Broadcaster: The New York Times
Narrators: Kevin Roose
Start Date: April 10, 2020
End Date: June 4, 2020
When was the last time you checked YouTube? Was it an hour ago? Two minutes ago? Has it been a day or two? Is it playing now? For those who answered yes to that last one, you’re certainly not alone. YouTube’s viewership is incredibly large. Most Americans spend at least some time on YouTube on any given day and many spend hours a day watching, listening, and consuming its content.
Anyone who has watched a fair amount of YouTube knows what a YouTube rabbit hole is. You log on and watch a music video or a creator you are subscribed to and then you click on just one more video in the recommended list, or even just let the “next video” roll. Before you know it, it’s hours later, you’re curled up in a ball on your couch snacking on a bag of some salty crunchy thing, you’re watching another slow-motion mousetrap compilation, and find yourself somehow convinced that aliens were involved with the production of Stonehenge.
It is precisely this process which Kevin Roose, a tech columnist for the New York Times, delves into in his 2020 podcast, Rabbit Hole. Rabbit Hole explores the realm of YouTube, alternative culture online, and asks the investigative question of what happens to those who seek to find more and more of their community online. It also focuses on how online information centers like YouTube funnel people into more and more polarized and segregated portions of the internet, all due to the recommendation algorithms the site uses to keep people clicking on new videos.
Rabbit Hole begins with an interview of a young man named Caleb Cain who recounts his story of how he believes he was radicalized by his YouTube addiction. Cain, who started as a part of the punk alternative movement, believed in environmental preservation, and went to college for environmental pursuits, dropped out of college, and began watching self-help videos on YouTube. Having submitted his YouTube watch data and search history to Roose and the production team at Rabbit Hole, we get to see in detail the way Cain’s watch patterns were crafted and cultivated by algorithms and how slowly, over the course of years, he was directed from his self-help channels toward consuming more and more radicalized alt-right content. The community that he found around this content encouraged him, and after a few years his beliefs had been substantially changed as a result of his YouTube addiction. This eventually was challenged through another interesting series of YouTube video recommendations, and he eventually decided to examine himself a little more critically and start his own YouTube channel to illustrate his deconstruction of his indoctrination.
Roose continues his investigative reporting with the CEO of YouTube herself, Susan Wojcicki, which includes direct interviews with her. Roose asks Wojcicki a series of questions concerning the responsibility of YouTube to guide people toward good information and begins to wonder whether YouTube is even fully aware of the power it has over people’s lives.
He also spends a couple episodes focusing on the YouTuber PewDiePie, tracking his meteoric rise in the early days of YouTube and a variety of controversies which he was involved in as a result of his provocative content. Roose interviews PewDiePie following a particularly tragic controversy he was a part of, and through the course of that interview, the listener can begin to perceive a sense of surprise from PewDiePie about the level of power he has over people’s lives.
Throughout these interviews with prominent and successful practitioners of YouTube, a common theme begins to arise. At least at the beginning of YouTube’s time on the internet, producers and caretakers of the content that was being spread via YouTube had no concept of the level of power they had over their watchers. They had no idea that their jokes, rants, and content in general would inspire movements, violence, death threats, and conspiracy theories. Most of the original channels and owners thought they were just making entertainment and had no concept of (or refused to consider) just how serious their content was being taken.
The last portion of the podcast concerns the alternative cultural movement known as QAnon. It tracks the inception of QAnon and how it slowly crept up through alt-right YouTube channels and mobilized through polarizing algorithms and sectors of the internet. Roose interviews a number of experts on how the QAnon movement started as well as someone who eventually escaped the movement, all while humanizing those taken in by the deception.
What begins to materialize from all these interviews and reporting is the fact that what most people are looking for in these YouTube binges and rabbit holes is connection. Whether it is connection with experts that we think will help us, podcasters who we build relationships with over the course of years, YouTube entertainers who make us laugh, or connection with communities of fans who form their own version of internet families around their chosen content, those who consume online content are looking for that moment of connection and the knowledge they are not alone.
This should strike a chord for nearly all of us, certainly for us as Christians. Is not one of the great gifts of our faith in God the truth that we are never alone? That there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God? That God has made a covenant with us that will never be broken, specifically so we will never be separated from the love of God? Not only are we forever joined with God in loving covenant relationship, but we also have the fellowship of believers, all those around us who love and serve God who we are intimately connected with.
This should also strike an incriminating chord for us as believers. Despite the fact that we have so great a love between us and the creator of the universe, and so great a connection between us and all the saints of this world and those that came before, people, our neighbors, and even we ourselves, choose to try to find our connection on sites like YouTube. In 2016, YouTube’s daily watch time was over a billion hours. That is around 114,000 years of accumulated watch time on YouTube in one day. 114,000 years’ worth of time is spent on YouTube every day by people searching for connection, searching for belonging, searching for community, searching for love.
Should not the church be the source of God’s love on earth? Is the church not called to be a place of connection, haven of belonging, and source of community for those hungry for these things? How has this migration from church community to online chatrooms and comment threads happened, and is there any responsibility the church has for this migration? Have we failed in our calling to cultivate connection? Have we made our spaces less about who belongs and more about who doesn’t?
Of course, Rabbit Hole does not answer these questions for us. But it does jog them loose and forces us to ask more questions like: What if a portion of a billion hours a day more were lived for God’s kingdom of shalom on earth? Where are we finding belonging? Is watching an hour (or five hours) a day of YouTube a healthy kind of belonging? Can we trust the places we get our information from? Do online content providers truly have our best interests at heart?
For this reason, I highly recommend Rabbit Hole. While it may not weave a fully cohesive story or provide gripping cliffhangers or exciting characters, it does give a refreshing look at online content spaces, like YouTube, which we are starting to take for granted. It makes its listeners ask critical questions and inspires a greater awareness of how we can be greater sources of belonging and connection in our communities and relationships.