Today in Tedium: Can an algorithm be seen as a form of speech and help shape your decision-making? This was a key conversation point around a recent case in front of the Supreme Court that struck at the heart of one of the internet’s most important laws, Section 230. The case at hand involved an individual who died in an ISIS terrorist attack in Paris, as well as an argument that YouTube was partly responsible for the attack, because of the way it fed ISIS recruitment videos through its algorithm, something that the plaintiffs suggested could have been a violation of federal terrorism laws. (While the case has yet to be decided, oral arguments did not go well for the plaintiffs.) As a fan of YouTube, I think a lot about my role in helping to shape what the algorithm feeds me. I will remove videos from my recently viewed list if I think, for some reason, looking at a MrBeast video will make it less likely that I’ll see a feed full of retro tech videos. Social media has a way of influencing us to make decisions, after all. But after having spent so much time curating my personal YouTube algorithm, I had an idea: Could I make YouTube only tell me about one very specific thing? And if so, how long would it take? Today’s Tedium discusses how I built a YouTube feed of only Elliott Smith videos. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s title and GIF is a reference to Elliott Smith’s “Baby Britain” music video, which has Smith at one point reading this unusual phrase off a sheet of paper. In a way, we can think of the YouTube algorithm as the “robot hand” he was talking about.
Now, for something a little different. Recently, I released an album on Bandcamp called Limp, a record of all my poorly recorded demos from the mid-late 2000s, some of which were heavily inspired by the subject of today’s issue. I stopped recording music around the time I started blogging, but wanted to honor that time by releasing some of that music. It’s $5. Give it a listen, and thanks as always for reading.
Elliott Smith, Madonna, and the famous video that YouTube forced into my feed
Elliott Smith, who we lost 20 years ago this forthcoming October, is one of the most unique musical voices we had during the indie rock era. He wrote at-times-complex pop songs with an acoustic guitar, eventually expanding his vision as the budgets for his records grew larger.
What made those budgets grow? Well, the name of his most famous song, “Miss Misery,” was literally on the lips of perhaps the biggest female pop star of the 20th century. See, he was nominated for an Oscar in 1997 for a song he wrote for Good Will Hunting, a movie that made Ben Affleck and Matt Damon famous. When the award was announced after Elliott hit the stage in his white suit and sang his modest song with the backing of an orchestra, it was Madonna who announced to television viewers around the world that he didn’t win.
We sadly lost him just a year and a half before Jawed Karim uploaded the first video to YouTube, Me at the zoo. Karim wasn’t going for irony with his 19-second clip. It delivered the promise of the initial video.
Elliott Smith was the perfect kind of artist to flourish on a video service like YouTube. He peaked during an area when MTV still aired music videos, and he had one particularly famous moment, along with a large cult following. He had recently died at the time of YouTube’s launch, and a lot of people still really miss him. He had a great fansite. And he had a lot of unreleased songs, B-sides, and live recordings. If you weren’t a fan of Elliott Smith, YouTube made it really easy to become one.
And while Elliott Smith was far from the only voice on YouTube, it benefited him in much the same way as it did every other legendary musician. His old music videos, which often didn’t get a ton of play on MTV, lived a second life on a platform that he barely missed seeing. People who hadn’t heard of his pre-fame band Heatmiser got a second chance to give them a listen.
But it wasn’t just the officially sanctioned stuff that would appear there: The service would carry his songs widely, through fan recordings of concerts crudely converted from VHS to a digital formats, through covers performed by people of all ages, from teenage girls to old men.
One of those fan recordings? Performed by Madonna. Years after personally announcing that Smith wouldn’t be an Oscar winner on live television, she appeared in a fan-recorded YouTube clip, performing a theater-kid version of another song by Smith that appeared on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, “Between the Bars.”
(A few years later, she did an acoustic take that she performed on Instagram that was later reshared to YouTube. The comments fit into three categories: Those stunned that the cover exists, Madonna fans who hate that she’s doing an acoustic cover, and Elliott Smith fans who have no love for Madonna. As one commenter correctly said, “If Elliott knew one day Madonna would be covering his songs, he would not have believed you lmao.”)
When I tried building my carefully-crated feed of videos that was made up of nothing but Elliott Smith-related content, the video of Elliott Smith performing at the Oscars, of course, came up, which helpfully included Madonna announcing that he lost.
But Madonna’s cover of “Between the Bars” did not appear in my feed on its own, even though said feed did have some notable covers. (Shout-out to Phoebe Bridgers.)
However, Jawed Karim’s video of him at the zoo, the first video in YouTube’s history, did. I was immensely disappointed to see Jawed appear in my feed, actually.
And it was all because I accidentally punctured the filter bubble I built. It was good while it lasted.
A state of ideological isolation that occurs when you’re too stuck within a specific state of search. This term, first developed by writer and former MoveOn.org executive director Eli Pariser in the early 2010s, is often applied to political ideology, particularly in the way that right-leaning content and left-leaning content often were separated from one another in algorithmic feeds. In case you’d like to learn more, Pariser wrote a book on the topic.
My strategy for building a filter bubble
So, starting on this adventure, I had a few theories for how YouTube’s algorithm tends to work:
- The algorithm is designed to reward predictable behavior. If you watch a lot of Sailor Moon content, odds are, you’re going to get Sailor Moon content in return when you load up the home page. This goes both ways, as well: If you run a Mac channel and randomly talk about Windows one day, you might find your traffic takes a nose-dive all of sudden.
- One video can significantly change the whole thing. It sounds surprising, but watching a single video out of the norm can catch YouTube off guard and suddenly make it think that your behavior has changed in a significant way.
- The best way to fight back against the algorithm is to prune. If you watch a video on YouTube and it doesn’t match your tastes, it’s better to remove it from your history than to let it further and more deeply influence your musical choices.
The first two days of the experiment, I listened to every Elliott Smith video and B-side I could find; while there were a lot of fan covers that popped up, I mostly stayed away from them.
I found that covers, in the context of this work, had an interesting influence on the list. When I listened to a song that Elliott was covering, it pushed the artist who did the cover a bit into the feed.
But it wasn’t just that. When I started listening to Smith’s early collaborations with fellow singer-songwriter Mary Lou Lord, it started not only recommending her, but also recommending a lot of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, which makes sense because Lord reportedly had a short, intense relationship with Cobain in the very months he went from obscurity to extreme fame.
But this was an Elliott Smith feed, and as I had done the homework to hone the feed, I now had to start removing things front the front page. That meant I had to do extra feed removals to ensure that Nirvana didn’t appear. Nor any of the unrelated bands, many of which I really liked: Radiohead, No Doubt, Bush, The Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement.
And of course, lots of other content that carried some sort of thin connection appeared, too: Nick Drake was constantly compared to Smith, something that the algorithm clearly picked up, and Big Star appeared because Smith once recorded one of the defining versions of the song “Thirteen.” And of course, Jeff Buckley, who also died in a much-too-soon way, a few years before Smith. And then there were the entries that brought up more uncomfortable connections, particularly Weezer, a fine band that I tend to defend, but whose Rivers Cuomo once dated Jennifer Chiba, Smith’s girlfriend at the time of his passing and often at the center of conspiracy theories about his death. Cuomo had nothing to do with it other than writing a song about wanting to console his ex-girlfriend who had dealt with this horrible tragedy, but it nonetheless brought up weird connections that I was quick to remove.
But gradually, as I removed those, a bunch of unrelated videos started to appear. The kind of viral stuff that always appears on YouTube’s default screen, clearly an attempt by the algorithm to push me back into its comfort zone, as it is likely more work for it to manage the ebbs and flows of someone who only wants a list of Elliott Smith-related videos.
After about two days of listening to nothing but Elliott Smith and a couple hours of removing non-Elliott Smith videos from my feed, I finally pulled off what I was trying for: A feed completely related to Elliott Smith. It was fragile, and it seemed like literally anything could break it.
Then, I made a mistake.
Working on some other things, I pulled up a video for an unrelated topic to see if it made sense to embed it somewhere. I gave it a quick watch just to double-check if it made sense for the article. And then I forgot about it.
But when I went back to the Elliott Smith feed, all of a sudden, my filter bubble was broken. Not even removing the video from my history was enough. The feed, once a purely Elliott Smith endeavor, had been tarnished by Jawed Karim’s trip to the zoo, MrBeast, and every other viral video that I was trying to remove from the feed.
I spent a while trying to remove things from the feed once again, but it was no use. The filter bubble did not want to be put back together after that point.
At one point after the filter bubble burst, a video showed up that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about in the context of what I was trying to do. Titled “To the guy who wants to know why he’s lonely and sad,” it’s essentially a motivational pep talk for people who struggle with sadness and in dealing with social situations. Created more than 13 years ago by Ashley Carey, a YouTuber who uploads under the name BrokeTheInterweb, it’s a great clip that has resonated well beyond the original message that Carey pushes forth. Carey, a college student at the time the video was created, appears to be wise beyond her years. That it showed up in a sea of Elliott Smith rarities feels like the YouTube algorithm is trying to tell me something … though I’m not sure what. Maybe you can see the subtext?
I have been trying to nurse the feed back to, uh, health in the days since, and I’ve yet been able to recreate the pristine all-Elliott-Smith feed I once had.
YouTube really wants to ensure your filter bubble doesn’t last.
“The equation of Smith’s music with ’Nick Drake melancholia’—ostensibly in a review of an album thick with electric guitar, bass, drum, and keyboards—seems rooted in more in Smith’s popular construction as a Nick Drake-esque folk antihero than in the music itself.”
— Matthew LeMay, the author of the 33 1/3 book about Elliott Smith’s XO, discussing the tendency for Smith to get constantly compared to Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, and other similar singer-songwriters who left too soon. Smith was clearly more influenced by ’60s and ’70s pop, particularly The Beatles and Big Star, but the reputation stuck with him, and now appears heavily in the algorithm when you search for him on YouTube.
I admit that my choice of Elliott Smith as a guinea pig for this test is not an accident. It felt like, for a while in my life, I was very much in this same mode. In late 2004 and early 2005, months before YouTube came into existence, I moved somewhere that I had never lived before, with no ties to anything or anyone. Just a job.
Often, when I started my day, I would pull out my iPod and listen to the same album, every single day. It was Elliott Smith’s self-titled record, full of tape hiss of the kind that wonderfully surrounded your headphones. That iPod, which I never listened to in shuffle mode, didn’t have an algorithm. I self-selected the Elliott Smith.
At first, this record was so dark that it actually scared me. Then I adjusted, and it became my favorite album.
I experienced some losses back home that I needed to parse with a healthy layer of separation. This was my way of doing so. Clearly, I was not in a good place—no drugs other than Milwaukee’s own beverage of choice, PBR, but definitely a lot of self-loathing I was trying to work though. But on this album, I heard someone who went through some similar challenges, and this was my way of parsing them.
I eventually found ways to let more light in. I played at a lot of open mics during this period, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. I focused on my job and tried to improve. And eventually I found a path forward that worked for me. The dimness I felt at this time in my life was ultimately temporary, even if the effects it had on the way I think were in some ways permanent.
Elliott Smith’s second album was how I understood this world at that time. It was the record that got me thinking about the world and the challenges I needed to lift, and maybe how heavy those things were. Maybe if YouTube existed back then, perhaps this is how I would have used it.
Is it healthy to use YouTube or your iPod, or any type of technology, in this way? Probably not. Can objective tools have destructive effects on our mental health? Yes. Are there organizations with large presences that specifically take advantage of this very effect? Most assuredly, and YouTube has fought some of those organizations in court, and won.
Is it YouTube’s fault that this algorithm possibly showed an impressionable person some terrorism recruitment videos? I think that’s not for me to say, but I do not think the answer to that question is, “Let’s weaken Section 230 to account for this extreme edge case.”
But even though it’s not illegal, there is certainly something questionable about this activity of leaning extra hard into a specific interest beyond any respectable limits. In the case of someone like Smith, a well-regarded musician whose passing has fallen into a similar framing as predecessors like Jeff Buckley, Nick Drake, and Kurt Cobain, it quickly can move from fandom into something parasocial. We have people who have generated extreme fame on YouTube, regular people, who people have grown up with, that take such an intimate role in people’s lives that they turn from simply viewers into something closer to a friendship, not unlike a rock star with a fanbase. There is something unhealthy about that, and as a culture, we should have that discussion.
I like Elliott Smith enough that I only have five albums in CD form in 2023, and two of them are his. (I did not purchase the deluxe edition of Smith’s self-titled album, however.) But this experiment, which I started in a spirit of fun and perhaps a little bit of absurdity, makes me think about how YouTube can be an unhealthy thing in a person’s life if they allow an algorithm to take it to extreme places.
This is not a Section 230 issue, but it is a corporate responsibility issue, and we should not miss the opportunity to have that discussion. (I might argue that trying to connect Section 230 to an attack that didn’t happen on American soil and only involved a single American victim might be the wrong way to frame that debate, but I digress.)
Section 230 gives social networks the right to moderate their networks, and in many ways the problem with Section 230 is they don’t treat that right as a responsibility, and they become so large that could never reasonably account for every edge case, like a feed filled with nothing but Elliott Smith.
In a world where algorithms are becoming more important, we aren’t asking enough of the big questions.
Something about this piece feels different, and I hope you enjoyed it. Thanks for following me on my algorithmic journey to build a filter bubble—and if you like it, share it with a pal.
Also, if you like music that’s poorly recorded by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, I released a record of my old recordings recently on Bandcamp. Give it a listen if you’d like. No filter bubbles allowed, though.