Why Splitting Up YouTube Is a Terrible Idea

Facing mounting pressure over failures to protect children from inappropriate content, Google is reportedly considering a number of changes to its video sharing site YouTube. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that one of the ideas circulated internally was to effectively split up YouTube, and spin out all children’s content into the existing YouTube Kids app.

Other changes under consideration include tweaks to the way YouTube recommends videos to younger viewers, according to both the Journal and the Washington Post. “We consider lots of ideas for improving YouTube and some remain just that — ideas,” a YouTube spokesperson said in response to these reports.

It’s clear that YouTube is in desperate need of new ideas for dealing with these issues. Some of the serious incidents that made headlines in recent months included a YouTuber dishing out suicide instructions to young viewers, pedophiles commenting on videos of young children that were recommended to them by YouTube’s algorithm, and an adoptive parent abusing her children to star in YouTube videos.

But as far-out ideas go, the suggestion to solve YouTube’s problems by spinning out all kids content is a pretty bad one.

First of all, there is the sheer magnitude of the problem: YouTube users upload 500 hours of video to the service every minute. Reviewing all of that content to figure out what might be children’s content is close to impossible. Any attempt to automate these kinds of reviews would likely lead to a huge amount of mislabeled content, further complicating attempts to create a kids-safe version of YouTube.

Even if YouTube could somehow manage to separate the 720,000 hours of video uploaded to its site every day to create a kids version of YouTube and one that is only suitable for older viewers, the split would go counter to the way most people use YouTube. Like it or not, children don’t just watch videos specifically made for them on YouTube. They also watch sports clips, magic tricks, cooking and crafts, fail compilations, and yes, the cat videos that still get cited so often as an example for YouTube’s randomness.

Likewise, adults and older teenage viewers don’t just flock to YouTube for grownup content. They also watch cartoons, toy reviews, obscure children’s TV shows, personal videos shared among family members, and yes, videos produced by and starring kids. Splitting YouTube into two separate services would be a disservice to both audiences.

At the same time, it would do little to address some of the issues YouTube is facing. What’s going to stop pedophiles from seeking out videos starring young children on YouTube Kids, as opposed to YouTube proper? And how would a separate service prevent parents from exploiting their children for profit?

While splitting up YouTube by age makes little sense, there are some concrete steps that Google can do to make the video service safer for younger viewers. One is to double down on YouTube kids as a curated experience, instead of watering it down by making it the default option for all child-related content.

In addition to strict review policies for inclusion on YouTube Kids, and perhaps a dedicated subscription tier for an ad-free experience, this would have to include a massive investment in product development. Right now, there is no YouTube Kids app for most smart TV platforms, and the YouTube Kids app for Google’s own Android TV hasn’t been updated for six months, despite having terrible reviews.

The other area Google needs to work on is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which regularly takes children and grown-ups alike down unsavory rabbit holes. An option to limit these recommendations to safe and vetted sources would go a long way towards making YouTube more kids-friendly.

One of the reasons that YouTube has been slow to reign in its algorithms is that algorithmic recommendations make up for so much of the service’s viewing these days. One example: Music video distributor Vevo, which is one of YouTube’s biggest publishers, told Variety earlier this year that it now gets 75% of its traffic from algorithmic curation, which includes personalized home pages, watch next suggestions and algorithmically curated playlists. On some videos, search only results in 6% of all views.

It’s likely that those numbers are similar for other publishers, and YouTube as a whole. Algorithmic recommendations are huge for the video site, and any change that messes with their impact could have serious repercussions for Google’s bottom line.

In the end, those changes may nonetheless be inevitable for YouTube. Because if Google doesn’t do anything, there’s always a danger that regulators may come up with their own ideas on how to fix the site — which may make as much sense as splitting it up.

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