Saturday, May 8, 2021

Echoes In The Canyon

I'm wondering whether YouTube's suggestion algorithm has changed. It seems to do that, on occasion. YouTube is, after all, owned by Google, who can never leave anything well alone.

It's always hard to be sure whether nostalgia's rose-tinted mitts are gussying up the truth of it but I do seem to remember a time when link-hopping down that sidebar brought better rewards, scattering brilliant bursts of seratonin sunshine as the new and unfamiliar sounds and visions burned bright tunnels through dazed synapses.

That seems a long time ago. Of late, and not so late, it's all been famous people doing boring things and so-called recommendations that seem from central casting. And then, just this week, something happened.

It must be a couple of years back when I got so fed up with the nonsense on the YouTube home page I searched for some way to put an end to it. I found an add-on for Firefox that replaces YouTube's home page with your own subscriptions. It has a catchy name. It's called Replace YouTube's Homepage With Subscriptions

That's fine. I didn't need it to be imaginative. I just needed it to work. And it did. It does. Perfectly. I absolutely recommend it. You can get it for Chrome, too.

That put an end to the fool's cavalcade of sport, swagger and celebrity smack-talk that had somehow become all YouTube thought I cared for. Never mind that I never clicked on any of it, ever. Just keep shoveling it at them and they'll crack, that's the theory.

With that out of the way, there were just the inane suggestions in the sidebar, so many of which can only be there by dint of payment from somebody. Sting, Shaggy, Jeremy Clarkson... they certainly don't appear in response to any interest I've ever shown. Disdain doesn't count, right?

I did try to find ways to improve those, too. Most fixes revolved around training the algorithm to learn better what I liked but it seemed to me it had had plenty of time for that; a decade and a half already, about how long I've been flipping through the virtual stacks.

The key problem seems to be that I won't allow YouTube to remember anything. I used to let my history build up but then something happened and I cleared it and switched it off. (I can't remember what it was. Nothing exciting or secret or shameful. I just don't recall what it could have been. Maybe I read somewhere to keep it was a bad idea. I can be susceptible that way.)

For years, my YouTube's been working in a void, like one of those people with a rare condition, who wake every morning with no memory of anything from before they went to sleep. Every day YouTube tries to learn again what interests me and then suddenly its all gone.

I like to think that's how it goes. It seems... romantic. Probably it's nothing of the kind. And now, perhaps, something's shifted.

A few days back I clicked on something from one of the dozen channels I follow. Thirteen, now. I added a new one today. Seven are record companies, musicians or YouTubers who produce videos or playlists of other people's music. Six are game companies, gamers or people who produce videos about games. 

Not all of them are active but something fresh comes in from Elefant Records almost every day. Elefant is a Spanish label specializing in dreampop. I keep promising to do a blog about it and I will but this isn't it. I mention it because it was an Elefant act, new to me, that set me on the trail that ended up with me wondering if YouTube had gotten smarter.

That was the video. I don't click on all Elefant's promos. They all look very similar with the yellow band that reminds me of vintage Gollancz science fiction hardbacks and the hypersaturated thumbnails. I click on the ones that have something that catches my attention (if I have time to kill). I'm a sucker for lower case. Also, pup puppy!

After I'd watched and listened to it I felt a little dizzy. All that soft focus, all that image overlay, those strange whirring sounds. And the plaintive drift. Pup puppy pulled me in but it's rebe's show. I was curious to see what else there was. 

Three or four more like that and a handful of live performances, I felt was starting to get the hang of rebe. (How presumptuous of me, I know.). Anyway, I'd seen enough for then.

I don't recall any unusual occurrences in the sidebar that day. The downside of no YouTube history is I can't go back and check if I clicked on anything other than rebe. But I can see what I thought was worth shoring up against internet's inevitable ruin. (We all know it will happen.)

It seems that day I saved seven rebe clips and Billy Eilish's wonderful new single, Your Power. I'm fairly sure I don't need to keep a copy of that. It won't be going anywhere. Or, rather, it will. It'll be going to everywhere.

We should have it before we carry on. It fits. You'll see. Although, trigger warning, probably don't watch it if you have ophidiophobia. I don't. I like snakes and it still scared the crap out of me.

God, that's good. What a time we live in, eh? That we have music like this. Do you think it's supposed to cut off like that at the end? I hope it is but I somehow doubt it.

Still, YouTube suggesting a new Billy Eilish tune is hardly grounds for suspicion. Probably everyone got that one. No, the oddness didn't really make itself known until a couple of days later when I clicked on something else from a subscription. 

There are a whole slew of people who've made their virtual fame by dint of their finely-honed taste and their ability to spot a gem before anyone else does. One such is Thelazylazyme, who has more than half a million subscribers (I'm one, Syp's another) all eager to hear the next wisp of bedroom pop. 

I'm a tad wary of channels like these. It's the same caution I always had for bookshops (ironically). It makes it too easy, "finding" new things this way. It's a bit too much like having a personal shopper. I very rarely use anything I find on channels like that, here. It feels like cheating, somehow.

But things I find for myself by using one of their finds as a seed... that's fine. And it used to work well. Until it didn't. It hasn't worked for so long that I'd almost forgotten it ever did. And now it feels like someone switched the whole thing back on.

I don't know why I chose to click on this one. It's The Songwriter by Stacey. Could that be any more bland? I did though and it's glorious. I had to move on to find the video. Thelazylazyme is a purist that way. A still picture with sound and you'd better be happy. I like to see things move and this so does.

It struck me after the rebe and the Billy Eilish that something was going on here. I'm so used to Lana quarrying the canyon, repurposing the sixties and the seventies, I'd kinda seen it as her thing alone but it's happening all over. Everything looks like a home movie, found footage on Super 8. There's a soft haze in the California sun and is that smoke in the air or is it us, smoking again?

Stacey sounds so much like Karen Carpenter it's a flashback. She knows it. She owns it.

Karen Carpenter had her demons but I never heard one was drugs. Stacey seems equally clean-cut and yet, like the rebe tracks, there's something woozy, off-kilter, and, yes, druggy about it. It was that, I think, that tipped me to something strange in the YouTube recommends that morning.

There's nothing under the radar about the tune I clicked on after Stacey, Vox Rea with Dufferin Ave. In case you aren't getting it there's a whole set-up to leave no doubt. All in 625 lines. When did you last see that? In another music video I bet.


From Vox Rea YouTube pointed me at Sasha and the Valentines. Sunflowers, phasing, sunshine. Here we go round again. Yes, there is that noughties production and they turn out to be from Texas not the West Coast (I actually had them pegged as Aussies until I looked them up) but hey, it's Austin. Close enough.

Next stop on the trail Flock of Dimes with One More Hour and we're back in the canyon again. Also notice the television. And how many of these videos have bicycles? Okay, some I haven't linked. There's no room for all of them. But they do.

What's that we have we now? A sound, a style, images. Tropes. Didn't I read once, a while ago, YouTube could do this? Recommend by abstracts? Don't I remember it did that, once? Has it started again?

And currency. Let's not forget currency. That was the thing that struck me hardest. 

There are worlds yet to be discovered in the past, galaxies, universes. I welcome that. Still, it has become tiring, sometimes, being offered so much that's gone and so little that's still here. I'd like the chance to move forward not just look back.

All of these suggestions and lots more I've left out were uploaded in the last thirty days. Most of them seem to be new recordings, performances, films. I'd doubt myself about anything changing if it weren't for that. I swear the newness is new even if what's new in the new is old. We all go round again.

Whatever it is, I hope it lasts. This was a good week.


  1. Since Google Music closed down, they've been shifting more of its features over to Youtube Music. I always found Google Music's recommendations and ability to create a generated playlist based off of just one song to be really good. Perhaps they've combined the recommendation engines together and it works well for you now.

    1. I know they're always fiddling around with things behind the scenes. It hit a low point a while back where almost nothing in the sidebar seemed to relate at all to what I was watching. I stopped even looking at it. It hasn't been that bad recently but this did seem like a striking improvement. So hard to know if it's subjective or a fluke or a substantive change. I guess time will tell.

  2. I do run cookie (and script more generally) blocking addons -- specifically uMatrix and uBlock Origin -- but YouTube has ever been one of the places I make an exception. I login. I let it track me. I let it have its way with my data. (But I'm also going to block all ads, so take that Google!)

    Reason being, I cannot imagine attempting to use YouTube as you describe your earlier experience of it being akin to 50 First Dates. I'll happily give over my preference data in order to have a curated experience.

    All that said, I'm very curious what might have changed for you if you had blocked all this to suddenly have it start remembering you!

    1. It baffles me why anyone would watch YouTube without an ad blocker. I haven't seen an add on YT in many years, except when I use the mobile version, which I try never to do. I run NoScript and uBlock as well, and I don't access YouTube directly. I go through an excellent add-on with, yet again, the ridiculously pragmatic name of YouTube Video and Audio Downloader. I'm surprised YouTube even know I'm there.

      I don't think it's remembering me at all. What it seems to have remembered how to do, which it did years ago and then seemed to forget, is to relate each new set of sugestions to current one and, by inference, the ones immediately before that. For too long it just seemed to have given up trying and gave me whatever was currently most popular or being paid for.

      More interesting than that is the apparent correlation by images and themes. I swear i read an article once about how YouTube's recommends incorporate some kind of image parsing, so if you watch a video with tomatoes shown prominently, even though the subject of the video has nothing to do with tomatos specifically, you'll get more videos that just happen to include tomatos. Or maybe I just imagined that. It's hard to tell because if you watch a lot of hazy, sub-sychadelic videos by singers and bands who all draw inspiration from the same well, they are going to tend to have imagery in common.

  3. I also use uBlock but I let it track my history. When I access Youtube on my work computer and it shows the default random views I am reminded that I live in a very niche and sanitised corner of the Interwebs. That Elefant video made me think of a slower, even trippier, version of Strawberry Switchblade's stuff, like Since Yesterday, which happens to be the first song I ever bought (on cassette) as a kid.

    1. Someone made the same connection in a the comment on one of the rebe videos. I don't remember Strawberry Switchblade clearly enough for it to have come to mind but watching the video for Since yesterday I can hear and see affinities.


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