Sometime late last year, as I was playing a video game named Dishonored 2, I did a routine YouTube search about how to beat a tricky section of the game. As usual, I found a video to answer my question. But on my next YouTube visit, the site offered me even more compelling Dishonored videos to watch: clips of people playing Dishonored without ever being detected by their enemies; clips where players killed each enemy in highly creative ways; interviews with the game’s creators; whip-smart satirical reviews. I had visited YouTube seeking an answer to my question, and it had revealed a universe.
Soon afterward, I found myself visiting YouTube several times a day. For the most part, I visited without having a specific destination — I had become accustomed to the site serving up something I would like, unprompted. In January, I grew obsessed with a folk-rock band named Pinegrove, and within weeks YouTube was serving me video of seemingly every live performance ever uploaded to its servers. I started cooking more once I got a new apartment this spring, and after searching for how to make a panzanella salad, YouTube quickly introduced me to its battalion of in-house chefs: Byron Talbott, and Serious Eats’ J. Kenji López-Alt, and the Tasty crew, among others.
YouTube has always been useful; since its founding in 2005, it has been a pillar of the internet. But over the past year or so, for me anyway, YouTube had started to seem weirdly good. The site had begun to predict with eerie accuracy what clips I might be interested in — much better than it ever had before. So what changed?
Over the course of 12 years, YouTube has transformed itself from a site driven by search to a destination in its own right. Getting there required hundreds of experiments, a handful of redesigns, and some great leaps forward in the field of artificial intelligence. But what really elevated YouTube was its evolution into a feed.
It can be hard to remember now, but at the beginning YouTube was little more than infrastructure: It offered an easy way to embed video onto other websites, which is where you were most likely to encounter it. As the site grew, YouTube became a place to find archival TV clips, catch up on late-night comedy, and watch the latest viral hits. Along with Wikipedia, YouTube is probably the web’s most notorious rabbit hole. Your coworkers mentioned the Harlem Shake at the water cooler, and so you went to YouTube and watched Harlem Shake videos for the rest of the evening.
Meanwhile, Facebook had invented the defining format of our time: the News Feed, an infinite stream of updates personalized to you based on your interests. The feed took over the consumer internet, from Tumblr to Twitter to Instagram to LinkedIn. YouTube’s early approach to personalization was much more limited: it involved asking users to subscribe to channels. The metaphor was borrowed from television, and had mixed results. A huge subscription push in 2011 had some success, but the average time a person spent watching YouTube stayed flat, according to data from ComScore.
Read more at The Verge.