YouTube tracks what you watch to create a profile that can be used to power recommendations and adverts. It learns what you like, what you don’t, when you stop watching, when you’re watching, on what device you’re watching. But it seems unfair that only advertisers learn about me from my watch history. If a person is shaped by the books they read and the music they hear, surely you can understand a lot about someone from the videos they watch? What could I learn about myself from my watching history?
In the last two years the amount I watch on YouTube has really grown; probably because of the lack of time to sit and watch anything ‘properly’, and the lack of energy to focus on reading. Watching videos, little bits at a time, is easier and requires less effort.
The quality of the videos has really improved in the last few years. Many are now as good as professional productions, with slick graphics, coherent editing and well chosen soundtracks. This has been happening for years, and I’ve not really been conscious of it, but somehow it reached a threshold where I suddenly noticed it everywhere.
What is also astounding is the breadth and depth of videos, covering niche topics that would never be filmed if video creation tools and equipment were not so easily available.
It’s an open question on if creators are fairly rewarded; having to put in a lot of effort for unreliable returns on a platform that can arbitrarily decide not to pay, with no appeals process, and a lack of transparency on how things are promoted and recommended.
Most of my watching tends to go in fads, which often feel very random. I’ll watch a lot of videos on a particular topic for a week or two, and then drift on. There are very few channels to which I subscribe and watch with any regularity.
To try and understand what I’ve been watching I’ve tried to group them by subject, which works most of the time, but isn’t perfect.
Music and Guitar Related
The first of the two biggest categories of video that I watch is related to music and playing guitar. These are the channels that appeared most frequently, but there are quite a few one-off videos from other channels on the same topic that I’ve watched.
In terms of all-purpose music theory and understanding I always find Adam Neely’s videos interesting. They’re a very good mix of theory, history, culture and experimentation. In the same musicology vain there’s 12tone , that can also be interesting, but is even more likely than Adam’s videos to go over my head in terms of music theory. They also have a fixed style, which means there’s not the same diversity of topics.
More guitar focused there’s That Pedal Show , of which I’ve watched a lot, and its hosts, Dan and Mick, have a really great easy going style and chemistry, which in many cases is more of a draw than the actual pedals themselves. Some of the most interesting videos are focused on a particular topic, or effect style. But there are also a lot where they’re just looking at dozens of pedals that I will never play, and I’m not even really that interested in. In most cases I just can’t imagine having that strong an opinion on a particular effect.
Pedal maker Brian Wampler also comes up frequently, and he tends to look more closely at the actual circuit of a pedal and talk about it’s frequency response, design etc. One of the great about YouTube is that this is coming not from a hobbyist (even though he started that way), but someone who’s managed to create a successful pedal business from his tinkering. In the same vain the JHS Show is also a pedal maker with a channel. While I’m not sure I share Josh’s sense of humour, I do find his constant attacks on the ‘magic’ of particular components and vintage pedals refreshing. Also when he’s talking about pedals he’s rarely talking in vague terms about a particular sound, but rather about its history, that of the company making it, a pedal’s design lineage, and gives historical context to their releases, which is much more interesting than just playing through a series of settings.
When talking about guitar equipment history, Five Watt World is a good source, mostly the ‘short history’ series. CSGuitars also has some good videos on various bits of the guitar. While I think of a lot of Rob Scallion’s videos as a bit of a novelty, even if he seems very nice, the one on the history of the guitar is very good.
Slightly more random, but very charming is Uncle Doug , and his self shot vintage guitar amplifier repairs. This feels more like the old YouTube that I remember, without the slick effects and soundtracks, and a bit more intimate.
During the pandemic lots of artists tried to find other ways of connecting with their fans. The one I managed to watch was Jimmy Eat World’s Pass Through Frequencies , which is mostly Jim Adkins talking to various other artists about their song writing process. I don’t know all of the artists, and in many cases I’m actually more interested in Jim’s answers than those of his guests, but most are very interesting, and because it’s a conversation between professionals and peers, and not some third party journalist, I felt they were really fascinating. I some cases perhaps a journalist would have been useful to help translate a bit of what they were talking about, and give a bit of context, I then also suspect the exchange wouldn’t have been quite as open.
The second big category is what I’m calling “Popular Science”, that might not be the best description, but it mostly seems to be people explaining some aspect of natural sciences or technology.
There’s certainly one group, that includes Stand-up Maths , Smarter Every Day , Steve Mould , Real Engineering and Veritasium , that would consider themselves science educators of some description.
But then there are some others that I’m lumping into this category, as they tend to deal with some kind of science and technology, but there focus seems to less on the pure explanation.
Examples of this include Technology Connections , where Alec Watson spends his time looking at various interesting, under appreciated, and often domestic, pieces of technology. He high-lights the odd things that have become convention, and how things could be done better. Plus Heat Pumps, he really likes heat pumps.
There’s also MedLifeCrisis , which is some combination of medicine and comedy, but with serious points mixed in. I think Tech Ingredients also lands here, even if they’re more about making things from first principles rather than just explaining how it works.
On the edge of this group live things like Mustard , that profiles various vehicles and Adam Ragusea , who is food focused - but less on the recipes. There are recipes, but I had to admit that I’m not as interested in them as I am in his other videos on where food comes from, and what it is.
There’s also a generalist like Tom Scott YouTube’s most likely UK children’s TV presenter in waiting, who I feel is destined to take over Blue Peter at some point. He has a lot of none-science content, but I don’t have a more general category for him to live in.
After these two big general groups, there are some more specific groups; they don’t appear as consistently, but more in phases, but I do come back to them after a while.
Computing & Coding
This is a category where what I watch is mostly based on searching for something specific, and not a regular channel that I come back to, but there are a few exceptions.
Jeff Geerling is one, who has regular Raspberry Pi based shenanigans, but once you look past what sometimes feels like a ’novelty’ of doing everything with a Raspberry Pi, are good general computing videos that explain a lot.
Sebastian Lague’s Coding Adventures are interesting and soothing, to see how he works through his various ideas and experiments, mistakes and all.
I think I saw my first Luke Smith video looking for a tutorial or explanation on something related to Bash, and there are various, mostly Linux related, tutorials on there; but there’s also a variety of general ’life advice’ videos. I find these interesting because he mostly seems to come from a different world view that most of the other videos I see, and YouTube recommends, and so I come back from time to time to see an enthusiast for do it yourself computing and privacy on the internet, but coming from a different direction.
Another very periodic watch is John Hammond , who mostly focuses on security related issues, and I’ll watch a burst on something, then not watch anything for months.
The last entries are not channels, but people. I found both James Powell and Benno Rice have given multiple interesting talks at difference conferences that are worth watching. It requires (a little) more hunting as the recordings are spread across the channels of various conferences or institutions, but are not too hard to find. I particularly found this review of Systemd very interesting.
There a few channels I do seem to return to on a semi-regular basis, but don’t have an overarching theme, so I’ll lump them together here.
I started listening to The Bugle , and still do, in 2008 and so it makes sense that John Olivier’s current gig is something I’d watch, and I have watched a lot of Last Week tonight , but I think I’m now tired of it. The format is ok, and it’s good that he works on more serious topics, but sometimes I feel the inevitable outrage is too predictable.
Movies with Mikey does what a good critic does; that is provide context and give you a good reason to watch something (again) and appreciate aspects you might not have noticed yourself. My current issue is that I don’t watch many films, so can’t really keep up with his content. In a similar vain Folding Ideas also tends to cover films, especially the editing thereof, but he also covers the politics and social context of things like NFTs, Flat Earthers and a few other slightly random topics, but really excellently.
Vox have some quite interesting videos, but mostly the Earworm series, which I’ll watch if a new ones appears.
Channels that I’ll watch if there’s a specific topic that appears and I’m interested in include Wendover Productions , How Money Works and LegalEagel , even if the last one is very US centric, and really only interesting if there’s been some larger US news story, as it doesn’t deal with EU/UK laws.
Last there’s Tim Traveller , who does short and charming ’travel/geography trivia’ videos, if that can be considered a genre. I found it as an offshot from Geoff Marshall and this trip to visit all UK Train stations, but after a phase I’ve not watched any more of those.
All the remaining categories are mostly things that I watched intensively for a period, but then only return to very sporadically, if at all.
Perhaps this is an under-category of the first, but it feels a bit different. Since I’m not designing a complete taxonomy of video genres it doesn’t really matter; this is music related, but far more music production/electronic music focused, as opposed to my usual guitar based music haunts.
I think it started when I stumbled upon Ricky Tinez , whose videos are just really laid back, but it’s the first time I’ve really watched anyone using drum machines and samplers for any extended period, and really come to appreciate how complex they are, and that they’re easily as complex as a traditional instrument, if not more. It’s amazing how naturally he switches between different modes, features, function buttons etc. And the thing that amazed me is these controls are often completely different on every instrument. With something like a guitar, the controls are very simple and easy to understand, and there aren’t really hidden functions. Also once you’ve understood it, the concept (even if not the playing technique) are broadly similar on different stringed instruments. Not so with a sampler or groove box.
This started a bit of a period where I ended up watching things like Red Means Recording , Hainbach and STLNDRMS . All of these really gave me a new view on what music creation is, and what makes a song compared to what I’ve grown up expecting.
In this genre there is also the unavoidable Andrew Huang , and also the fascinating Look Mum No Computer , who is as interested in building and restoring synthesisers and other ‘outdated’ technology as he is in writing music.
I’ve not seriously played any computer games for a long time, I think the last thing I really played was a remaster of Homeworld that was released in 2015. It’s one of those activities that if I had more time I’d like to do more of, and it’s really a unique medium and art form of the late 20th century that is still finding its way.
No clip produce excellent documentaries on game development, that I think are interesting even for none game players. Probably slightly more hardcore is Modern Vintage Gamer , which also focuses a lot on the technology behind various games consoles.
Slightly more random is the topic of speed running, something I’ve never done, and find somehow hard to understand; spending all that time focusing on the minute technical detail to shave seconds, or less, off something, but then again I don’t really understand that in the context of professional sports like Athletics either. Karl Jobst has an interesting channel that covers the basics and the details of recent developments. This starts to fall into the category of things I know exist, and I know quite a lot of people are very interested, which is fascinating in itself, and leads us nicely to…
I think, but can’t be sure, that I landed in the realm of Sim-Racers (people who race cars online, but with very high levels of realism) from the above speed running. The main channel I watched is Jimmy Broadbent . He seems nice, doing most of this from a shed in his mum’s garden. Watching him play through Gran Turismo 2 is somehow very relaxing and friendly. What is also really interesting is his foray into real world racing, and home much his ‘playing games’ translates into real racing driving.
That clearly led me to Donut for all kinds of car related info, plus juvenile humour, and Driver61 for more detailed analysis of formula one and motorsport. Again, something that’s interesting, as historically I have had zero interest in things car related.
This was a mini-fad started by the very real desire to figure out how to properly sharpen a kitchen knife, after our knife sharpener fell apart. Through this I did discover Adam Regusea, already mentioned above, but unlike that channel I haven’t carried on watching these. Both Burrfection and Never a Dull Moment feature excellent subject related pun names, and are another example that for almost any topic you can think of, that people get joy in diving into extreme detail, even if it’s something, like knife sharpening, that most of us think of as totally utilitarian.
These remaining ones I couldn’t fit into any category, but I’ve watched at least half a dozen videos of each, in many cases just as fascinated by other people’s fascination and obsession as the content itself. These include topics as random as the satisfying LockPickingLawyer , who as the name suggests, picks locks or The Bread Code who goes into great practical detail on how to bake your own bread.
Stewart Hicks covers architecture in a very accessible and interesting way, as does This Does Not Compute on vintage consumer electronics, I was especially interested in the video on mini-Discs (even though I have never owned one).
James Hoffmann is very clearly obsessed with coffee, and I have to admit responsible, in a Tom Scott crossover , for me trying coffee again, which I’ve previously never really enjoyed.
Steve Wallis is a charming Canadian ‘stealth camper’, who goes on little secret camping trips, trying to cook and spend a night in places like round-abouts, behind signs and other more urban environments. He’s very charming in his hap-hazard way, especially that unlike any other camping or outdoor videos I’ve seen, he has almost no interest in reviewing or comparing equipment, and mostly uses slightly random things bought cheaply from big-box shops.
Ghost Town Living documents the efforts of Bret and his associate in trying to restore/revive/preserve an old abandoned mining town in Death Valley. It’s a fascinating watch, combining some elements of the ‘getting away from it all’ escapism I think we can all feel, with spectacular scenery, and a very strong sense of history - but does involve quite a lot of climbing into old abandoned mines than I’d no be so happy with.
Most recently I’ve been watching Beau Miles , who is probably best described as a filmmaker and back yard adventurer. He has done more exotic adventures, especially in running and sea kayaking form, but now seems to be focused on finding narratives through physical feats in his local landscape. He’s interesting not only because of the actual stories he discovers, or tries to, in a very practical way - and it’s not always clear there is a story to find, but also that he’s working on his ability to tell and film stories he’s happy with.
So that was a long list of videos, much longer than I expected, even if I knew I’d been watching more videos because of their short length and low effort consumption. The large volume of videos watched surprised me the most, even if the content was not far from what I would have imagined. It reflects the things I’m interested in: music, technology, computing plus the more random excursions that will be familiar with anyone who can’t stop clicking Wikipedia links . I couldn’t find any unexpected topic that I kept quietly returning to, perhaps subconsciously thinking of switching to a van life on the road, or doing house renovations.
While a surprise, this history, which covers roughly the last two years, is a reflection of the reality of what’s happened in that time: raising two young children in a global pandemic, with the associated restrictions, and working at the same time is exhausting; leaving almost no time or energy for anything else.
Most of what I consider my hobbies (playing guitar, making and experimenting) require some mental effort, and is what makes them fun, but this usually requires a longer block of time, and at least half an hour to really get into. Luckily my job can also be interesting, but this takes its own share of mental effort in a day.
So if I’m being kind to myself, and we should all be kinder to ourselves, then this increase in video watching is not due to a lost inability to pay attention, or laziness, it’s just what’s been possible. Ten minutes here, or 5 minutes there while waiting on a train, perhaps twenty minutes in bed before going to sleep when I don’t have the energy to read anything.
It’s also too easy to frame watching videos online in leu of doing other things as ‘bad’ or ’lazy’. While I do hope that the amount I watch reduces, and gets replaced with actually doing some of the activities I’ve only had time and energy to watch, there are also excellent video storytellers out there, on a huge variety of topics. Stories that told in this medium are justly different from ones told in books, films or song, and can be best told this way.
If you want to take advantage of some of the data that is being gathered on you for your own benefit, anyone can see their own history, and decide how much of it YouTube should keep (if any) at https://myactivity.google.com/product/youtube .