Like, Comment, Subscribe: How YouTube Conquered the World

Here are some highlights from this new book:

* An annoyed viewer once called into YouTube’s office line and left a voice mail. “I need to goddamn masturbate, and I can’t do that when you don’t have all those videos up,” he shouted into the phone. “Get your shit together, you goddamn whores.”

* Schaffer had set a cheeky placard above his desk after YouTube received multiple requests from German officials. (Germany had strict laws against displaying Nazi imagery, but YouTube, which had no office there, didn’t have to comply.) The placard read, do not appease the germans. It came down after Levine hosted a group of German record executives who did not get the joke.
But one of Levine’s strangest cases came after less than two weeks on the job. PETA, the animal rights group, suddenly demanded YouTube remove a video of a truck running over a fish.

* But growth required keeping people motivated to upload. Revver, a rival amateur video site, paid uploaders, and popular YouTubers sometimes touted this fact in videos.

* Google’s leaders openly chafed at Bush’s Patriot Act and began flaunting the company’s liberal California bona fides more often. The summer Stapleton joined, Google made the largest-ever corporate purchase of solar panels for its campus. As Google expanded, TGIF became a place for the company to recite and reinforce its values. During one TGIF that fall Al Gore dialed in on the very day he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work. “I heard that you won something today,” Brin mused. “We all feel grateful to you.” Googlers erupted in applause.

* Much of Google’s political identity was formed in opposition to the Machiavellian moralism of the Bush-Cheney era. Google coined a company creed in its early years—“Don’t be evil”—a corporate slogan for a company that hated slogans. It was meant to combat concerns that Google would do nefarious things with intimate details it had gathered from users’ internet searches. In practice the motto stood for Google’s steadfast belief that the internet was inherently a force for good. In 2006 the company brought search to mainland China, justifying requirements to censor results for queries like “Tiananmen Square” with an argument that the World Wide Web, even missing some pieces, would loosen China’s autocratic grip.
YouTube began working on a version of its site for China under similar restrictions. Steve Chen, the co-founder born in Taiwan, voted for it. (“If we need to get into Thailand, then respect the royalty,” he argued. “If we get into China, follow the rules.”) But operational complications and opposition from other colleagues buried the project.
Overall people at Google saw themselves as proud objectors to government censors, when feasible. For Wong, the Decider, this was relatively easy at first. Search sent people elsewhere on the web, and Google could plausibly distance itself from sites that it only indexed and linked to. That grew trickier in 2003 when Google bought Blogger, a software tool that made web diaries a cinch and turned Google into the owner of a mountain of online content. Still, Blogger was manageable. Lawyers could parse written text quickly, and people in one country usually wrote and read entries in one language. Thai bloggers blogged in Thai, Greeks in Greek. So Google’s lawyers developed a system to track legal risks according to nationalities.
Then YouTube mucked it all up. The sprawling, Babelian video site made internet governance nearly impossible, particularly as it expanded across the globe. Suddenly Greek soccer fans could make a video mocking the founder of modern Turkey to taunt their hostile neighbors. Which is exactly what happened in March 2007.

* Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor, offered a different formulation on Google’s rising power as primary gatekeeper and moderator of speech around the world. “To love Google, you have to be a little bit of a monarchist,” he told the newspaper. “You have to have faith in the way people traditionally felt about the king.”

* Videos intended to “maliciously spread hate against a protected group” were to come down; those touting “bigoted views” as commentary (for example, Andrew Dice Clay or Ann Coulter) should be marked as “Racy.”
Locating and drawing such lines was never easy or unanimous. Moderators once found an account of a man ranting in his room about kosher food. He was preaching a fringe, anti-Semitic conspiracy accusing rabbis of enriching themselves from a “kosher tax,” but YouTube staff didn’t think the man directly slandered Jews.

* Google also brought orders and demands that, for some on the YouTube SQUAD, came off as prudish, classist, or just ludicrous. There were dead-serious requests for YouTube to remove any video that “glorified” illegal activity, including those showing graffiti, flamethrowers, and driving above the speed limit. Google salesmen wanted videos scrubbed that offended certain advertisers. Once, an entire staff meeting was devoted to addressing “booty-shaking videos.”
Requests varied by geography. Brits were okay with sex but berated YouTube for hooliganism. The British culture secretary demanded the site place warning labels on clips with foul language.

* A few YouTubers did find something that worked: long daily talk shows, like on AM radio—a format soon to explode.

* In hindsight many involved would spot the flaws in letting millions broadcast themselves with Google’s backing and virtually no checks. A few people at YouTube later said they had proposed thresholds for running ads, like getting a certain number of viewership hours. Dean Gilbert, the content division chief, repeated his mantra that “not all pixels are the same,” arguing that different categories of footage demanded different ad rates. But the level playing field argument won.
And in hindsight some recalled other missteps. The company didn’t measure the percentage of watch time that came from videos viewers flagged as inappropriate or undesirable. While preparing to expand its ads program, staff didn’t hold lengthy debates over who should have a right to “monetize.”

* Russia Today, a TV network funded by the Kremlin, excelled at it on YouTube, mixing political coverage with tantalizing clickbait clips of cute animals, car crashes, and couples caught having public sex. (That algorithmic alchemy helped Russia Today climb YouTube’s charts for years, without much worry from the company, until Russian politics became radioactive.)

* Fans knew one of the site’s staples simply as Stef. This balding, stocky, avuncular Canadian, with an accent hinting of Irish roots, talked about his sad childhood, about dating and marriage, about big, serious topics—he could talk about anything—speaking directly to young, disaffected men going through hard times, promising them lights at the end of their tunnels. They listened.
Stefan Molyneux, a former IT businessman, had refashioned himself in his late thirties as a grandiloquent guru. Like others who made money from computers in the dot-com boom, he wore loose polos and enjoyed the sound of his own voice. In 2005 he began Freedomain Radio, a podcast and a movement. He joined YouTube soon thereafter, posting videos with search engine boilerplate, such as “An Introduction to Philosophy,” and self-help-style lectures à la Tony Robbins, many over one or two hours long. Years later, after the financial crisis, Molyneux spoke about the economic pain and anomie in its wake. “College students have a damn right to be depressed,” he told viewers. “Their society is unsustainable.” He delivered his lectures framed as commentary on Harry Potter and Star Wars . Some viewers were captivated equally by his worldview and by slices of personal life he shared. Caleb Cain, a college dropout in West Virginia who liked the Dead Kennedys and Michael Moore documentaries, discovered Molyneux in his YouTube sidebar and admired the domestic bliss the guru spoke of with his wife and daughter. I want all that stuff , Cain told himself. If I just watch more and more, I’ll be like Stef .
Molyneux didn’t start on YouTube as especially political. If the subject came up, he was a libertarian or an “anarcho-capitalist.” But politics started to creep in, particularly after America elected a Black president.
Stefan Molyneux: “The Story of Your Enslavement.” April 17, 2010. 13:09.
It appears to be a documentary about human nature and economics, with soft fades and archival footage. It is a diatribe. Molyneux narrates a textbook history lesson on how slavery evolved to modern society, before delivering his punch. “Nothing could be further from the reality,” he tells us. Images appear of caged animals. “In your country, your tax farm”—this he spits out—“your farmer grants you certain freedoms, not because he cares about your liberties, but because he wants to increase his profits.” Camera cuts to a Tea Party protest, where a poster shows President Obama above the word “Fascism.” “Are you beginning to see,” Molyneux asks, “the nature of the cage you were born into?”
By then Molyneux had already concerned some parents. Barbara Weed, a British councillor, grew alarmed when her son suddenly left home, leaving only a note that said, “Please do not contact me.” Weed discovered he had joined others in following podcast advice from Molyneux to abandon their family of origin—to “deFOO,” he called it—if they were unable to work through problems with therapy or other means. Molyneux and his wife, a therapist named Christina Papadopoulos, preached this online and at gatherings at their home. (A Canadian psychology board later reprimanded Papadopoulos for professional misconduct.) They invited listeners to donate for special courses not on YouTube, offering a $500 fan subscriber level called “ Philosopher King.” As early as 2008, when Weed went public with her story, newspapers used the word “cult” in their coverage of Molyneux.
YouTube had no rules in place to investigate what its creators did off its site. With so many people uploading, it could barely police its own backyard. But systems like Dallas made YouTube much more adept at raking in ad money for its broadcasters, and, back then, the company tended to give all creators equal access to its bounty.
This was well before aggrieved men online were considered an unstoppable political force, though signs were appearing. “I’m sure a few marriages broke up because of feminism,” Molyneux told a Canadian reporter in 2008. “It doesn’t make feminism a cult.”

[LF: I’ve never met anyone who liked the sound of their own voice.]

* YouTube, media dictated by the masses and made for dirt cheap, was the future of entertainment.

* …an undercurrent of ugly misogyny that now boiled over. As early as 2011, the Amazing Atheist, a popular skeptic vlogger, posted clips on the “failure of feminism” and went off on “cackling cunts” on daytime TV. “Stop whining, will you,” Richard Dawkins wrote in response to a woman’s video diary of an uncomfortable sexual encounter. Wynn watched YouTubers like the creationist spoofer Thunderf00t begin to spoof women. YouTube recommended clips to Sherratt from Sargon of Akkad, a windbag Brit who called feminism “a toxic, sick ideology.” Sherratt found the YouTuber’s rage amusing and cathartic. He started a YouTube channel (handle: Spinosaurus Kin) and made videos with titles like “Feminism Is Terrorism,” flamboyant stuff people might watch out of curiosity or anger. An infuriated view was still a view. Once he got to college, he started to appear in British tabloids as the face of a new men’s rights movement, wearing a leather jacket and a light scowl, a proud virgin steering clear of women to avoid false charges of rape.

* Molyneux, the guru, turned sharper, angrier. He began a series of shows called “True News,” borrowing Limbaugh’s proven tactic of framing himself as loyal opposition to the mainstream media. Molyneux posted frequent clips titled “The Truth About . . .” About Karl Marx. Israel and Palestine. Martin Luther King Jr. The Ferguson riots. About Frozen and about Wonder Woman . (Both movies were Trojan horses for feminist agendas.) The media, he said, enforced this by putting “the SJW thumbscrews right up the urethra, right into your balls.” For his fans, who called him Stef, this message was compelling. “I was chasing truth,” Cain, his loyal viewer, recalled later. “And Stef said, ‘Here, look at this cave. There’s knowledge down there. The truth is down there.’ ”
In 2013 the George Zimmerman trial began, a case that gripped the nation. Googlers staged their own “hoodie march,” the nationwide protests that occurred on behalf of Trayvon Martin, the slain Florida teen. On YouTube Molyneux posted a thirty-five-minute video in his signature style: “The Truth About George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.” He used Zimmerman’s testimony, later disputed in court, to demonize the media, single Black mothers, and rap music. In other videos Molyneux spoke about racial differences in IQ, leaning on a euphemism called “race realism,” a dog whistle for eugenics. He became obsessed with the refugee crisis, which he called “the burying of Europe,” and joined others on YouTube’s right flank in decrying a “replacement rate” from Muslim migration. “I don’t know if the birth rate has gone so far down in Europe that none of these politicians give a shit about the kind of world that their children are going to have to grow up in,” Molyneux raged in one video, staring straight into the camera. “But I do. I do.”

* Stefan Molyneux, the self-help guru, began a series in January called “The Untruth About Donald Trump.” With Trump, YouTubers like Molyneux, who thrived on attacking media and other mainline institutions, had a powerful ally and great material. In Molyneux’s new video series, he cataloged all the press “misrepresentations” of Trump. Each Molyneux video ran more than an hour. In the first, he correctly noted Trump’s success in manipulating news cycles, before defending the candidate’s views on immigration, women, and a litany of other positions. These videos did not target Trump’s political opponents. “The big lesson here,” Molyneux declared, staring at viewers, “don’t let anyone tell you how to think or feel. Don’t let me do it. Don’t let anyone else do it. And in particular, don’t let the mainstream media do it. They’re not trying to inform you. They’re trying to control you.” These episodes did well on Reddit, where a ferocious force of Trump loyalists gathered. Later that year, Molyneux hosted authors the Southern Poverty Law Center described, respectively, as a “eugenicist” and an editor of a “white nationalist” publication.

* Newcomers were soon drawn into YouTube’s alt-right orbit. Like other YouTube subcultures, they made cameos in each other’s videos and posted replies and debates. They exploited search. A later study showed that a clip featuring Yiannopoulos “persistently” ranked atop YouTube search results for the term “Gamergate” in the summer of 2016. Searches for “Islam,” “Syria,” and “refugees” also spat back videos from alt-right YouTubers.
Bomb hurlers like Yiannopoulos began preaching on behalf of Brexit. Then these YouTubers started leaning more heavily on the ills of refugees.

* PragerU, a conservative advocacy group backed by fracking industry magnates, charged the company with restricting its videos on the Ten Commandments and other biblical topics. YouTube convened another listening session in its New York studio, inviting representatives from PragerU and a few dozen other conservative YouTube channels.

* YouTube tried to salvage any damage to its brand. The company arranged a call with Kjellberg; YouTube’s policy chief, Juniper Downs; and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a prominent Jewish group. During the call ADL staff explained that extremists they tracked used anti-Semitic humor online to justify real violence, and simply casting the material as memes disavowed any responsibility. The group suggested Kjellberg make a public donation or apology to Jewish groups, perhaps a video about tolerance.
One person on the call remembered Kjellberg staying mostly silent, like a bored schoolboy at the principal’s office. Nothing came of the meeting.

* Almost all of YouTube’s largest advertisers were boycotting the site… P&G joined Starbucks, AT&T, Walmart, and dozens of YouTube’s biggest advertisers in halting ad-buying until YouTube could offer “brand safety,” a guarantee that their businesses wouldn’t appear in newspaper reports as sponsors of terrorists or neo-Nazis… YouTube forfeited close to $2 billion in revenue.

* Certainly some viewers also didn’t register dissatisfaction the following January when they watched a livestream debate between Sargon of Akkad, who played a “classical liberal,” and Richard Spencer, an avowed white nationalist. YouTube had placed a “Trending” tab at the top of its home page, an algorithmic collection of red-hot clips, and for a brief moment that month this debate was the No. 1 Trending video.
YouTube would eventually bar flat-earth videos and debates like that from its promotional system as “harmful.”

* James Damore, a mid-level Google programmer, sent around a ten-page memorandum titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.” Conservatives at Google felt “alienated,” Damore wrote, though his central argument was that diversity hiring goals were bunk because they did not comport with his read of the science on gender. He submitted his essay first via “skeptics,” a company listserv known for touching third-rail topics. By August his memo had spread company-wide and leaked out. During the summer doldrums it was treated as very big news. Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, who was on vacation once this scandal boiled over, dismissed Damore, further fanning the flames.
A lurid culture war, seeded on talk radio and cable TV and then ripened on YouTube, had now landed inside Google.
Newspapers and TV stations clamored for an interview with the canned programmer. Damore granted his first two to his favorite YouTubers: Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor who courted controversy and had a huge YouTube following, and Stef.

* Damore’s memo was filled with references to evolutionary psychology, an academic minefield that Molyneux loved. Once examined, though, Damore’s analysis fell apart—“at best politically naive and at worst dangerous,” Wired wrote. A researcher Damore cited called his claims on sex differences “a huge stretch.” Google was also facing a fresh federal investigation into “systemic compensation disparities against women” at the company. Damore’s memo certainly didn’t help.
To distance the company from it, Google deployed Susan Wojcicki. She wrote a note to YouTube staff, which the company shared publicly. It began with a question her daughter posed: “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”
This question had “weighed heavily” on Wojcicki for her entire career, she continued, noting how reading the memo resurfaced pain. Yes, Google supported free speech, “but while people may have a right to express their beliefs in public,” Wojcicki wrote, “that does not mean companies cannot take action when women are subjected to comments that perpetuate negative stereotypes about them based on their gender.” To female creators who had been subjected to negative comments over and over again on Wojcicki’s platform, this line from the CEO probably sounded tone deaf. In a subsequent interview Wojcicki was asked about Damore’s appearances on YouTube. “That’s fine,” she said. “We enable a broad, broad range of topics to be discussed, from all different points of view.”

* YouTube would now factor in what its creators did off its site, including things like [Jake] Paul’s tweet, and it would tighten rules for what appeared on-screen. Pranks would be no-goes based on how easily a teen could repeat them at home, Bennett explained. Videos featuring setting household fires or popping Tide pods would be removed, though hard-to-replicate stunts like skydiving were still okay. (Paul would later do this on YouTube, naked.) Also, YouTube was, in a first for the company, temporarily removing ads from Paul’s entire channel as punishment.

* The prior fall YouTube had adjusted its algorithm to surface “more authoritative” news channels. Yet Chaslot’s research pinpointed a glitch in its mechanics. “Typically when news breaks, people write stories about it,” Johanna Wright, a YouTube executive, told the Journal . “They don’t make videos about it.” Cable outlets waited hours or days to post on YouTube, if at all. Accounts like Styxhexenhammer666 did not wait. Ugly stuff on YouTube’s Long Tail rushed to the Head. Google knew this phenomenon because it had already been burned by it. Engineers would cite a classic example: Obama birtherism, the racist conspiracy that Trump rode into a political career. People who believed in Obama’s legitimate citizenry did not write stories about it. People who disbelieved it (or found grift claiming so) certainly did, pushing their links to the top of Google. Staff called these rare, exploitable holes “data voids” or “evil unicorns” and rushed to patch them after the 2016 election, when a top result under Google searches for “who won the popular vote” momentarily showed an anonymous blog that falsely claimed Trump did.

* Wojcicki also introduced a term she had begun using frequently at YouTube. Its algorithms favored watch time, daily viewers, and satisfaction, but they had added a fourth metric. “We’re starting to build in that concept of responsibility ,” she told Thompson. “We’re still in the process of figuring out exactly what that means.” When the interview ended, one YouTube staffer in attendance privately felt relieved that the Wired editor didn’t pull up searches on YouTube like “flu vaccine,” which were rife with conspiracies. Another person on YouTube’s policy team later said that Wojcicki argued against limiting such videos, citing friends of hers who subscribed to alternative health beliefs that shunned vaccines—a stance she changed once a global pandemic struck.

* A tech conference had invited Wojcicki to speak; she wouldn’t attend unless the conference added armed security.

* The shooting reminded everyone at YouTube of the gravity of their responsibilities—how they controlled a system that had paid millions of people, giving them a stage with few rules and limitations, and then had swiftly taken much of that away.

* Only Google salespeople could see that RT was also a major YouTube advertiser, spending loads to promote its videos in several channels and markets. European YouTube officials met privately with RT leaders to nurture the relationship. As Russia tightened its grip on internet censorship, Google worried that the nation might follow China and oust it. “We couldn’t afford to lose Russia,” a former sales director recalled. YouTube’s Kyncl flew to Russia in 2013 on a goodwill tour to court broadcasters. He appeared on an RT segment to celebrate the network’s milestone of one billion YouTube views, praising RT for being “authentic” and not pushing “agendas or propaganda.”

* During the summer of 2018, Stefan Molyneux went on tour. The guru paired with Lauren Southern, a younger Canadian YouTuber and alt-right staple known for her disdain of multiculturalism and her self-described “gonzo” confrontations with feminists. Trump’s White House had given her a press pass. A reporter who visited her Toronto home that July described her walls as bare, save for a plaque from YouTube congratulating her on 100,000 subscribers. In Sydney that month Molyneux and Southern spoke to a fully booked auditorium. Australian regional governments had recently proposed treaties with Indigenous populations, sparking a national debate. Molyneux, who then had around 800,000 YouTube subscribers, reportedly told the audience such treaties were unnecessary because Aboriginal peoples sat at “ the lowest rungs of civilization.”
In August the YouTubers arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, where their venue, a well-known music hall, canceled their appearance. This played well to their posture as defiant free-speech radicals, and the pair spoke to the TV station Newshub about the saga.
Newshub: “Full interview: Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux.” August 3, 2018. 13:46.
“This country is known as a melting pot,” begins Patrick Gower, the TV anchor. He asks his guests how his nation should receive their message that diversity is a “weakness.” How great is that melting pot, Southern asks, if it runs “against everything that has created the most beautiful culture in the world: the West”? Gower, stunned, pauses for a few moments. He turns to ask Molyneux about his position that some races are genetically weaker than others. “Never said that,” Molyneux replies. He is in his element, an argument. “The most established metric in social science is IQ,” the YouTuber says. Mid-speech, Gower cuts him off, justifying his interruption by calling Molyneux’s claims a “rant.” “I was thinking of the audience,” Gower says. “Oh, trust me,” Molyneux replies. “The audience is very interested in what we have to say.”
After the TV station posted the interview on YouTube, a YouTuber who marketed his channel as a place to “learn the advanced social skills you need to get what you want out of life,” uploaded his commentary on the exchange. “Brutal!” the video title read. “Stefan Molyneux & Lauren Southern DESTROY Patrick Gower (Body Language Breakdown).” Soon, that video nearly doubled the original’s view count.

* Major decisions never pleased everyone, and YouTube began to accept this. “There are no right or wrong answers,” O’Connor said. “There are just trade-offs.”

* The company earmarked $100 million for Black creators. Most took the money.
But not all. On June 2, the YouTube director Malik Ducard reached out to Akilah Hughes about the fund. Hughes, who had spent more than a third of her life on the site, had not posted for over a year. Since then she had taken TV roles and begun podcasting, an increasingly popular format for online creators. She felt little residual warmth for YouTube. After the vlogger Carl Benjamin, a.k.a. Sargon of Akkad, repurposed her 2016 election video, Hughes sued him for copyright infringement. She lost. Hughes referred to Benjamin as a “white supremacist”; Benjamin denied being one. Several YouTubers weighed in on the case, and Hughes felt inundated with invective online. She heard nothing from YouTube staff during the episode and concluded that they didn’t care. Only now, when every Fortune 500 was embracing racial justice, did YouTube reach out.
Hughes emailed back, thanked the executive, and then turned blunt. “Until YouTube commits to ridding this site of White Supremacists and their communities we will continue to have desensitized white people killing us,” she wrote. “YouTube is fully complicit in the moment we are in. Run that up to Susan.” Hughes declined the offer. “They want to make a lot of money, where everyone’s safe and fun, like the Disney channel,” Hughes said later about YouTube. “And they want none of the heat for the fact that they have absolutely allowed white supremacy to spread.”
On June 29, a day after Trump called Joe Biden “a Low IQ person” on Twitter, YouTube purged the channels of several inflammatory white men. The purge’s full extent was not specified, but it wiped out such prominent figures as the former Klansman David Duke; Richard Spencer, a white nationalist who once delivered a fiery “Hail Trump” speech; and Stefan Molyneux, who had uploaded thousands of videos to the site over the course of fourteen years. YouTube made no public report or comments to specify which videos violated its rules and how. Molyneux said he received no word from the company explaining the deletion. “ My account was in perfectly good standing before being deleted,” he said later. All the videos simply disappeared.

* In Wynn’s life as ContraPoints, YouTube took its toll. She was doxed repeatedly. She felt the strain of persistent exposure exposure and output familiar to most YouTubers. “Let’s be honest,” she said. “This is not good for anyone’s mental health.” She developed an opioid addiction during the pandemic—and called her YouTube career “a contributing factor.” Wynn earned Google ad money, but most of her work was funded from Patreon, a service that let fans pay creators directly. She never heard from anyone at YouTube.

* You might see your cranky uncle rant about vaccines on Facebook or Twitter, but probably not YouTube. Political content repeatedly topped Facebook’s popularity charts. YouTube was still dominated by music, gaming, and kids’ videos.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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