All Things Video Podcast: “He’s very transparent about the fact that this is all done to game the algorithm and make a business out of it,” journalist Chris Stokel-Walker says
Chris Stokel-Walker is a British journalist specializing in YouTube and digital culture. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including BBC, Wired, The Economist, The Guardian and BuzzFeed.
In the latest episode of All Things Video, Chris and I explore the intersection of politics and social media platforms — and the rise of boundary-pushing personalities like Jake Paul. We discuss U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and U.K. Chancellor Philip Hammond’s recent critiques of large tech firms, calling for greater regulatory oversight and antitrust legislation. Senator Warren has railed, “Today’s big tech companies have too much power — too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, and tilted the playing field against everyone else.”
She hasn’t been shy about her targets either — calling out Amazon, Facebook and Google by name and even threatening to undo past acquisitions like Facebook’s 2012 purchase of Instagram. A similar story is now playing out in the U.K., following the release of a white paper that calls for tech giants to exercise a “duty of care” for their users. In the midst of this controversy, Chris and I debate what responsibility social platforms should bear for the content on their platforms and how they can be held accountable.
We also examine social media’s impact on the changing nature of public discourse. In particular, we point out that social platforms encourage extremism because their business models are predicated on digital advertising, which is fueled by audience viewership and engagement.
“In some ways, social media has enabled some incredible things,” I argue. “It’s brought people together, allowed people to stay in touch, [and] it’s fostered senses of community among people who might be geographically isolated…. On the other hand, it can be used as a weapon.”
Some social platforms seem to be aware of this fact and are taking corrective action, while others feign ignorance or shirk responsibility. As Chris asserts, “The muted removal of the likes and retweets metrics on Twitter to me seems like actually a really good idea because it keeps the conversation open in a way that Facebook seems to be shying away from. But it’s also reducing (as we talked about) that need to be more extreme in your viewpoints or to pick arguments.”
And of course, no conversation about the convergence of social media and politics can avoid the implications of fake news. For the first time in history, Chris proclaims, “We live in a political world in which facts are up for debate” due to a “lack of oversight in some way on social media.” As a result, public trust in news media and government is incredibly low — a sentiment Chris sums up perfectly in what he calls his “primal scream” at social media platforms: “Why have you not in 14 years woken up to the fact that you have a major impact on society?”
Throughout our discussion, Chris also shares some findings from his upcoming book, “YouTubers: How YouTube Shook up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars.” Despite the relatively young age of the world’s largest video platform, “we’re quite actually a mature market,” Chris contends. As a result, “YouTube has a vested interest in making sure advertisers continue to view the platform as brand safe and will spend money there,” but its approach to policy creation and enforcement tends to be very reactive. Ultimately, YouTube and other ad-supported social platforms often put short-term economic incentives ahead of long-term consideration for creators and audiences.
Chris also advances the idea of six or seven generations of evolution among online creators and explains why he considers Jake Paul “the first postmodern YouTuber.” According to Chris, “He’s very transparent about the fact that this is all done to game the algorithm and make a business out of it.”
I take this argument a step further, characterizing Jake Paul and similar creators as social “shock artists” who understand that such wild behavior is what generates their appeal: “They are the reality stars of YouTube. They draw attention by being extreme. And a lot of these social platforms are geared toward rewarding that type of behavior because whether you love them or you hate them, they’re still getting views.”
Finally, we consider what happens when creators outgrow the content their audience enjoys. In the course of his research, Chris discovered that many creators “feel trapped in a gilded cage” as they grow older and lose interest in their primary video topics. Not only are many creators feeling burned out by the demands of an always-on social media lifestyle, but they’re growing up and discovering that “they are no longer the people that they pretend to be on camera, and they are desperately, desperately looking for a way out.”