Where The Algorithms Can’t Find You

A man wearing a red flannel shirt and brown suspenders walks into a clearing. His beard is well kempt, the same off-white as the snowmelt behind him. “Good afternoon,” he says to the camera. “It’s Friday, Oct. 12.” Slowly, he extends his arms. Two birds swoop down from the trees, alighting on his hands. “You can see how much I love my whiskey jacks. I’m feeding them my home-baked bread,” he says. The whiskey jacks peck, then take off with their spoils. “Gotta love it,” the man says. “They’ve been my friends for years.” A small wave at the camera: “I hope you have a great day where you live.”

A man wearing a red flannel shirt and brown suspenders walks into a clearing. His beard is well kempt, the same off-white as the snowmelt behind him. “Good afternoon,” he says to the camera. “It’s Friday, Oct. 12.” Slowly, he extends his arms. Two birds swoop down from the trees, alighting on his hands. “You can see how much I love my whiskey jacks. I’m feeding them my home-baked bread,” he says. The whiskey jacks peck, then take off with their spoils. “Gotta love it,” the man says. “They’ve been my friends for years.” A small wave at the camera: “I hope you have a great day where you live.”

Well, I am having a great day where I live, Mr. Whiskey Jack. How could I not be knowing now that Snow White not only lives (albeit in the guise of a soft-spoken lumberjack) but is on YouTube?

That video is one of my favorite clips that I’ve seen while watching Default Filename TV, a website launched in March by artist Everest Pipkin. The site’s design is simple — a rectangular video embed floats in the middle of a black page1 and plays random YouTube videos that were uploaded straight from the camera, without an edit to the original file name. Most of the videos that I’ve watched on the site have fewer than 10 or 15 views. In “IMG 7313 Small,” a bear that seems to be in distress is tended to by a woman, who appears to be blowing air into the unconscious animal’s mouth. The video’s 34-second runtime leaves us no chance to process — “MOV 6092” begins to play, and we’re knee-high in a crop field watching what appears to be an industrial sprinkler sweep past the camera, a rainbow forming in its mist. When I watch the site, I am CCTV, omniscient and invisible. I am Superman hearing the cries of a newborn halfway around the world. I am the creep in “American Beauty” marveling at a plastic bag dancing in the wind. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world … I feel like I can’t take it.2

Default Filename feels quietly radical in 2019. The project imagines a YouTube without recommendation algorithms that think you only want to watch beauty tutorials, Avengers outtakes or product unboxings. It’s a glimpse of a timeline where Google and Facebook didn’t create and capitalize on a vast economy of tracking, prediction and control. Default Filename is a portal to an expansive, serendipitous internet — an internet that’s ours again.

When YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim uploaded the site’s first video in 2005, the web looked a little bit like that vision. At first, YouTube’s users weren’t able to choose which video played next. Instead, the site queued up a random clip. That kind of chaos used to be a feature of the web. From AOL’s anonymous chat rooms to StumbleUpon and Chatroulette, developers built a world that let people see something new and meet people they might otherwise never encounter.

“I think it was one of the great promises, especially of the early aughts internet,” Pipkin said. “You could find anything, anywhere. … You put in some words and then ‘dot com’ and saw what came up.”

That promise seems largely to have disappeared. Cookies and analytics power recommendations that keep users comfortable and clicking. StumbleUpon, a suite of tools that surprised users with a new website every time they clicked a button, was at one point among the top social media sites in the nation. It shut down last year. The popularity of Chatroulette, which connects strangers3 via webcam and was once the subject of New York Times and New Yorker articles, has fallen — it now ranks lower than 25,000 other websites in traffic and engagement in the United States.4 Meanwhile, YouTube, which Google bought in 2006, announced last year that recommended videos account for more than 70 percent of the time people spend watching the site’s videos.

Default Filename stands as a scrappy experiment on YouTube’s unprofitable fringes. I have yet to see any advertisement before the videos. And although watching a massive pig named Crackling play with a red ball for two minutes can’t erase decades of surveillance, at least my clicks on Default Filename probably won’t come back to haunt me.

Shoshana Zuboff describes this desire to hide from the algorithms as a “right to sanctuary” in her new book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, argues that a mutant form of capitalism spawned when Google and Facebook began to analyze users’ “behavioral surplus” data and used it to power their advertising products in a largely unregulated marketplace.

YouTube, the second-most-popular site on the web, is an important pipeline for Google, Zuboff told me in an interview: “It tells Google so much about us: what we’re feeling, thinking, doing. And from that, they’re able to discern what we’re likely to do.” Zuboff sees artists like Pipkin as dedicating “their genius to the prospects of human invisibility” in response to “the intolerable conditions of glass life,” a state of unending uncertainty about when we’re being watched.

Indeed, Default Filename is not the only attempt to celebrate the web’s less profitable content. No Likes Yet dug up Instagram posts with, yep, zero likes. YouHole.tv shows videos with fewer than 500 views, and other sites have highlighted videos with unchanged filenames.

Pipkin’s framing is my favorite. Zero-view videos are to be pitied, like the kid with no friends at recess. Tweaking the API call to target videos that were added to YouTube with their original filenames intact shifts the subject/object relationship. The uploaders presumably didn’t publish their videos with the goal of going viral. You can watch if you want, but this isn’t TikTok. The people in these videos are not performing for you.

It’s not clear how much longer sites like Default Filename will exist. YouTube’s original slogan was “Your Digital Video Repository,” a pricey commitment for a free website whose users now upload more than 80 years’ worth of content every day. Considering that an estimated 85 percent of the platform’s traffic goes to 3 percent of channels, I can imagine a day when YouTube executives decide that it doesn’t make sense to save all those videos that have washed up on the long tail. Or they could tweak the API that allows Pipkin to retrieve videos and Default Filename may just stop working.

In the meantime, I’ll cherish the site, passive and voyeuristic as it is. I’ve seen videos that frighten me, like the clip of a toddler who’s pointing the butt of a gun at the family bunny and pulling the trigger. Then the next video loads, and I’m watching a group of women wearing lavender cowboy hats spin children in wheelchairs around a stage as the audience claps along to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” Such is the promise of plunging a hand again and again into the welter of human memory.


Footnotes

  1. The layout reminds me of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Theaters photographs, which documented the places where humans first gathered to watch glimpses of other peoples’ lives through a glowing rectangle.

  2. Another quote that comes to mind, from philosopher George Santayana’s essay on travel: “All tourists are dear to Hermes, the god of travel, who is patron also of amiable curiosity and freedom of mind. There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind agile, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humor.”

  3. And strangers’ dicks.

  4. According to its May 20, 2019, Alexa ranking.

Gus Wezerek was a visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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