YouTube sharpens how it recommends videos despite fears of isolating users

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Updated 29 November 2017
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YouTube sharpens how it recommends videos despite fears of isolating users

SAN FRANCISCO: Google’s YouTube has updated its recommendation feature to spotlight videos users are likely to find the most gratifying, brushing aside concerns that such an approach can trap people in bubbles of misinformation and like-minded opinions.
The new feature, which arrived in January but has not previously been reported, uses a measure of satisfaction derived from a massive and ongoing user survey to predict and promote videos that people would rank as among the best they have watched recently.
The goal is to prevent the negative sentiments that can arise when people watch hours and hours of uninspired programs, said Jim McFadden and Cristos Goodrow, who work on recommendation technology at YouTube, which is part of Alphabet Inc.
But the change comes at a time when YouTube and other social media firms are facing heavy criticism from advertisers, regulators and advocacy groups for failing to police content and account for the way their services shape public opinion.
Russian agents exploited the recommendation systems of Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc. and YouTube to popularize propaganda and fake news during the 2016 US presidential election. The companies responded with increased user verification and fact-checking tools, but their recommendations remain focused on winning the attention and boosting the enjoyment of users.
“The risk is not that we are just siloing ourselves, but we’re able to also reinforce pre-existing, flawed viewpoints,” said Jacob Groshek, a Boston University associate professor who researches the influence of social media and “filter bubbles.”
YouTube automatically recommends videos through a machine learning algorithm that analyzes the characteristics of videos and the behavior of its 1.5 billion users to generate personalized viewing recommendations.
These recommendations, which appear on YouTube’s homepage and alongside clips, have become a centerpiece of the service, encouraging people to watch videos that are similar to ones they have spent significant time viewing in the past. Recommendations now drive 70 percent of overall “watch time” on YouTube, compared with 40 percent in early 2014, the company said.
The more time people spend watching, the more ad slots YouTube can sell. Sales of YouTube commercials are among Google’s top growth areas.
But by last year, YouTube’s prediction tool had matured, said McFadden, a software engineer at YouTube since 2011. He said the idea of pinpointing “satisfaction” came after he had watched “particularly good” videos, including a commencement speech by the late author David Foster Wallace.
“You listen to it and say this was really good,” McFadden said. But “there’s nothing really in our data about how much I like this.”
He worried that too many people felt their hours each night watching sports highlights, comedy clips and makeup tutorials were a waste.
Now YouTube is gauging satisfaction by surveying nearly 10 percent of users about which videos they enjoy. One version of the survey asks whether a video watched in the last week was “one of the best,” “great,” “about average,” “poor” or “one of the worst.”
The feedback is a fresh data point in the recommendation algorithm. Lesser emphasis is now put on actions that may be a proxy for enjoyment but are used with varying intent, such as “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” ratings.
YouTube executives acknowledge that the approach can help misinformation spread. A user who says a video describing the moon landing as a hoax was among the best they watched in the last week would cause that video, and similar ones, to be recommended more widely.
“We would love it if the satisfaction mechanism pushed down videos about ‘we never landed on the moon’ but people will report satisfaction on quite a variety of things,” Goodrow, vice president of engineering at YouTube, said in an interview.
The company releases neither recommendation nor satisfaction data about individual videos.
Johanna Wright, vice president of product management at YouTube, said in an interview that the company is taking steps to combat misinformation, including giving greater prominence to well-known media organizations in search results on trending topics.
Next year, YouTube is planning to have a similar initiative around science videos to surface “the established belief on the topic” on science videos, she said.
Still, YouTube’s chief goal is to maximize viewing time. Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said recently that there was little the company could do absent a bigger societal change.
The problem of filter bubbles will persist, Schmidt told an international security conference Nov. 18, “until we decide collectively” that users should see content from “someone not like you.”
Critics reject the notion that YouTube is powerless.
Guillaume Chaslot, a member of its recommendations engineering team who left Google in 2013 and is working to launch a nonprofit group to investigate social media algorithms, said YouTube could experiment more or release data about recommendations to researchers.
He worries though that YouTube will not act until public outcry grows severe or existing tactics impair watch time.
“Users are not asking YouTube to optimize for truth,” Chaslot said.


Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

Updated 18 November 2018
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Pakistan is rapidly becoming a “digital-first country”, Google

  • Pakistan digital growth is supported by population and increasing penetration of internet, IT experts
  • Prime Minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom to meet next week to draw comprehensive policy

KARACHI: Destine to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030, Pakistan, supported by a growing population, fast growing business and increasing penetration of Internet, is poised to grab first position among the digital economies, Information Technology (IT) experts say.
US technology giant, Google, says Pakistan is quickly becoming a “digital-first country”, which means there are new opportunities for brands to reach and engage with consumers that may have previously been overlooked.
“It shows that Google has realized the marketing potential of the country and they are now encouraging businesses to focus on Pakistan as a potential market,” Badar Khushnood, vice president of growth at Fishry.Com and vice chairman of [email protected], commented.
According to Google, there are five reasons for “considering expanding your digital campaigns into Pakistan”.
Pakistan’s growing population is the first reason that makes the country attractive for the foreign and local investors to venture into the IT sector.
“Pakistan has a population of more than 202 million people, which means there are lot of potential consumers coming online every day. And the country is even more urbanized than neighboring India, with nearly 40 percent of total households living in cities,” writes Lars Anthonizen, head of large customer marketing, South Asia, Google.
Pakistan’s economy grew by 5.7 percent in fiscal year 2018. HSBC in is recent report published in September 2018 has projected Pakistan to become the fourth fastest growing economy by 2030.
Around 90 percent of the companies in the country are SMEs which are contributing more that 40 percent to the country’s 313 billion economy, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
Third attraction, according to Google, is the country’s growing smart phone users. Pakistan has 152 million cellar subscribers, and 60 million 3G/4G subscribers, according to Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).
This number will likely grow quickly as smart phone prices have dropped over the last few years. Pakistan also has some of the cheapest data prices in the world, which is helping to grow mobile app usage, according to Google.
However, experts say more work is needed to be done to fully utilize the existing potential. “We need to work on optic fibers, penetration of 4G, creation of data centers, telecom infrastructure and most importantly creation of awareness among masses,” Pervaiz Iftikhar, a member of the newly formed prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom, told Arab News.
Pakistan’s overall Internet penetration stands at 29.9 percent with 62 million broadband subscribers, a fourth attraction for the investor, as per Google. In spite of this, digital consumption in the country continues to grow quickly. YouTube watch time, for example, has seen over 60 percent growth over the last three years.
The Chinese-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the largest Chinese investment venture in Pakistan with around $62 billion, a fifth reason to look toward Pakistan.
The mega project under BRI is not only limited to the infrastructure and energy sector but it is also contributing to the growth of the IT sector in Pakistan.
“One of the first CPEC projects is to lay 820 kilometers of fiber-optic cable, connecting more Pakistanis to the Internet. This is in addition to ongoing investments in 3G and 4G network expansions from China Mobile, and the company has already announced plans to invest another $225 million in 4G expansion (bringing its total investment to $2.4 billion),” writes Lars Anthonizen.
“We have to connect every village through fiber optics that will not only create thousands of jobs but would multiply opportunities for the IT business countrywide,” Pervaiz Iftikhar added.
“A lot of potential exists in the IT sector of Pakistan with the young population turning to computers, smart phones and other digital means, and the country offers big market for local and foreign investors”, Jehan Ara, another member of the prime minister’s Taskforce on IT and Telecom and president of [email protected], commented.
Badar Khushnood, who is also former consultant of Google, Facebook and Twitter, called for comprehensive policy for the growth of the IT sector.
“Taxation systems should be rationalized, simplified, and encouraging for startups. The country also needs data protection laws, and broader cyber laws,” he added.
The first meeting of the prime minister’s Task Force on IT and Telecom is expected to be held next week in Islamabad. “Comprehensive strategy including short term and long term measures would be discussed in the upcoming meeting of taskforce because country needs a policy for the persistent growth of IT and Telecom sector”, Pervaiz Iftikhar informed.