to mobile phones.
Mark: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's like the world second biggest search engine that no one talks about, right? Probably a major reason why, like, Larry and Sergey, Google’s founders, were interested.
I should add that they did not speak to me. I don't think they've spoken to anyone even in the press since like 2015, and maybe anyone on earth [Niki: laughs] since then. But, but that's my sentence. It's like, it was YouTube was, 17 years ago, like, already a compelling search property.
I feel like the company, y’know, one of the things I hopefully get across in the book is, like, Google does treat YouTube much like a search platform. Like, think about their response to criticism around, like, misinformation or harmful content. It is, like, they've changed their policies to remove certain stuff, covid vaccine things, like, questioning vaccines efficacy, but often it's sort of, like, a very googly approach, which is, “We're just gonna bury this on, like, page 12 with the search results. Like, we're gonna make this really hard to find on YouTube and we're not gonna recommend it.” And that does have a very powerful effect on, like, making videos, like, not take off, really.
Niki: It is very googly to make it findable, but not serve it up at the, at the top.
I mean, one of the examples from like early, early days of Google is so much, well, this is still true today, so much of the internet is are, is people are searching for porn. That's like the main use case for the internet actually [chuckling], and they needed to get rid of it, so they had to really, like, people could still find that content by searching on Google, but there was a whole team dedicated to making sure you really had to, like, be very specific [chuckles] in your search terms. And if you put in anything more generic you'd get, like, you know, The National Institute for Health, like, guidance on [chuckling] whatever.
Um, so they do sort of manually try to elevate more. [Mark: Yeah] And, and maybe people have a problem with this. They'd rather go back to, like, there's no editorialization, but I think it's a sophisticated way. Like, you can still find it; you just might have to dig a little bit.
Mark: I mean, there's always been editorials, certainly less, but, like, y’know, I mean, YouTube came out the gate, like, saying they didn't want graphic sex and porn. Like, that is an editorial decision. Right?
Niki: Right. Absolutely! And it's not like it wouldn't be a money maker.
Mark: Yeah, that's right. [chuckles] Like, I guess I, I don't, I don't think YouTube regrets not building Only Fans, really. [Niki: laughs] Like, they're, they're doing just fine.
Niki: No one has taken me up on this business idea, just like they haven’t eliminated comments, but I think you could pay for every single, you could get rid of advertising as a model [ Mark: Yeah?] if you just charged people for porn searches. You wouldn't even have to charge very much. I think the numbers would add up.
Mark: Yeah, you're probably not wrong. [Niki: I don't know] I mean, you know, YouTube has its own, has had to deal with, like, child exploit [interrupts self]. Sorry to go dark here, but like child exploitation problems, even, even, right. And like drawing the line about, like, trying to determine what is exploitation, what is inappropriate, like, child safety has been a problem. Um. [trails off]
Niki: So this, yes, this takes us from the zesty enterprise of [Mark: mm-hmm], like, consensual, consensual [Mark: mm-hmm] activity to illegal and also, deeply problematic activity on the platform. Which, when you were talking about the brand safety, the idea is I have a, y’know, I'm Proctor and Gamble. What weird problematic video is my company placed against? And this is something that the company has really struggled with just because the scale and the amount of the content. But I think that that's been a focus if you have thoughts on that.
Mark: Oh, God. Yeah! I mean, I think that, like, one of the things I discovered in reporting the book is that the kids issue was really like the, the thing that flipped the switch, like forced YouTube to make a, a more, most significant change. Like it, it reinvented, its, its like ad policy. It made, like, sweeping, it took or eliminated more channels than it ever has before.
I think after that kid, there was a major kids' crisis they had and they were getting so much attention, both negative attention in the press and then advertisers like coming to them and being like, “We're gonna boycott again.” Or like, “What the hell, Why? Like, why are we paying TV rates for this?” That, and then, I mean, that was also the one area, I think, area safe to argue, like, the one time that D.C. has actually acted and, like, shown some teeth on Big Tech has been with the FTC fining YouTube for violating COPPA, Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Correct me if I'm wrong, [Niki: No] like what else compares, it's all been just, like, bark.
Niki: I think that, for sure, there's a lot of bark and very little bite in this town [Mark: mm-hmm] when it comes to regulating tech. And I, obviously, I was at Google during a lot of this. One of the things, two things. One is when it comes to kids' safety and certainly, child sexual abuse imagery, which by the way, I will say YouTube does something; they have an amazing partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Kids.
Mark: Yeah. Which was set up super like Yeah, I think pre, pre-Google? [Niki: Yeah] Like pre- [Niki: Yeah] Kudos to the team at YouTube for, for doing that.
Niki: Yeah! So basically they saw that people would upload this, like, horrific illegal content and then they would work together and they have all of these, they don't talk about how they do it, but they work hand in hand with this organization to use what they find in the videos to save kids in real life. Like, in actual real life, they will find kids. So, they do really, really good work on that. And I think when it comes to child sexual abuse imagery or problematic content around kids who might be exploited in videos, like, nobody's messing around.
What was hard for, for YouTube and for Google is, like, conflated with that was the idea that people were like, “You shouldn't have content that's like an ad for kids. It shouldn't be selling them anything.” [Mark: Yeah] Which makes me laugh because as someone who, you know, had a Fisher Price record player in the like 80’s, early eighties, one of my records was the McDonald's menu song. Like? [chuckles]
Mark: Yeah. Well, let me push back on that. [Niki: okay]
Like, the FCC has rules around TV. Like, like, listen, enforcement is different than what's on, on paper but like there are rules that say you have to have a certain amount of educational programming. You can't have, like, blatant promotions in the, in the actual program. You have to like make it a clear discernment between this is an ad and this is not an ad.
And, like, none of that exists on YouTube and I think that's, like, there's no [interrupts self] There are FTC complaints against, YouTube creators and Ryan's World, like, the most, the richest YouTuber in the world has been, has faced this; that his videos are, are, like, not disclosing the promotions. And so, yeah, I think you totally, like, it’s not like YouTube invented toy promotions.
Niki: I believe this to be true, that YouTube and Google do a lot of work to take down things that could hurt kids.
I think that they were in, and I remember us being in this moment where ISIS, which was using YouTube [Mark: mm-hmm] to radicalize. [interrupts self] Well, YouTube, in general, can be used to radicalize people quite effectively just based on the recommendation engine behind the algorithm. You watch one video, then another, then another, next thing you know, you're radicalized.
Maybe we end on that, which is, it's not a new issue, but it's very timely how they're thinking about some of the content on YouTube and the impacts that that's having more broadly.
Mark: Yeah, I mean the ISIS, like, the beginning, I think it was like, 2013, 2014, was just one of the turning points when YouTube’s just kind of hands-off approach, didn't, no longer worked. And then 2017, after, like, an attack in London, is when they had this much more aggressive approach to, towards, they call it, like, “supremacist content.”
ISIS is, is now at the center of this Supreme Court case. So, the Supreme Court’s gonna hear, Supreme Court case will hear two cases around Section 230. And one of them is the parents of a woman who died in a terror attack in Paris. And they're claiming that, like, YouTube's algorithms were promoting ISIS videos in 2015. And that YouTube, like, doesn't, it's my understanding, like, does no longer deserve it's, like, protections, immunity under section 230 cuz it wasn't able to, to properly police that.
Niki: It's a really hard issue, which is why no one solved it. To your poin on bark over bite. Like when it comes to kids' content and being safe that's an easier place, I think for the government to get involved. But one of the issues when I was at Google is like, well, okay, if it's an ISIS beheading video, but it's the BBC showing it [Mark: Yeah, exactly.] that's news. If it's, you know, someone radicalizing people, that's not news.
And then, to your point, how do you decide? How do you draw that line?
Like, I read an article. It was written, I think it was in New York Times article by Kevin Roose about, like, the “Making of a YouTube Radical.” It was about men, the men's rights movement. And I was like, “What's the men's rights movement?” Within six minutes on YouTube, I was, like, “Oh man, they are only dying in lumberjack accidents.” [both chuckle] Like, suddenly, I was like, I-
Mark: [interrupts] Video is a very powerful medium. Yes!
Niki: It's a very powerful medium! Literally within five minutes I was like,” I think I totally agree with all this men's rights stuff.”
Niki: I mean, it happened really fast cuz I just watched like three videos in a row, and it's, it's amazing how quickly it can happen. But what is YouTube's role? And I guess that's what we're gonna find out.
Mark: Yeah, I think, I mean, to get briefly, like, that, they've kind of pointed this, like, collateral damage of, like, “We don't wanna take down news footage” or like, or y’know, like, they pointed a lot to, like, archival footage, the Syrian war, like, YouTube’s, like, one of the only places that this, like, our archives of that human rights abuses exists.
And so, like, y’know, it's, like, one, super in the weeds here, but what, like, Google person told me like, “You should call the book (another aborted title) “Precision and Recall.” ‘Cause it's all about, like, that's the way that they describe their machine learning systems, right? They're not gonna; you have to have, like, be really good to be able to detect,, like, this is, this is the BBC talking about ISIS versus, like, this is someone saying ISIS is great.
And YouTube continues to struggle with that. I, I think, like, they're, the system now that they're doing is to basically, like, have what they call “authoritative channels.” Right. It's basically, like, these are news channels or, like, public health orgs or, like, trusted organizations, and we're gonna promote them.
I mean, I think we can just go back to, like, the central point of all these controversies is, like, there's, there's not a lot of transparency. Like, you and I as a viewer don't know what's an authoritative channel. We don't know what's being, like, what's a, a channel that's, like, no longer being recommended.
And so, I think there's the, and maybe my optimistic take, is that, like, all this new pressure on regulation could kind of force YouTube to disclose and, like, be a lot more transparent of a place.
And you know, the history also shows that, like, regulators often, like, don't get this right.
Niki: The government really should be who decides what's illegal, right? That's why. Child sexual abuse imagery and credit-card scams-
Mark: [interrupts disagreeing] But isn't there like a whole major swath of things that are not like “illegal” but still either, like, advertisers, viewers, or just not gonna like, harmful. Right? [Niki: Right] Covid misinformation is not illegal. But YouTube's decided that to not have it on the platform anymore.
Niki: And this leads to, like, an existential question that we don't have to answer today [Mark: chuckles], which is: should private companies be in charge of deciding things that might be amoral, problematic, immoral, but not illegal?
And obviously, YouTube, in fact, all of these platforms have made decisions around their content. They don't just let absolutely everything go. So, where's that line? And actually, the Supreme Court is gonna have something to say about it. So, maybe we end on that!
Mark: Yeah. Cats outta the bag!
Niki: Cats outta the bag! Okay.
I think this conversation is like a perfect mapping to the topic of your book, which is a chaotic rise to world domination [chuckling] because it's such a big story. It's like the business story, the creator story, the impact on politics and society, and how things have changed. So everybody should go buy this book, “Like, Comment, Subscribe.” You're getting really good reviews.
Mark: Thanks. Yeah. There's a new review out, which surprised me, in the New Yorker this week. If people want to read fancy New Yorker reviews before-
Niki: They absolutely do. Yeah. They wanna read a fancy New Yorker review. I will drop it in the show notes along with a link to buy the book.
And you are moving onto a slightly different beat. If you just wanna take one minute to talk about what you're gonna be doing next.
Mark: Oh yeah, sure. I'm writing about climate tech in the sort of intersection of the Silicon Valley and, and tech world and energy and people trying to solve the climate crisis. And so I, you know, I think there's a lot of really interesting companies in this space, and a lot of really interesting story lines, and a lot of really interesting intersections of, of tech and policy that I find fascinating.
Niki: Yeah! I do too. I think there's a lot there. So, I think that's a great beat for you. [Mark: thank you] And congrats on the book. Books are a big deal!
Everybody, go by Mark's book.
Mark: Thanks for having me. It was super fun.
Niki: So, it turns out there is a reason every creator asks you to like, comment, and subscribe to their YouTube channel- the algorithm must be fed. So if you do like this podcast, please consider smashing that subscribe button.
In our next episode, I’m talking to a Washington Post reporter about AI drawing pictures using text.