Training the YouTube Algorithm

by lsusr1 min read15th Apr 202111 comments

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Listening to music and watching dance lessons on YouTube makes me happy. Everything else on YouTube makes me unhappy. It doesn't matter what the video is, watching YouTube makes me unhappy.

If all of YouTube made me unhappy then I should just not use YouTube. But I like listening to music and watching dance lessons on YouTube. I dislike getting recommendations for non-music non-dance videos. Fortunately, YouTube personalizes its recommendations. I wondered if I could train YouTube to only recommend music and dance lessons.

I created a brand new Google account just for YouTube. I carefully refrained from clicking on anything other than music and dance lessons. I quickly learned that "Don't recommend channel" works better than "Not interested". If you press "Don't recommend channel" then YouTube will stop recommending the channel.

I have trained my YouTube algorithm for about two years now. When I wanted to watch a non-music non-dancing video I did it incognito or on another account. Here are what my homepage recommendations look like right now.

The first 12 recommendations are all music. The 13th recommendation is a clip related to Doctor Who. I think the non-music Doctor Who recommendation came from clicking on The 10th Doctor Epic Suite which got recommended because I was watching music from Sherlock. From there, the next 72 recommendations are all music.

If I just keep scrolling and scrolling until I get non-music non-dance recommendations, they tend to be silly stuff like this, this or this. I think the Lord of the Rings recommendations come from listening to fantasy-themed music.

If you want to use YouTube for a specific purpose without distractions then it is entirely possible to train YouTube to do this. All you have to do is create an account, watch videos on a specific topic and press "Don't recommend channel" whenever you encounter an off-topic recommendation.

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You don't even need to create a new account to start this experiment. If you clear your watch and search history on your existing account, your recommendations will get reset immediately. Here is the support doc from Google detailing how to do so; https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/95725?co=GENIE.Platform%3DAndroid&hl=en

I found, when I tried to do this over a year ago, that no matter how much effort I put into "pruning" the home screen, YouTube would always devote ~10-20% of it to stuff I didn't want to see. Either it was epsilon-exploration, or stuff that tested well with the general population, or a bunch of "mandatory modules" like popular music or "news," but whatever it was, I couldn't get rid of all of it, and some of it managed to attract my clicks despite my best efforts. These extra items filled me with a sense of violation whenever I scrolled through.

So, I wound up using a CSS editor to block the main content of the youtube index page, as well as that column of recommended videos that gets shown next to the player. Here's my custom stylesheet:

.branded-page-v2-secondary-col > * {
  display: none;
}

ytd-browse[page-subtype="home"] {
  display: none;
}

ytd-watch-next-secondary-results-renderer {
  display: none;
}

Now when I visit youtube.com, I get a blank page, and have to click on "subscriptions" in the left column to get the user experience I want, plus I get recommended videos only when I FINISH a video. This is a far more pleasant experience, and I am able to use YouTube for pretty much only classical music, cooking tutorials, and the occasional education video, without ever getting pulled into things I don't want.

Speaking of the recommendation algo, btw, it's also super awesome. It has somehow consistently surfaced new classical music composers to me, and has played a major role in the development of my tastes and interests over the past few years. Without it, I doubt I would have been exposed to Schnittke or Bruckner, for example. Way better than spotify, and I haven't found anything to replace it, sadly.

Do you use a particular CSS editor plugin?

Stylebot for chrome. Perhaps there's better now — the ui can be a bit wonky — but I've used it for almost a decade, so

I did this and it worked really well. I spent maybe 3h on the training initially until it was mostly just showing me music. Then clicked away the occasional non-music video suggestion for a couple of days, until the music-only preference was completely locked in. I feel like I don't get other suggestions anymore (and the habit to click them away is still installed anyway). 

When I want to watch other youtube videos, I use incognito mode (unfortunately that disables the adblocker). 

I pay attention to what kind of story the youtube recommendations tell of me. I avoid training it so that I am not getting a self-fullfilling propechy.

I've also been doing this. In my experience, for it to be effective you have to be very vigilant about never clicking on anything you don't want it to recommend. The easy way to watch guilty pleasure videos is to right click > 'open in cognito'.

I do this too. Then, after opening it in cognito, I press "Don't recommend channel".

I wonder how many times I'll have to click "not interested - I've watched this before" for it to learn to stop recommending videos I've watched before.

I tried to do this with a Twitter alt account, to get info about one specific topic. Then I got lazy and used it as a dumping ground to follow any account I came across. But maybe this could've worked there, too.

The videos that are recommended for you are commonly based often on "videos you have watched", it doesn't have to be recent, it's enough that you once favorited a video. Far from always these recommendations do make sense and can appear to be rather unrelated to videos of your interest.
On the other hand, YouTube state why one video is recommended for you by stating "because you watched *video title* it refers to. That video in its turn might have your recommended video as a related video

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