An examination of a viral YouTube video reveals a cautionary tale for the news media

This week in digital tools for journalism

July 23, 2019
Category: Tech & Tools

This article originally appeared in Try This! — Tools for Journalism, our newsletter about digital tools. Want bite-sized news, tutorials and ideas about the best digital tools for journalism in your inbox every Monday? Sign up here.

If you have spent time lately perusing any of the 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, you probably came across one that questioned why a reservoir somewhere in the world is smothered in black balls.

That video comes from an educational channel called Veritasium. It has nearly 36 million views. And because so many people watched it in such a short timeframe, YouTube’s algorithms essentially labeled it a must-see and pitched it to just about everyone who visited the site.

Derek Muller, the 36-year-old science communicator behind Veritasium, was perplexed. Why did that video go viral? Why was it on everyone’s recommended video list? And what are those factors doing to the YouTube ecosystem?

I’m obsessed with the plight of the YouTube content creator. Anyone who works with audiences or analytics in any form and in any industry should be. Consider this: Millions of people create work for YouTube every day. Their output is probably the largest on the internet. And many of them are incredibly entrepreneurial, tracking changes in consumer tastes and algorithm biases and responding to them in real time.

For anyone who produces work that is published online, YouTube is a petri dish that we can use to study our own work.

Muller explored his viral success in a later video and ended up with a theory that serves as both a cautionary tale and roadmap for success for all feeders of the internet beast. It goes something like this.

There’s so much content out there that consumers need to use filters and algorithms to find the good stuff. Ideally, the audience decides what’s good and relevant and the filters and algorithms find it for them. But audiences are fickle — their interests can be hard to parse and frequently change. The filters and algorithms try to keep up but are often at least a little off the mark. In the meantime, content creators see what those filters and algorithms are highlighting and what’s doing well — and produce even more of it. This results in a “perverse situation” (Muller’s term) where the algorithm is the content — creators produce work based on the desires of an off-the-mark algorithm.

We see this plenty outside the walls of YouTube. A few years ago, the internet was awash in low-effort listicles and clickbaity, sensational headlines. Then came those zippy cooking videos. Most recently, it’s the race for news outlets and others to highlight bizarre tales from far-flung localities, like those Florida Man stories, which ricochet across websites that have nothing to do with Florida.

Are we publishing things that people actually want? Or are we publishing things that the filters and algorithms want? And how can we actually know?

On YouTube, Muller argues that you break the wheel through the bell button; essentially a subscription that alerts users whenever a creator publishes a new video. That’s probably the answer for the rest of us: paid news subscriptions, memberships, newsletters and other methods of building loyalty.

Muller’s “theory of everything when it comes to YouTube” touches on so many more considerations that are relevant to publishing — why burnout has become such a prominent issue, why some aspects of clickbait have become unavoidable for publishers who want to stay competitive, how creating videos for YouTube is similar to selling newspapers on the street. It’s worth a watch, even if you’ve never touched a video camera.

And as silly as it can be, keep an eye on YouTube, too. What’s growing in that petri dish is also growing around us.

THE MEDIA PALANTIR: Look, I know I just strongly suggested that following algorithm-led trends is the wrong thing to do, but it’s also not helpful to be in the dark. Analytics firm Parse.ly just updated its Currents tool, which analyzes the performance of topics and categories across the publishing industry, to include daily or weekly digests. Users can now get daily or weekly emails about topics, categories, market areas, U.S. states and traffic sources that matter to them. It’s undoubtedly the best way I know to get a 30,000-foot view of what publishers are up to online.

OPIOID DATABASE: From 2006 to 2012, enough prescription pain pills were distributed to my county in Florida to supply each person 61 pills per year. A majority were manufactured by Actavis Pharma and distributed through Walgreens. I got that information in about 15 seconds through a new set of Drug Enforcement Administration data that The Washington Post obtained and then made available for newsrooms, academics and other audiences to use.

EVERYTHING ELSE DATABASE: The internet has liberated countless datasets from dusty filing cabinets and moldy government basements around the world. Unfortunately, it mostly keeps them in siloes with rickety navigation systems. The Accountability Project from the Investigative Reporting Workshop is trying to change that with a tool that lets users search across hundreds of public data sets at once. The project currently includes data about nonprofits, business ownership, licenses, public employees, voter registration and property records, some of which require a free login to view.

ANALOG TOOLS: The summer after I graduated from college, I created and ran a digital magazine for young men. It was sort of like Esquire but with no editing and for people without any money. Social media was around but not quite the behemoth of self-promotion tools that it is now, so I shared the website the best way I knew how — by printing out flyers and leaving them everywhere I went. It worked stupidly well. Which is why I’m not surprised that a quarterly investigative journalism magazine in Belgium is finding success with bright yellow posters. Bookstores that displayed them saw an uplift in magazine sales. The team also plans to use them as a way to gather stories.

NWS IN BRF:

  • Last week I shared a handful of newsletters for journalism job searchers. Deborah Potter wrote back to say that people looking for TV news jobs in management should check out Rick Gevers’ newsletter and website. Others looking for TV jobs can also check out TVjobs.com.
  • Are you sick of Apollo 11 content? Here’s a little more. Time just launched an immersive moon landing experience app in partnership with the Smithsonian. With it, you can watch the moon landing take place in your living room or office.
  • Still not sick of Neil, Buzz and Michael? I created what I think is a pretty handsome landing page for our coverage of Apollo 11 media coverage. We’ve got interviews with Walter Cronkite’s assistant, a first-person account from a newspaper reporter who covered most of the Apollo launches and a behind-the-scenes history of The Onion’s famous take on the moon landing.

Try This! is supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.