One of the benefits of being at home is that I am diving into more podcasts as I do my multiple daily walks with dogs or just to get away from the screen. An intriguing series that I have been following regularly is called Rabbit Hole, produced by the New York Times, and it explores the impact of YouTube and its recommendation algorithms in its early episodes, and then begins to open wider.
It’s central inquiry question: What is the Internet doing to us?
These audio inquiries are at first, fascinating. and then frightening, as I could only think about all the young people home now, spending hours and hours — more hours than ever — watching YouTube and following who knows what algorithmic paths into who knows what strange corners of YouTube. The podcast reporters follow one person’s YouTube history (they downloaded the entire thing, with his permission, and then traced how he spent hours every day over a few years, watching YouTube) as the young man became increasingly radicalized by YouTube – first to the fringe right, and then to the fringe left.
The last few episodes have pivoted a bit, and focused on the impact of PewDiePie as a cultural force — the podcast calls him The Accidental Emperor. He started with quirky videos about video games on a whim, grew to millions of viewers, and then became a lightning rod for his political humor (including more than a few bits that uses Nazi symbolism for jokes). Learning more about him and what he has been doing with his millions and millions of viewers at YouTube is worth your time, as the cultural undercurrents of his sophomoric humor and focus by progressives often happens outside of the mainstream, but have resonance in the entire digital world.
And if you don’t know who PewDiePie is, your surely kids do. Trust me.