As with any social media platform that sticks around for too long, the content on YouTube has become more and more homogenous over the years. Not only does it seem like the same kinds of videos dominate the trending list week-to-week, but, now, even the thumbnails advertising those videos have become creepily identical self-parodies. In a new piece for SF MOMA, Joe Veix explores this phenomenon and tries to get to the bottom of why everyone on YouTube is making the same stupid face.
“As the video market saturates, various techniques lose their power, and the attention arms race escalates,” Veix writes. This competition for views and insatiable desire for attention—like most things in society—is fueled by an unspoken desire for money. More views means more ad revenue for YouTube, a portion of which goes to the creator. But there are only so many eyeballs in the world, so creators willingly attach themselves to whatever trend happens to be working in order to get people to watch their “Xtreme Hot Pepper Challenge Reaction Video Reaction” or whatever.
Viex suggests that, at some point, somebody “discovered that including a facial reaction tended to boost views further (perhaps manipulating some kind of feeling of empathy or morbid curiosity in the pain of others?).” As people got more desensitized to the facial expressions, the reactions got more extreme. Now, nearly every thumbnail features somebody looking cartoonishly shocked, disgusted, or furious at whatever is going in the video. It’s only after you click it that you realize you’re in for a 15-minute build up to a uninteresting payoff.
Ultimately, that’s Viex’s point. “YouTube Face” is the physical manifestation of clickbait. It’s the inevitably result of a competitive, algorithm-based landscape like YouTube where authenticity is shrugged off in favor of hive-mind-approved branded content. What’s worse, this phenomenon isn’t limited to the realm of social media. The “attention arms race” influences all aspects of our society and soon everything we consume will be sold to us in the same, over-hyped package stamped with the same dumb looking face.
Check out Viex’s full article on Open Space and don’t forget to like, subscribe, sound off in the comments, and so on.
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