Can we really make YouTube better?

Consider the following abstract from The challenge of understanding what users want by Kleinberg, Mullainathan and Raghavan:

The gist is this: when you’re on YouTube, you can do one of two things:

  1. You can go down the rabbit hole of watching 57 videos of celebrities farting on camera, which will ultimately cause you to get disgusted with yourself and induce you to delete the YouTube app to hopefully stop your procrastination
  2. You can start watching science videos which are informative, as well as surprisingly fun to watch. You are now hooked on “good” YouTube, and you didn’t even realize that you are now on your 50th animated video on General Relativity.

The authors suggest that there will always exist a direction in the “content manifold” which will increase user engagement, as well as be better for the user. I haven’t read the paper, but this seems wrong to me.

I don’t watch celebrity fart videos because I actually enjoy listening to celebrities fart (or let’s pretend that I don’t, anyway). I do so in a self-destructive daze; because this is the exact opposite of what I should be doing, even if it is not really that enjoyable. Procrastination mostly serves to negate or cancel out the parts of your life that are productive or good for you, and that is most (actually all) of the fun. When you over-indulge in this self-destruction, you get disgusted with yourself, and then switch right back to being productive. We need this balance: making life better for ourselves, and then seeing some of it burn right before our eyes as an expression of our freedom to harm even ourselves. It is this dark part of our psychology that the authors fail to consider. Nothing that is good for us can ever increase user engagement for too long.

Note: This may perhaps sound too simplistic. I use Duolingo everyday, for instance. It is super-fun, engaging, and also good for me. However, the optimal engagement with it is around 10 minutes. I get bored if I try and learn Italian for much longer than that. I am assuming that the authors are talking about retaining user engagement for an hour or more, which becomes impossible unless you throw in some absolute rubbish content at the user.

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Graduate student

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