Wednesday, November 30, 2022
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YouTube’s “Dislike” Button Doesn’t Do What You Think

YouTube says its systems are working as they should. “Mozilla’s report doesn’t take into account how our systems actually work, and therefore it’s hard for us to get a lot of insights,” says YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez, adding that viewers have control over their recommendations. This includes “the ability to block a video or channel from being recommended to them in the future.”

Where Mozilla and YouTube differ in their interpretations of how successful their “don’t recommend” entries are seems to be in the similarity of topics, individuals, or content. YouTube says that asking its algorithm not to recommend a video or channel simply prevents the algorithm from recommending that particular video or channel, and doesn’t affect a user’s access to a specific topic, opinion or speaker. “Our controls don’t filter entire topics or viewpoints, as this could have negative effects on viewers, such as creating echo chambers,” says Hernández.

Jesse McCrosky, a data scientist working with Mozilla on the study, says that’s not entirely clear from YouTube’s public statements and published research on its recommendation systems. “We have some little black box glimpses,” he says, showing that YouTube broadly considers two types of feedback: on the positive side, engagement, such as how long users watch YouTube and how many videos they watch; and explicit comments, including the ones I don’t like. “They have a certain balance, the degree to which they respect those two types of feedback,” says McCrosky. “What we’ve seen in this study is that the weight towards engagement is quite exhaustive, and other types of feedback are minimally respected.”

The distinction between what YouTube thinks it says about its algorithms and what Mozilla says is an important one, says Robyn Caplan, a senior fellow at Data & Society, a New York nonprofit that has previously investigated YouTube’s algorithm. “Some of these findings don’t contradict what the platform is saying, but they do show that users don’t have a good understanding of what features are there to control their experiences, versus what features are there to give content creators feedback.” she says. Caplan welcomes the study and its findings, saying that while Mozilla’s intended slam-dunk reveal may be more muted than researchers expected, it highlights a major problem: users are confused about the control they have over their devices. YouTube recommendations. “This research speaks to the broader need to regularly survey users about site features,” says Caplan. “If these feedback mechanisms don’t work as intended, it can drive people away.”

Confusion about the intended functionality of user input is a key theme of the second part of Mozilla’s study: a subsequent qualitative survey of about a tenth of those who had installed the RegretsReporter extension and participated in the study. Those Mozilla spoke with said they appreciated that the entries specifically targeted videos and channels, but hoped it would inform YouTube’s recommendation algorithm more broadly.

“I thought it was an interesting topic because it reveals that these are people saying, ‘This is not just telling me that I blocked this channel. This is me trying to exercise more control over the other types of recommendations I get in the future,’” says Ricks. Mozilla recommends in its research that YouTube allow users more options to proactively shape their own experiences by describing their content preferences, and that the company do a better job of explaining how its recommendation systems work.

For McCrosky, the key problem is that there is a gap between the messages users perceive YouTube to provide through its algorithmic input and what they actually do. “There’s a disconnect in the degree to which they respect those cues,” she says.

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