Know Thy (Digital) Self

Know Thy (Digital) Self
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Picture Credits: Rego Korosi

“The unexamined life is not worth living”. First expressed by Socrates during his trial regarding philosophy, it has since been modernized to mean: reflection is paramount to essential growth. After combing through my YouTube history, I would add ‘But, the examined life may not be worth living, either’.

  As New Years and feeble resolutions came and went, a self-induced thrust into unemployment brought me to the dangerous precipice of free time. Since there’s no pastime like screen time, I decided to dive into my deep well of internet sedation to understand where the hours go. While the internet is not a clinical addiction (not in the DSM-V), the impulses sure feel similar. One major difference being drugs, sex, gambling and the like usually have highs. 

Google allows you to download an archive of your information through their service, Google Takeout. Like my high school yearbook, we’ve yet to reach the point where personal history bypasses cringeworthy for the green pastures of pleasant nostalgia. Every frantic search. Every aimless watch. This looking glass of a feature is littered with the imperishable waste of instant gratification. I downloaded my YouTube search and watch history, exported them to excel, then categorized each.

Between November 7th, 2011 and January 3rd, 2019, I searched YouTube 7,241 times. My watch history oddly only populated back to November 27th, 2016 but included 4,268 videos (on 1,039 searches). In those two plus years, I averaged 1.35 searches and 5.5 watched videos per day (4.11 videos per search). If my rate stayed consistent over those remaining 6,202 searches, I have watched over 29,750 videos in seven years.

I broke my searches into five categories: Nature, Music, Entertainment, Sports, and Other. Entertainment was further divided into Stand Up, SNL, TV, Movies and Other. Sports was separated into Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Football, Soccer and Other. My watch history had an additional category of removed from YouTube.

Conclusions:

  1. A combination of an incredibly effective algorithm and terrible self-control meant I rarely watched only the one video I went to search for. For control freaks with short attention spans, YouTube has far surpassed cables potential. And that suits advertisers just as well. Imagine a Super Bowl party where everyone in the room had simultaneous advertisements based on personal browsing habits.
  2. What’s the average watch to search ratio? Are 4.11 watches per search on the lower or upper end?
  3. I primarily used YouTube for music, until Spotify came along. I signed up for Spotify Premium on November 20th, 2015. I had previously searched for music 2,845 times or 64.5% of my 4,410 YouTube searches.  Post sign-up, music was searched for just 951 out of 2,831 times or 33.5%.  Likewise, 18.4% of my known watches post-Spotify were music. While YouTube won’t be toppled anytime soon, there’s room for specialized services to make headway.
  4. Narrative is as crucial to growing fandom as success. Sport searches jumped from 17.7% pre-Spotify to 35.5% after. It wasn’t the likely suspects of hometown sports. A fruitful Penguins and Steelers decade didn’t fuel my binges.  It was a rediscovering of the joy of soccer that captured my time and imagination. This is in no small part due to 2015/16 being the season Leicester City defied their 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League. Additionally, despite growing up in a basketball-less city, the sport has overtaken baseball. Thanks Pirates ownership.
  5. BBC’s groundbreaking documentaries weren’t enough to bring significant traction to nature videos. I suppose if the demand for animal footage were greater, the more invasive humanity might be on these fragile ecosystems. It is very much a hobby that doesn’t fully translate well to YouTube and that’s, at least partly, a good thing.
  6. Comedy continues to dominate my world. I grew up with the Simpsons, off-kilter movies on Comedy Central, and Mitch Hedberg. My most memorable Bar Mitzvah gift was a seven-DVD best of SNL set.  While the medium changed, the action hasn’t. Of the 1,357 entertainment videos I watched, over eighty percent were comedic.
  7. I wonder what kind of mark I am. What marketing categories do I fall into? In addition to utmost transparency on my history’s travels, I’d like to see who I’m being packaged with. Let’s have that social network. Get me my group of people who aren’t advertised hip clothes with attractive models. No. Show me my people who get the hunched over, acne ridden guy in activewear eating cookies. The shirt that makes you say, ‘Man, I could wear that all week without washing it’.
  8. The watches per day are even more staggering than I realized. Over the 768 days my watch history populated, I visited YouTube on 424 of those days. Meaning, I was watching over ten videos on the days I did watch.
  9. There are significant limitations to my data. After carefully combing through the watch history, it hit me that this account was just one piece. I had a work Gmail / YouTube account that would have been signed in for large parts of a year. Since I’m no longer in the position, the account has been deleted making thousands of searches and watches inaccessible. It’s a sizable asterisk that only magnifies the extent of my habits.
  10. This is a profoundly uncomfortable project which I think makes it worthwhile.

I’m beginning to understand why Takeout and this kind of article isn’t more popular. Why should anyone care about something so obviously personal? Who wants to be confronted with the empty hours of life? Self-scrutiny begets self-help and a borderline addictive vice demands inspection. Even so, that’s not where the apprehension stems from. 

Sure, there’s the soul-crushing revelation seeing considerable free time occupied by activities devoid of intention. These aren’t Ted Talks, online classes or how-to videos. They are The Naked Gun reruns, music rabbit holes, and classic sports moments (“Who do you think you are, I am!” Look it up. Seriously the best). There’s beauty there too. In a productivity obsessed society, modest relaxation still plays an important role and doesn’t need justified. That said, I’ve never been so bluntly confronted by the scale of my own habits, either.   

With social media fostering an environment where a personally curated self takes precedence, it’s abrupt and chilling to see the data without bias. Facebook and Instagram show us the versions of ourselves we want to be seen. YouTube shows us the sides displayed when we go to turn off.  Instead of glamourous photoshop, this history is getting caught naked and wrinkly by the front camera. 

Would I be more relaxed having a refined and growth-oriented YouTube history? Would personalized ads be less of a nuisance if I had disposable income? The trepidation that comes with the research is more nuanced than shame or a broke man bitter at the salesman claiming to have the key to an upgraded self.

Because as of now, jokes on them. Good luck selling shit to an unabashed, frugal man. Jokes on me, I spend far too much time in the video vault.  Chances are, so do you. As of February 2016, over one billion hours of YouTube are watched every day. Every. Day. The scale drives it home. It’s not the lessons from my voluminous data that are unnerving. Those are a dime a dozen and there are better ways to know oneself.  My figures feel precious because they’re mine, but their relation to the whole and the potential usages beyond are the nightmare fuel.

Are there better revenue streams than advertising wherein endless personal data isn’t saved potentially forever? Or maybe the irony is that ads prevent something far more dystopian. If Google doesn’t have advertising and users are unwilling to pay for it, what other purpose can their (and the many others’) tech be used for? Where does that money come from?

Google collects these snapshots (cookies) and so much more in order to further their own creations – current and future, effectively communicate with advertisers, and god knows what else.  It is the elephant in the room; if the room was full of free booze, drugs, and casual sex. Elephants are suddenly uninteresting.  Specific advertising, an efficient algorithm and largely lifeless hours are frustrating, but YouTube is one piece. Every click is part of a digital mosaic which could theoretically be stored then abused forever. This should be obvious anytime you log onto the Internet by now. With YouTube being such an effective and personal escape, I can’t say I ever thought to care.

I remember chatting with a baseball inclined friend about ideas of the afterlife. The bleakest being God is a statistician who presents you with a categorized receipt of your time on Earth to determine your value to Heaven. Replace God, time and Heaven with government, data, and society and embarrassment turns into something far more visceral. For better or for worse, our trust is precariously placed upon tech giants, hoping they put society over company when it matters most. 

We’ve already started to see the sophistication of China’s social credit system. Millions of people have been prevented from going on with their daily life. It’s spreading to dating, employment, travel bans, and Big Data is at the core of it.  Overt procrastination, undesirable searches, anti-government videos suddenly take on a different meaning than advertising fodder. Is America anywhere near this? Probably not, but even in our best-case scenario, stored data only leads to a customized and intuitive internet experience. In the worst, it is a tool easily modified to weapon. May we never lose sight of the data we don’t care to see.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-23/china-bars-millions-from-travel-for-social-credit-offences/10843156

https://www.YouTube.com/yt/about/press/

https://policies.google.com/technologies/ads

Jake Karp

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