Only 301 Views? Why That YouTube Video Is Actually Going Viral

By Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg

YouTube junkies are probably familiar with a mysterious glitch in the video platform's view-count system; a new video will show up all over the web, clearly going viral, but the view count is stuck at 301. Why 301 (or sometimes 302, or another number in the low 300s)? YouTube's trends manager, Kevin Allocca, says it's one of the most common questions he getsBrady Haran, who produces the numberphile channel on YouTube, enlisted Ted Hamilton, a YouTube analytics project manager, to explain this puzzling phenomenon. 

The answer, it turns out, hinges on the rather existential question of what constitutes a "real" view. Up until the arbitrary number of 301, a view is a view. It doesn't matter where it came from, or at least, YouTube won't bother to check. After 300, YouTube decides it does matter, and a new counting system takes over, analyzing the views to make sure they're "real." What counts as a view? Hamilton explains:

Well that's actually a bit of a YouTube secret. A view should be a video playback that was requested by an actual user who got what they were intending to get and had a good user experience. We think of views as a currency and therefore we have to make a significant effort to eliminate counterfeit views, if you will. 

While YouTube processes the data, "a statistical verification process," Hamilton says, the view count just plateaus at 301 (or thereabouts). This process can take as long as a day, according to Haran. What is YouTube filtering out? Views from bots, or views accumulated as the result of a "misleading" thumbnail (a sexy bikini babe on a video containing no sexy bikini babes, for example). If people watch a video for only a few seconds, YouTube takes this as an indication that these are not "legitimate" views and filters them accordingly. 

The most interesting takeaway from this video is the glimpse into how YouTube values views, considering them a "currency" worth protecting. Videos are monetized based on views, so YouTube would appear to benefit from more views, from any source, yet artificially inflated view counts could actually devalue the "currency." YouTube's statistical verification process seems to be a measure to prevent inflation, and make sure a million views continues to be worth something. Haran promises to upload more video from his extensive interview with Hamilton soon, so stay tuned to his YouTube channel.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/only-301-views-why-that-youtube-video-is-actually-going-viral/258921/