On April 8, 2015

The next video

Have you noticed that new feature on YouTube where, once you’ve finished watching a video, a 10-second countdown begins, after which a new video of YouTube’s choosing automatically starts? This audience-retention stratagem was introduced experimentally late last year for randomly targeted users, and apparently it was successful enough to become the new norm.

YouTube’s “autoplay” mimics Netflix’s “post-play,” a similar effort to prey upon potential binge-watchers: when you finish streaming an episode of your favorite TV show, the credit-screen minimizes, and a countdown starts as Netflix prepares to load the next episode in the series—suddenly that tough decision whether to watch one more “Gilmore Girls” or to go to bed (since you have to be up early tomorrow!) has already been made for you.

It’s a devastatingly effective touch of subtle bullying that, however, Netflix has yet to attempt to apply to streaming movies—if the content doesn’t exist within a sequence, it’s hard for them to know what you really want to watch next, and although they have some recommendations, they usually aren’t great, and Netflix seems to recognize this: you actually have to click on the next movie you’re going to watch.

YouTube clips used to end with a gallery of recommended and/or related videos for subsequent consumption, as Netflix’s movies do; the new automatic selection feels a bit more presumptive or even slightly bossy.

But users who treat YouTube chiefly as a music-playing device—which, despite its obviously video-oriented intentions, has been a primary function of the site from the start, since (for legal reasons unknown to anyone) it is the only website on the planet able to provide unlimited, non-subscription-based access to pretty much every song ever recorded—have found the feature useful. By playing one song, you’ve initiated a never-ending chain of semi-related songs, like a Pandora station but with a broader range of content: now you can leave YouTube on in the background while you cook or clean or read the paper.

This works only if YouTube’s next-video algorithm is good at predicting what you want to listen to. The introduction of “autoplay” suggests that YouTube is feeling very good indeed about its recommendation-algorithm, whose intelligence, along with people’s feelings (rational or not) about being told what to do by a website, will determine the ultimate success of this venture.
I’ve been playing around with it, trying to see whether it can anticipate my own intended sequences. If I “watch” the first song from a popular album, will YouTube recognize that the next logical video is the second song from the same album? It depends.

When I watched “The Genesis” by Nas, YouTube correctly linked me to the full album “Illmatic” —as a single track, which meant that I had to listen to “The Genesis” again, but the idea was right. The same thing happened when I listened to “Dumpweed” by Blink-182: the next video was the full album “Enema of the State,” for which “Dumpweed” serves as opener.

Understandably, YouTube seems to recognize the intention behind playing the first track of an album only if that particular track (like “The Genesis”) doesn’t hold much significance except as the first part of the album that contains it. When I played the 1989 smash-hit “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals (also the first track on “The Raw & the Cooked”), the idea YouTube picked up on was not “The Raw & the Cooked” but “smash-hits from the late 1980s,” and the next song I got was “You Can Call Me Al,” presumably because I’d already listened to some Paul Simon earlier.

Speaking of which: when I played Simon’s “The Boy in the Bubble” (the first song from the album “Graceland,” which doesn’t exist as a single track on YouTube), YouTube appropriately linked me to the second song from “Graceland” (the title track). But after that I got “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” the fifth song on the album.

What I would eventually realize is that each video spawns its own recommendation independently, not with any cognizance of its place within a series. The video immediately preceding it is factored in, but not with any greater weight than some other video you watched an hour earlier. Consider the following sequence: I started with Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an old blues song, and then (suitably) got Leadbelly’s “The House of the Rising Sun”—which, however, spawned the Beatles’ cover of “House of the Rising Sun,” which in turn spawned more and more Beatles music. YouTube had lost the original thread, which clearly was blues music: on Pandora, I would never initiate a Leadbelly station and end up stuck on the Beatles.

I also tested “autoplay” for non-music purposes, like watching sports: a Matt Geiger NBA highlight mixtape brought me, impressively, to a Luc Longley documentary—YouTube had correctly identified my interest in underwhelming Caucasian centers from the ‘90s. YouTube also has a number of full feature films available for free streaming: I chose “The Girl Next Door” (a 2004 mainstream teen sex comedy with Emile Hirsch) and was led to “Animal Instincts,” a semi-pornographic straight-to-video release from 1992—not totally appropriate, but not completely disconnected either.

We can assume that YouTube’s main intention behind all this is to cause us to consume more advertisements—if we let the website play forever in the background, we’ll never press “skip” on the commercials. But a lot of people have also pointed out that YouTube now plays more like traditional television (the product it once sought bravely to replace): you turn it on in search of something in particular, but then you let it run, and it feeds you content that you may or may not care about—it never ends, and it doesn’t need you to do anything. This is what “user-friendly” means—requiring less of the user, involving him or her less—and this is what the web used not to be, for better or worse.

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