No loss condition — why YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook own you

“#VoxAdpocalypse”, YouTube’s newest scandal, and Google’s subsequent tightening of the noose around unfriendly content, has people wondering how you kill a giant. A boycott is being suggested, but underlies the biggest issue with taking down Goliath: YouTube does not make money. YouTube has never made money. Google’s parent company Alphabet pays for YouTube out of pocket to control what information it puts in front of you.

In its latest blog post, Google unambiguously declared it manipulates you and intends to continue manipulating you even more aggressively:

In addition to removing videos that violate our policies, we also want to reduce the spread of content that comes right up to the line. In January, we piloted an update of our systems in the U.S. to limit recommendations of borderline content and harmful misinformation, such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, or claiming the earth is flat. We’re looking to bring this updated system to more countries by the end of 2019. Thanks to this change, the number of views this type of content gets from recommendations has dropped by over 50% in the U.S. Our systems are also getting smarter about what types of videos should get this treatment, and we’ll be able to apply it to even more borderline videos moving forward. As we do this, we’ll also start raising up more authoritative content in recommendations, building on the changes we made to news last year. For example, if a user is watching a video that comes close to violating our policies, our systems may include more videos from authoritative sources (like top news channels) in the “watch next” panel.

To summarize: if you watch something Alphabet does not want you to watch, it will start suggesting videos it does want you to watch. They go for the benign and easy example of Flat Earth Theory. If you watch a video about how the Earth is flat, it will propose you watch an ‘authoritative’ video on how that isn’t true. YouTube will start doing this with everything it wants, in accordance to its political objectives, and it will not tell you suggestions are politically motivated when doing so.

Notice that YouTube also says it only targeted Americans with this new algorithm. That is because many foreign countries are more conservative than America, and are more religiously orthodox than America. Russia and eastern Europe in general is very unfriendly towards the LGBT. So, if Russians started noticing efforts to get them to watch pro-gay content on YouTube, it would cause outrage and encourage Yandex (Russia’s Google competitor) to consider opening competing platforms, eating into YouTube’s market share and loosening its grip. The goal is to tailor these suggestions and start shifting thought across nations with respect to the existing beliefs without being apparent.

Google can also tailor these suggestions based on age. With LGBT as an example specifically, many older Slavic people may be completely unwelcoming, but the younger people might not care. See “Elsagate”, a 2017 YouTube scandal. At the time, nameless animation studios were pumping out hundreds of videos, and given titles that would be found by children searching for their favorite shows and characters, or things they’re curious about. Some of these cheap, weird, and often disturbing videos got viewed billions of times by children. So of course, YouTube can know if a viewer is a child, and, with all these ambitions combined, YouTube can use these suggestions to influence different demographics in different countries more effectively without alarming or upsetting older people in those regions.

If Google knows who to put ads in front of to sell product, they know who to put opinions in front of to sell ideas.

Facebook is another contender for a ‘most evil company’ award — not that that is an unpopular opinion after the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed data harvested from Facebook with Facebook’s permission was already being used in U.S. elections. In his apology tours, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been to Congress and the EU to stop talk of breaking up the company and assure people he’s “doing more”. He’s also asking how Facebook can better implement world-wide censorship on ideas to comply with stifling European hatespeech concepts.

I have a Facebook page I only use for helping small businesses do advertising. I use it for nothing else. However, I am continually suggested that I add my old roommate as a friend. We were never on any contracts together, I’ve never written his name online, we’ve never had each other as friends on any platform. However, when I was putting together a server in our living room, he took a picture of me with my device and put it on his Instagram to show it off. I immediately asked him to delete it, which he did, but Instagram had already recognized my face and knew that this man knew me and now suggests I reconnect with him at least once a week.

Unlike YouTube and Twitter, Facebook does make a profit with its advertising, and its advertising is very good. In my experiments with both, Facebook Ads are more precise and more worth their money than Google Ads. Facebook lets you find exactly who you want to put an ad in front of, and enables you to place it at precisely the time you want. This gives you great returns if you do it right. But, as it becomes a more and more publicly reviled enterprise, people are fleeing from the platform — onto other platforms Facebook owns, such as Instagram. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are also both owned by Facebook and are also in the list of top 10 most popular social media services in the world.

Most young people who prefer Instagram to Facebook don’t even know the two collate data, but they feel safer with the illusion of choice and privacy.

Twitter is not owned by large corporations, only profited off advertising for the first time in 2018, and is sustained only by angel investing. Angel investing means a network of millionaires and billionaires pour money into a money sink that its users seem to hate using because Twitter serves their own political objectives.

Twitter admits that it uses complicated mechanisms to determine what information people see. This started with the removal of the chronological timeline. Instead of seeing recent tweets first, now you see information that Twitter wants you to see in the order Twitters prefers you to see it. This is done in the name of convenience, but the practical effect is that targeted individuals do not have their most outspoken fans see their content. The most prolific sharers and likers will not see the tweets, will not engage them, and thereby hurt the targeted individual’s reach. I know this is the case because I follow a huge number of people I do not see any content from unless I visit their timeline, but I do get to see every single thing Ben Shapiro has ever said as soon as he says it.

Gab.com is the main competitor to Twitter, which is painful to even say, because Gab is awful to use and is managed by an imbecile. It’s also had issues with hosting, issues with cloud providers, and issues with payment processing. Twitter’s main rival faces the same issue with monetization that Twitter itself has, but even if it could somehow find a way to financially exist, it would not be permitted to by Mastercard. Payment processors are not obligated to service your customers and their word is final.

Not to mention Gab suffers from what I refer to as the “8chan problem”, or perhaps more succinctly, the “quarantine problem”. If you make a new service just for people banned from an existing service, you will end up with only that audience. What is attractive about Gab to people not banned from Twitter? Absolutely nothing. There is no reason to go there as someone unaffected by Twitter’s censorship, and furthermore, even as someone affected by Twitter’s censorship, I have no reason to go there because I know people there will mostly agree with what I have to say anyways and it will gain no traction outside of that audience.

People banned from Twitter are not just set back, they are banned from the platform for life. Journalist Nick Monroe was banned last week because Twitter discovered he had previously been banned back in 2014. Monroe’s account was inoffensive and mostly just recycling information about ongoing world events. He was a very classic use case for the Twitter service and could easily be avoided if you didn’t like him, but something he said must have made the owners dig up an excuse to obliterate him. Thousands of other people face the same issue, and with the President of the United States using Twitter as his primary means of communicating with the country, Twitter stands only to grow in popularity and cultural significance without those people ever being able to rejoin the conversation.

What’s especially frustrating with Twitter is that it’s mostly just text. YouTube is an incredibly expensive service to run, transferring and storing an inconceivable amount of audiovisual data every second. This is a point in their favor for running it how they want. Twitter, on the other hand, is mostly text. It’s just ideas. There’s little to worry about in terms of bandwidth, storage space, copyright theft, child pornography, gore, and the slew of other problems YouTube has to adequately deal with, which not many corporations other than Alphabet could deal with at all.

The three giants continue to dominate conversation in the country and increasingly around the world. There is little hope in curtailing them. Suggesting Washington D.C. apply a fix may result in those large companies simply moving to Europe where governments will allow them to operate as they please. Many of them already headquarter out of Ireland thanks to significant tax advantages.

The government attempting to fix things itself poses serious risks to the influences around us. Do you trust the FCC to manage your video recommendations and timelines any more than YouTube and Twitter? Do you want to give Trump / Obama / your preferred Antichrist that power?

I think about this every day. Not one day passes where I don’t think about how completely fucked we are, and in that time I see a few possible fixes that might work independently or in conjunction.

Poison #1: Social Media Neutrality Reclassify unprofitable social media sites as a public service. These public services can be used for advertising and data collection, but cannot ban any idea, expression, or person. They cannot attempt to influence users, their views, or politics. Facebook proper is profitable so it can do what it wants, but YouTube, for instance, would either need to deal with the requirements or find a way to become profitable. For YouTube to become profitable, it would essentially need to become Netflix, and then a new and better YouTube can potentially rise from the ashes.

Poison #2: Payment Processor Neutrality I think a lot of problems might resolve themselves if the fear of losing payment processors did not exist. Right now, a huge bottleneck in alternative services is Mastercard/Visa Card. If MC/VC were required by law to process transactions no matter what, it would be far easier to conceive of profitable and fairer alternatives to what exists already. It wouldn’t promise anything, but right now it’s just flat-out impossible.

Poison #3: [Redacted]

With new cryptocurrency and P2P technologies, I am expecting to see successful attempts at making decentralized websites accessible to broader audiences by 2020 that deal with a lot of the issues these centralized services are creating now. There is an entire arena of new issues with that (such as state-level censorship, ISP-level censorship, domain registry censorship, etc), but it’s on the horizon and I’m excited about it.

I’m very doom-and-gloom in general, but I hope 2019 will be the darkest year for the Internet. My gut tells me 2020 will be the start of something new.

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