YouTube Extremism and the Long Tail

Unlimited selection is revealing ugly truths about what some Americans want in their politics.

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Zeynep Tufekci, the insightful scholar and observer of sociology in the internet era, argued over the weekend that YouTube is unwittingly radicalizing some of its viewers through the videos that it automatically recommends that they watch next.

She was watching Donald Trump rallies while conducting research, sitting through clip after clip, when eventually she noticed “autoplay” videos “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.” Then she watched a bunch of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders videos. Soon, “I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast,” she wrote, “including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of Sept. 11.”

The pattern held across other topics:

Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism. Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons. It seems as if you are never “hard core” enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.

It promotes, recommends, and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes. Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.

She posits that, in Google’s effort to keep people on its video platform as long as possible, “its algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with—or to incendiary content in general,” and adds, “It is also possible that YouTube’s recommender algorithm has a bias toward inflammatory content.” She believes we are witnessing “the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look ‘behind the curtain,’ to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.”

That line about the desire to dig deeper reminded me of something.

Almost 15 years ago, Chris Anderson published the classic Wired article “The Long Tail.” It led with an anecdote about the success of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air unexpectedly causing a spike in sales for a then-obscure, nearly out-of-print book on mountain climbing, thanks to shoppers on By “combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion,” the site caused “rising demand for an obscure book.”

Then he put forth an insight that now seems obvious:

This is not just a virtue of online booksellers; it is an example of an entirely new economic model for the media and entertainment industries, one that is just beginning to show its power. Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody.

People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander further and further from the beaten path, they discover that their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture).

What one would discover on that long path down the limitless shelves of Amazon he dubbed “the long tail,” and it had this striking attribute: “Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits,” he wrote. “Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.”

There isn’t anything wrong with hits, he declared.

But most of us want more than just hits. Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them … We equate mass market with quality and demand, when in fact it often just represents familiarity, savvy advertising, and broad if somewhat shallow appeal.

What do we really want? We’re only just discovering, but it clearly starts with more.

Maybe YouTube’s algorithm does steer heavy users toward metrics like “hard core” or “inflammatory” to raise engagement. But rereading “The Long Tail,” it strikes me that a YouTube radicalization effect would manifest even without that being true. YouTube clearly monetizes “the long tail” in much the same way as did Amazon and iTunes. Doesn’t it make sense that, like those sites, most paths one might go down on a platform that wants to exploit its long-tail advantages would start with what is relatively mainstream before leading inevitably to what is less so?

That’s no problem in many realms.

But in politics, “less mainstream” will be highly correlated with more radical. That isn’t always scary. More radical could mean, say, pacifist. Nobody is scared of that.

But if people start out watching videos about the leaders of our bitterly divided political tribes, as many do—well, the mere fact that the platform makes a long tail of videos easily available ensures some percentage of heavy users will find their way to content that is both appealing to them and more problematically radical than anything they would’ve found in the mass-media environment of bygone decades. Radicalization needn’t be indoctrination either. It could just be discovery of a fringe taste, as in music or film, but with much darker consequences. Whatever one regards as fringe and awful, more people who like it will find it.

Of course, the mere existence of the internet helps folks on many fringes find one another, but YouTube has the particular attributes of a platform that gets people to long-tail stuff:

The problem with was that it was only Long Tail. It didn’t have license agreements with the labels to offer mainstream fare or much popular commercial music at all. There was no familiar point of entry for consumers, no known quantity from which further exploring could begin. Offering only hits is no better. Think of the struggling video-on-demand services of the cable companies. Or think of Movielink, the feeble video download service run by the studios. Due to overcontrolling providers and high costs, they suffer from limited content: in most cases just a few hundred recent releases. There’s not enough choice to change consumer behavior, to become a real force in the entertainment economy.

By contrast, the success of Netflix, Amazon, and the commercial music services shows that you need both ends of the curve. Their huge libraries of less-mainstream fare set them apart, but hits still matter in attracting consumers in the first place. Great Long Tail businesses can then guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown.

How bright the technological future seemed in 2004.

“Recommendations are a remarkably efficient form of marketing, allowing smaller films and less-mainstream music to find an audience,” Anderson wrote. “And the cultural benefit of all of this is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit.”

But distributional scarcity worked in society’s favor when it came to less-mainstream political “firms” like jihadism, white supremacy, eco-terrorism, and beyond. “Such is the power of the Long Tail,” the article concluded. “Its time has come.”