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The power of the algorithm: Intensifying inequality on Youtube

The power of the algorithm: Intensifying inequality on Youtube

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Published by Despina Skordili

This essay seeks to analyze the role of the Youtube recommendation system in the creation of a scale-free network of online videos, following the analysis of Albert- Laszlo Barabasi and Eric Bonabeau (2003). Significant network theory researchers attribute the creation of such networks to the freedom of choice. This research will examine the personalized recommendation algorithm as another factor in intensifying the unequal distribution of videos on the popular video platform. Its aim is to function as a starting point for further analysis examining the influence of recommendation personalization in the user’s online experience.

This essay seeks to analyze the role of the Youtube recommendation system in the creation of a scale-free network of online videos, following the analysis of Albert- Laszlo Barabasi and Eric Bonabeau (2003). Significant network theory researchers attribute the creation of such networks to the freedom of choice. This research will examine the personalized recommendation algorithm as another factor in intensifying the unequal distribution of videos on the popular video platform. Its aim is to function as a starting point for further analysis examining the influence of recommendation personalization in the user’s online experience.

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Published by: Despina Skordili on Dec 27, 2012
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09/17/2013

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1
Case Study-
The power of the algorithm:Intensifying inequality on Youtube
Despina Skordili
In the Web 2.0 era, internet users are given the ability to actively participate in the
 production of online content. Tim O’
Reilly, free software supporter and founder of 
O’
Reilly Media company,
talks about an “architecture of participation”
(2005), wherewebsites are designed using certain defaults, which engage the users to this activecreation of content. This development has turned the digital age into an era of information overload, where users are dealing with an explosion of data, having toconstantly browse for content which is valid or suitable to their interests.Recently, several websites have attempted to solve this problem by developingtheir algorithms in order to create a personalized experience for the user. Searchengines and recommendation systems suggest personalized findings to users who arebrowsing for content, based on their previous activity on a website. One significantexample is the recommendation system of Youtube, which suggests related videos inorder to provide the individual
with content which is “
recent and fresh, as well as
diverse and relevant to the user’s recent actions” (Davidson et al, 2010
: 294). Thequestion which arises is: should this recommendation system be seen as a usefuldevelopment which improves our online experience or as a process limiting our onlinespace?This essay seeks to analyze the role of the Youtube recommendation system in thecreation of a scale-free network of online videos, following the analysis of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and Eric Bonabeau (2003). Significant network theory researchers,who are going to be referred to later on, attribute the creation of such networks to thefreedom of choice. This research will examine the personalized recommendationalgorithm as another factor in intensifying the unequal distribution of videos on thepopular video platform. Its aim is to function as a starting point for further analysisexamining the influence of recommendation personalization
in the user’s online
experience.According to Barabasi and Bonabeau, the internet is a scale-free network. The tworesearchers were led to this finding when they attempted to map the World Wide
Web. As they explain in their 2003 essay “Scale
-
Free Networks”,
although theyexpected to end up in observing a randomly distributed network with most web pages
having a similar amount of links, based on their assumption that “
people follow theirunique i
nterests when deciding what sites to link their Web documents to” (52), they
discovered that a small minority of web pages had a very large number of links, whilemore than 80% of web pages had very few. They realized that the Web is one of manynetworks, from different fields, which are dominated by a very small amount of nodeswhich have a tremendous amount of connections, while the vast majority of the othernodes have very few links.
Those networks are characterized as “scale
-
free”, in the
sense that the dominant nodes have the potential to a seemingly unlimited number of connections, and they are distinguished from random networks, where the distributionof links is more democratic. In contrast to the mapping of random networks, which
 
2
follow a Bell curve distribution, scale- free networks follow a power law distribution,where the big amount of nodes with very few connections shape the long tail.The concept of the long tail is described in
Clay Shirky’s essay “Power Laws,Weblogs, and Inequality” (200
6), where the internet theorist notes that a small amount
of weblogs have a huge amount of connections leading to them, while a “long tail” of 
the vast majority of weblogs have very few links (41). An important point that needsto be emphasized is how the distribution of scale-free networks came to be. Accordingto Barabasi and Bonabeau, when people are choosing where to link to, they seem to
have a “preferential attachment” towards nodes which already have a large amount of 
connections (2003: 54-55). Clay Shirky also attributes this scale-free distribution to a
freedom of choice: “[t]he very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freelyenough, creates a power law distribution” (2006: 36).
In analyzing the Youtuberecommendation system, I will argue that the recent development of its algorithmfunctions as an additional factor, together with the factor of the freedom of choice, inthe formation of power law distributions.
In their paper “The Youtube Video Recommendation System” (2010), Google
software engineers James Davidson et al. explain that the recommendation feature of 
Youtube is based on the user’s activity on the website, which consists of watching,
rating a
nd sharing videos. Those videos function as “seeds” for the formation of a setof “similar videos”, that the user would be likely to watch after the seed videos (294).The authors refer to the main factors which define this “likelihood” that the
recommended videos will be appreciated by the user. Here, two points will beemphasized on: first, the algorithm of the recommendation system considers the viewcount and ratings of a video from previous users, the activities of commenting,
“favoriting” and sharing, as well as whether the video has been watched in its entirety
(295). Second, Davidson et al. mention that the aforementioned process is facingcertain limits, for example, some videos have a very low view count and, therefore,
the algorithm is not “
able to compute a reliable set of related videos
” for them (294).
 As it becomes apparent from the description of this process, the Youtube videorecommendation system for an individual user is based on data retrieved by the
choices of previous users. Connecting this information to Shirky’s “freedom of choice” on the web, we can
observe the formation of an unequal distribution in thenetwork of Youtube videos. A high view count from previous users results in moreconnections to recommended videos, while videos with a very low view count are nottaken into consideration from the system and, thus, are not connected to other videosas recommendations. This process intensifies the power law distribution, drawing the
long tail further away from the “head” of the few most popular videos
. As Barabasi
and Bonabeau put it “this "rich get richer" process will gene
rally favor the early
nodes” (55).As this essay has attempted to show, the mechanism of “preferentialattachment”
in Youtube is reinforced by the recent development in
the website’s
personalized recommendation system. It could be argued that recommendationpersonalization, a significant development of the Web 2.0 online experience, shrinks
the user’s online space, limiting the content they have the chance to stumble upon.
This finding highlights the importance of the awareness of how recommendationalgorithms function, as it could enlighten us on how democratic theserecommendation systems are.

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