YouTube can be very distracting. It is easy to spend many minutes, hours, even days watching videos of little or no value. If for example, you value your time only at the federal minimum wage in the United States — $7.25/hour — then ten hours of wasted YouTube watching in a week represents $72.50. Many people who use YouTube, especially professionally, should value their time much higher than the minimum wage. I usually value my time at $50/hour for business planning purposes.
Distracting YouTube videos are also often highly emotional and frequently negative; they generate anger, frustration, high blood pressure and other adverse consequences whose costs beyond the immediately wasted time are difficult to even evaluate.
YouTube is funded mostly by advertising and the distracting videos often have the purpose and sometimes the effect of getting us to buy something that we don’t need or that may even be harmful to us.
In this post I will discuss several ways to reduce time wasting distractions from YouTube, present some general observations and opinions on distractions caused by YouTube, and suggest some ways YouTube might improve the end user experience and even make more money by doing so.
By active distractions, I mean distractions such as e-mail notifications and smartphone notifications that actively interrupt the user. They buzz. They beep. They flash across the computer screen. They appear as alarming red badges on icons.
Like most social media web services, YouTube by default enables many active e-mail, smartphone, and computer notifications. Most of these can be turned off either in the YouTube account settings or the settings for the smartphone or computer. Generally, all you really need to receive are any bills or receipts.
For me, a bigger problem with YouTube — and also other social media such as Facebook — has been passive distractions. A passive distractions is typically something that appears in your field of view such as a thumbnail image and/or catchy emotive headline that stimulates a strong emotional response and often an urge to click on the image or link. On YouTube this is typically one or more of the recommendations produced by YouTube.
YouTube appears to be collecting and storing a detailed personal history of everything you click on, watch, or do on YouTube. Probably this is integrated with other information that Google is collecting about you.
I have used YouTube for many years and it seems to be getting much better in the last few years at finding “recommendations” that “push my buttons” — get me to click and watch videos that often aren’t that useful but cause a strong emotional reaction. This may be the consequence of new algorithms such as the Machine Learning and Deep Learning research that Google publicizes heavily.
Removing Distracting Recommendations from Your YouTube Home Page
At present (January 28, 2018), you can remove the recommendations from your default YouTube home page by clearing and pausing the search and watch histories in the YouTube Settings.
For me, removing the recommendations on the YouTube Home Page significantly reduces the passive distractions, although once I watch a video, YouTube will still push distracting recommendations on the individual video page — not the Home Page. It will also occasionally recommend some YouTube channels on the Home Page which is markedly less distracting than the personalized video recommendations.
You can get to the YouTube Settings by clicking on the avatar icon/thumbnail in the upper right corner of your YouTube Home Page.
Clicking will bring up a pulldown menu with a Settings Menu Item. Select the Settings menu item. This brings up the Settings Overview page. At the bottom of the Settings Overview page (as well as the other Settings pages) there is a History button.
Click on the History button to bring up the settings for the search and watch histories.
Use this menu to clear and pause both the search and the watch histories. Once this is done (at least for me), the personalized video recommendations disappear from your YouTube Home Page. Mostly you see your subscribed channels and occasionally YouTube will recommend an unsubscribed channel. I usually click the X button to dismiss the recommended channel.
So far, this has greatly reduced the passive distractions for me from the YouTube Home Page and using YouTube.
It is pretty clear from the video recommendations that appear when watching a specific YouTube video (not the Home Page), that YouTube continues to retain watch and search history information despite the change in the settings. I still see highly personalized recommendations which can sometimes be distracting.
Blocking YouTube Entirely
You can block YouTube, Facebook, and other distracting web sites or applications entirely by using software such as SelfControl, ColdTurkey, and other competing products. These can be configured to block access to the web site or software application (such as a game) on your computer for certain periods of time such as during the work day (9 AM to 5PM for example).
One of the problems with blocking web sites is that YouTube has lectures, technical presentations, sales presentations, and other content that is genuinely useful at work. Facebook, on the other hand, is usually entirely a personal activity and blocking it during work is not a problem for most people unless your work involves Facebook.
The Race to the Bottom of the Brain Stem
What YouTube specifically and many other social media services (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) appear to be doing, whether by design or somewhat unwittingly, is what former Google engineer Tristan Harris has labeled as “the race to the bottom of the brain stem.” In practical terms, they are using “Big Data” and machine learning algorithms to identify highly emotional topics that “push our buttons,” that invoke primal impulses such as “fight or flight” that override our higher cognitive function. That gets us to click and watch videos of little or no real value.
The primal impulses are nothing new. They include such hot button topics as:
- Interpersonal Conflict
- Our personal and group sense of identity
- Religion and spirituality
For example, if you are a heterosexual guy it is almost certain if YouTube pushes a thumbnail of a pretty scantily clad young woman, you will have an emotional response and be distracted regardless of your higher cognitive function — and often click and watch. If you are a heterosexual woman, you probably will have the same reaction to a scantily clad athletic young man. Music videos, a popular YouTube video category, in particular exploit this a lot.
In fact, much of the mock drama on YouTube seems to incorporate many of these hot button topics in a single video. And people watch.
Many other social media sites are doing the same thing or something similar. We even have a President who clearly practices this sort of emotional hot button pushing on Twitter, on cable and broadcast TV, and on YouTube.
Violence and interpersonal conflict in particular invoke the powerful and often short-sighted fight or flight response.
Waiting for greedy, short-sighted corporations or politicians to fix this emotional hot button pushing problem is unlikely to succeed. Government action is also difficult to reconcile with the ideal of a free press.
People — customers, consumers — need to look out for themselves, reduce the distractions, and find effective ways to insulate themselves from the emotional hot button pushing.
Why Primal Impulses Override Our Higher Cognitive Function
Primal impulses override our higher cognitive function for good reasons. The example that is often given is our ancestors thousands of years ago encountering a major predator such as a tiger or bear. There is no time for higher cognitive function. The fight or flight response kicks in and, in this case correctly, overrides and even shuts down our capacity for careful, time consuming analysis.
A more relevant modern example is handling a car accident or near car accident. There just isn’t time to perform an in depth rational analysis of what is happening. The driver needs to react immediately. In a serious car accident, hitting the brakes or turning sharply — a flight response — can be the difference between life and death.
The problem is that in the modern world we are often confronted with threats or emotional stimuli that don’t in fact require an immediate emotional response. They often require careful thought. Nonetheless, the primal instincts can take over completely. High intelligence, education is often not an adequate defense. The response is fast and instinctive as it needs to be in a car accident.
YouTube, other social media services, and other new technologies are rapidly developing greater and greater ability to invoke these primal impulses, overriding the higher cognitive function of even highly intelligent, educated, experienced people. An immediate consequence is high levels of distraction and wasted time. More serious consequences could include stoking conflicts and starting a major war, even a nuclear war.
A Better YouTube?
YouTube is funded primarily by advertising which creates a strong perverse financial incentive for the emotional hot button pushing and the distraction. The more advertising you watch, the more money they make.
A YouTube or YouTube competitor funded by short free sample videos and micro-payments for longer, more in depth content could avoid this perverse financial incentive and probably make more money. By most accounts, YouTube is not profitable and seems to be struggling to find a viable business model.
My personal impression from using YouTube is that advertising on YouTube is mostly ineffective. I go to YouTube for the content, either “how to” information or entertainment. I don’t go to YouTube for the advertising and generally ignore it. My educated guess is most YouTube viewers are the same although I am well past the main age demographic of YouTube viewers.
I would be willing to pay directly for some of the content, but typically not short few minute videos or low quality content. I don’t like subscriptions since they often prove expensive and difficult to cancel. My personal unscientific impression based on my personal experience is that free short or lower quality content and micropayments for longer in depth content would bring in more money than advertising.
YouTube uses free samples and micro-payments with movie trailers and one time rental or purchase payments for many movies, but it is clearly not their major source of revenues. In my own experience, I will pay a few dollars to “rent” a movie from YouTube a few times per month. I have never bought something based on a YouTube ad.
YouTube — and many social media services — would be better if the end users had fine grained control over the algorithms in their account settings. There are add on products such as Social Fixer for Facebook that add this to some social media services. Nanny software that enables parents to control or try to control what their children see on the Internet is a related product.
It would be better to be able to configure YouTube to block emotional hot button content except for a few hours per week when you have the time and are prepared to deal with emotional topics.
It is currently possible to reduce the passive distractions from personalized YouTube recommendations on your YouTube Home Page — in my experience a major source of the distractions — by clearing and pausing the watch and search histories in the YouTube Account settings. It is also possible to completely block YouTube using blocking software such SelfControl, ColdTurkey, and many others. I have had pretty good results with these methods.
More generally, it is increasingly important due to the rapidly improving distraction technology to insulate yourself from the emotional hot button pushing on YouTube and many other social media services. It is an on-going battle. YouTube could easily disable the method described in this blog post.
It is important and prudent to evaluate on a monthly or even weekly basis the distractions and emotional hot button pushing from current “technology” including social media services and smartphone operating systems. The distraction technology is improving rapidly.
The distractions are costly in time and productivity and probably have other hidden or difficult to measure costs such as buying something you don’t need, voting for a politician or public policy that is harmful, or getting into an unnecessary conflict with colleagues, friends, or family.
(C) 2018 by John F. McGowan, Ph.D.
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).