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Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial?

The YouTube Conundrum

As a public critic of social media, I’m often asked if my concerns extend to YouTube. This is a tricky question.

As I’ve written, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram didn’t offer something fundamentally different than the world wide web that preceded them. Their main contribution was to make this style of online life more accessible and convenient.

My first independently owned and operated web site from the 1990s, for example, required me to learn HTML and upload files to a server at a local ISP using FTP. Ten years later, expressing yourself online became as easy as using your student email address to open an account at, and then answering some questions about your relationship status and favorite movies.

YouTube seems different.

Before it came along, there were not many options for individuals to publish original video content online. Now this can be done for free with the click of a button, which is an important shift. Many content creators I know see the democratization of video as a force that’s shaping up to be as disruptive to traditional media as the preceding arrival of web sites.

And yet, at the same time, many of the people I spoke with while researching Digital Minimalism admitted that idle YouTube browsing is devouring more and more of their discretionary time, and they’re not happy about it.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

The best answer I can come up with for now is both.

On the positive side, video is powerful. Enabling more people to create and publish video will therefore unleash powerful creative innovation. (It will also, of course, enable the creation of more insipid and brain-dulling content as well, but this is an unavoidable feature of any publishing revolution, from Gutenberg onward).

On the negative side, YouTube’s attention economy revenue model, supercharged with statistical recommendation algorithms, creates a browsing experience that can suck you into a powerful vortex of distraction and creeping extremism that cannot possibly be healthy.

A Better Way Forward

Perhaps the best way to emphasize the positives of online video while diminishing its negatives is to deploy a hybrid indie web approach.

Imagine an online world in which people hosted their innovative video on large, big-infrastructure platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, but then embedded the players on their own independent web sites. This would allow users to find interesting new video content by leveraging the same style of decentralized trust hierarchies that structure the blogosphere, instead of relying on artificial statistical algorithms tuned to optimize attention extraction.

Because YouTube came along at exactly the moment when broadband penetration made online video practical, we never had a period of indie experimentation before the market consolidated into platform monopolies. I think it’s worth exploring what we missed.

37 thoughts on “Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial?”

  1. Hey Cal,

    I use Youtube mainly to listen to music while I do chores, when I workout, or during a study break. Does music (with lyrics) create the attention residue that hinders the ability to focus? How much restriction should I place on music so that it does not affect my performance on my deep work habits? Do you listen to music often while doing “shallow” tasks? Any advice would be appreciated.

    Cheers from a huge fan,

    Ivan H.

    • I explored the topic of music and distraction when I was researching DEEP WORK. What seems to be true is that almost any type of music, including lyrical music, can be used to help block out other distractions while you work on something deeper, but this requires practice. I met a fiction writer, for example, who wrote while blasting Metallica through full-ear headphones. He had young kids in his house, and this blocked out all their sound. If I tried doing this tomorrow, the music would be incredibly distracting. But if I practiced working with this type of music I’d eventually learn to block it out, and perhaps even associate it with depth. So it’s all about exposure…

    • Dr. Barbara Oakley has talked about that before and said that the scientific research on the topic is mixed and studies contradict each other. She also said that the only known effect is that lyrical music negatively affects verbal learning such as memorizing things, if I correctly recall.
      I think that you should experiment and decide for yourself. Personally, quiet lyrical music helps me focus but if I increase the volume, it becomes a source of distraction.

    • I’m one of those examples of people who associated deep work with music. In my case, I don’t care for lyrics, since I’m more focused on melodic guitars, so if I listen to some heavy stuff (thrash / deathcore) it’s easier for me to be distracted by some interesting solo or riff (which makes me want to research which song is this, who wrote it, etc.) But in general, its always better to code while some heavy stuff is blasting on my ears than the silence of my office, and even if there’s no one at the office, after so many years needing to listen to heavy music on my earphones, its already associated.

    • I find that listening to lyrical music in a language I don’t understand works well, even better than none lyrical music. It’s as if the audio part of my brain focuses in because it hears human voices, but I don’t understand the words, so the language part of my brain isn’t under load.

  2. I wanted to learn how to crochet a blanket and found the exact thing I needed on YouTube. Same with when I ran into problems with my new sewing machine.. Auto repair, home repair, and product reviews are all very useful things you can find on YouTube.

    There is a lot of drivel so caution is highly warranted, but it’s not the same as social media.

    • I agree, Elspeth, YouTube can be a treasure drove of information: I’ve found everything from crochet patterns to how to change brake rotors to dishwasher repair to… well, the list goes on. YouTube has saved me a lot of money. I find when I go to YouTube with a specific purpose, I don’t (usually) get lost in YouTubelandia.

  3. I’ve used a Chrome extension called DF Tube (Distraction Free for YouTube). And it has helped me drastically reduce the time I spend on YouTube and increase the quality I spent on it.

    Basically, you can select options so that you can only see the Subscriptions tab on YouTube.

    This way, I know it’s content I want to watch. And I am not getting sucked into by YouTube algorithm.

    Now if only I could do it on my phone…

  4. [Do comments get filtered out for using a lot of carriage returns? Mine don’t get posted when I do that.]
    I think you are comparing two things that don’t have the same function from a user’s perspective. It’s like you’re comparing a DVR and a television. Youtube supports video-browsing behavior – like when you show up at a store and “shop”. Its value, negative or positive, is as a video-browsing service, not a video-hosting service.

    The statistical algorithm is what makes people go to watch Youtube, because they want (or feel compelled) to kill some time, and don’t want to make a lot of selections. It’s like a television, but customized and opaque, and hence even more addictive. The attention economy is what makes people post there, because they want to capture the native traffic on Youtube, which wouldn’t exist if people just made a beeline for the video they wanted and left.

  5. What is the fundamental difference between creating a website and putting text on it, and creating a website and putting a video on it? YouTube no more provides a unique service than Facebook. Before YouTube you could learn html and upload a video to your website. YouTube offers a centralized, easy way to discover that video – so ease of access. I don’t see the difference?

  6. Great points. I play YouTube videos when doing housework or fixing a meal. It provides background noise for me. I also use YouTube to listen to music on occasion when I am working. That being said, I find it easy to get distracted by YouTube when videos appear for which I have no interest. I will have to make certain that I whittle down my subscriptions or notifications on YouTube.

  7. Michael, the *free* part is different. If I wanted to, I could set up a Youtube channel and post and keep up there 100 videos for free, even if (somehow) they averaged 10 millions views each per year. I can’t do that for free by any other means that isn’t a clone of Youtube. The free aspect also makes it vastly easier for me to do so anonymously.

  8. Because the “Suggestions” algorithm, comments, and general UI is so distracting, I tend to avoid using YouTube in the browser as much as possible. I add videos I want to watch to a playlist and later stream the playlist on my Raspberry Pi using OSMC (or, Kodi). This completely strips away the YouTube UI, and I focus entirely on what I’m watching.

  9. There are things that YouTube is great for. For example, it may be more efficient watching someone demonstrate how to perform a proper squat or deadlift than trying to read about it through a manual. I found that for some things the written word does not do as good of a job as video even though I greatly enjoy reading.

  10. I nearly always find video disruptive, so I use the “Watch Later” feature every time I come across something that seems worthwhile on YouTube, rather than watching it immediately. I then timeblock times to catch up. Sometimes when I get to the list, the videos are no longer interesting or relevant, so in combination it means that my watching time is minimal and productive.

  11. Thanks for this post. It made me think of how sometimes things don’t fit neatly into single categories but can blur the lines, in a general sense. I do know how easy it is for me to get sucked into YouTube’s video vortex. I am afraid to let my kids have free access to it. Or to the web in general. I’ll think about this more. As always, I appreciate your work, Cal! Eager for your new book in February. Take care!

  12. You have to admit that you owe a great deal of your success to the popularity of a certain TedX video on YouTube that now has 4.8 million views. For those interested, search “quit social media” in the YouTube search window and Cal’s video is at the top.

  13. I used a simple solution to avoid distraction on Youtube: I bookmarked my subscription page so that I see only videos from those who I follow. This avoids stupid “recommended for you” videos. Not the best, but it works.

  14. From a content creators perspective, I think Youtube is a great platform! And yes, an indie web approach sounds very reasonable. It works well for me as a consumer, not just while using youtube, but other content too. I think of it as having human filters rather than a machine filter, or myself doing the grunt work of filtering what I will and will not consume on a regular basis.

    Also, as a consumer, Youtube does a poor job of discovering new music that I would like despite its parent company being one of the front-runners of machine learning algorithms. It just meanders its way to the same old liked playlists even when I start off with a different genre altogether. So, there too, having an outside network – both as a creator and consumer is expected to yield better dividends and diversity.

  15. Hi, it’s a good read on the influence of youtube, but isn’t youtube also a source of distraction? isn’t it also something we use to distract the mind when we get bored? Yes we do start with maybe an educational video but as per experience due to the youtube next up and recommendations etc doesnt it actually distract us into looking at more and more videos which are not that important? How do i/we get out from this? how do you stop this from happening?

  16. Hosting on a large platform itself can present problems. Let me suggest a better way: blockchain and new peer-to-peer internet protocol, along with cleverly designed incentive mechanism. People have been working on this solution for years, it is called LBRY:

  17. I’ve recently had to curb my YouTube wormhole activity. I found myself spending more time clicking through videos that I wasn’t especially interested in for hours on end.

    Then, a couple of weeks ago, I made myself keep a journal of my YouTube viewing habits. Before I clicked on a video I had to write about why I wanted to watch it and what I expected from it. Then, after watching, I’d write about whether the video met my expectations and how I felt after watching it.

    Now I hardly spend time on YouTube and have unsubscribed from a number of channels that I only followed from habit or even muscle memory. I still watch the odd video but do so with much more attention and tend not to click through links or let the next video autoplay afterwards. It’s early days but I currently feel quite smug about myself.

  18. A tip for anyone who enjoys particular YouTube channels but doesn’t want to be sucked into watching a stream of time-waster videos all day:

    YouTube uses RSS, so you can subscribe to the channels through an app like Feedly rather than actually going to the YouTube site. This way you can experience new videos as stand-alone items rather than exposing yourself to the distractions of YouTube as a whole. The specific videos you want come to you alongside entries from your favorite blogs.

    There are also ways to get individual Instagram feeds into Feedly (though this requires a little tinkering, and they have to be public accounts). So if you don’t use social media yourself but want to see posts from particular friends, you can do so. The photos show up just like blog entries.

  19. Hey Cal and readers,
    I am a YouTube junkie and have been struggling to find a balance between getting the videos I care about and avoiding YouTube binges.

    What I have found to work during the last few months is using an RSS reader as my only means of accessing the content I care about. Turns out, **you can pull a feed directly off of a channel’s page into your RSS reader, creating your own personalized “indie video showcase”**.

    Essentially, this makes sure that I don’t miss out on things that I find meaningful, while at the same time preventing time-sucking YouTube Spirals of Doom.

    Though this would help a few people,

  20. I’m in love with YouTube ! I have been spending the last 10 years to fall asleep binge watching all kinds of documentaries on it : History, Philosophy, Physics, Maths (which I hated when I was a kid), Religion … And it’s also a great resources for my classes.

    I mean of course sometimes the quality is debatable, but like for everything else you learn how to keep a critical mind.

  21. I have to approach Youtube (trying to 🙂 ) in the same way as confronting grocery store shelves when shopping. There is so much junk. But, there is also so many healthy things to eat. I am trying to develop a standard of what I feel is healthy and then train my algorithms to feed that. It’s easy to slip. But, The focal points and goals are helping me to use it as a tool.


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