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Editorial

How Algorithms Suppress Skateboarding Content

How Algorithms Suppress Skateboarding Content
Posted by Andrew Murrell10 min read
Thursday, September 17, 2020

The skate video experience has changed dramatically over the past decade. The days of watching major full-length videos on scattered VHS tapes, deluxe edition DVDs, and mIRC-era rips are long gone; instead, we rely almost entirely on YouTube and other streaming websites for skateboarding content. The perpetual “are full-lengths dead?” argument is moot as long-form will always exist, but how we consume video is actually a larger conversation that isn’t happening.

The means to access forty years of skate videos instantly is a cultural boon and should create an even playing field for smaller filmers and editors looking to promote their work. If the world over can watch your videos immediately and learn more about your scene, the only barrier to recognition should be the merit of the work. Unfortunately, YouTube’s algorithm plays a larger role in the skate videos people watch than most are willing to admit, it forces certain filmers and editors into an uphill battle for promotion, and even meddles with the definition of “skateboarding,” itself. 

So how much of a role does YouTube play in not only what we see but when and how we see it? Understanding its algorithm is central to this and in many cases prohibitive. 

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The inner machinations of YouTube are constantly in flux and shrouded in secrecy. However, several things about YouTube’s algorithm are well-established 

As of 2016, the algorithm relies on artificial intelligence to deliver a stream of personalized videos in the search results, recommended streams, on YouTube’s homepage, in trending streams, in channel subscriptions, and in notifications. Search results and recommended streams are the only results listed that are catered to each specific subscriber, yet completely out of the subscriber’s hands; despite this, they are both responsible for a majority of traffic on the platform (according to a speech YouTube’s Chief Product Officer made in 2018, at least 70% of all YouTube views are due to recommendations alone, and YouTube counts watching a video for 30 seconds as a “view”, regardless of who the views are from and if they’re remotely organic. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to surmise that a sizable percentage of view numbers are people who didn’t watch the entire video). 

Among other unknown factors, YouTube’s search function relies mostly on metadata (how relevant a video’s title, description, and keywords are to a search query) and engagement (how much the video in question has engaged viewers). Recommended results, on the other hand, are much more complicated. Essentially, one neural network sorts videos and determines if they are worthwhile candidates for the viewer’s “next up” selection, based on the user’s history, and what similar users have watched. Meanwhile, a second neural network ranks videos by assigning them a score, based on factors including a video’s newness and a channel’s frequency of uploads. Other criteria affecting the algorithm and rankability include video length (according to YouTube, the optimal video length is between two and twenty minutes), if the channel has been previously used, and if substantial watch data is available (if so, keywords matter less in a search).

The monetization process on YouTube is much simpler. In order to monetize a YouTube channel, it has to reach a certain number of subscribers and qualify as original advertiser-friendly content that you own the rights for. While there are also different levels of monetization available for channels, most skate videos we see on monetized channels rely on simple ad revenue. When you turn on ads for content, YouTube will scan for “things like comments, likes, and whether the entire video is watched … [as well as] other kinds of content your audience watches” in order to make an assessment on a video’s monetization status. 

Overall, YouTube aims to help viewers find the videos they want to watch, and to maximize long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction. YouTube’s final goal isn’t to identify “good” videos, but rather videos the viewer will want to watch. In short, YouTube wants you to spend as much time on the website and see as many ads as possible.

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YouTube’s perspective of skateboarding is largely colored by clickbait and compilations, as well as the users who regularly interact with these videos. Logging out of my personal account and querying “skateboarding” unleashed dozens of videos from Braille Skateboarding, Andy Schrock, the Berrics, MTV’s Ridiculousness, and a number of YouTubers. Noticeably absent from the top fifty results was a single traditional video part or full-length video. 

Search “skate video” to be served with a more traditional platter of promos and full-lengths from Thrasher Magazine (arguably the top source for skateboarding the world over), Nike Skateboarding, Red Bull, Echoboom Sports, and Primitive Skate, to name a few channels. Many of these channels are verified, and almost all of them are monetized. According to YouTube’s algorithm, the more users who interact positively with these videos, the more likely the website is to allow this definition of “skateboarding” to overtake what we traditionally think of as skateboarding content and direct users to these types of videos as a result. The implications of this are jarring. 

Given that hundreds of branded skate videos from big-name companies are released through Thrasher Magazine’s YouTube account annually, Thrasher’s management has to approve the video as “relevant” for both their brand and their base audience. Not only does this exclude certain “niche” disciplines of skateboarding and filming, but from a tech standpoint, YouTube requires more and more skate videos to pass through the “Thrasher filter” in order for the website to consider them relevant to your tastes. Another way to think of this: would your average Thrasher viewer (or, someone who watches Thrasher-branded videos for at least 30 seconds) enjoy this video? If the answer is “no,” YouTube isn’t likely to recommend it in lieu of something actually tailored to your interests. The same principle applies to the aforementioned big-name YouTube channels.

The sobering reality is that because YouTube’s ad model mirrors Spotify’s, viewers are being recommended videos they’re most likely to watch 30 seconds of based on what others have, instead of being recommended videos by their tastes. YouTube is more likely to promote bigger branded channels with a high number of videos (regardless of what these videos are), videos with higher view counts, and brand reach already in the millions (especially when you take social media into account). It’s good business for the big brands and a vicious cycle for smaller filmers who might struggle to break into skateboarding’s collective consciousness.

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If the push for long-term viewer engagement and satisfaction prioritizes channels with lots of content, by default, it sidelines up-and-coming filmers and channels with fewer videos and a niche audience. Grayson Miller is a filmer working out of Atlanta and making videos on his own dime. His third video, Candid Glitter, premiered in person and on Thrasher’s website in June 2018 to heavy fanfare. 

“The vast majority of the feedback we got [for Candid Glitter] was positive… it was by far our most noticed and viewed video,” Miller reported. “It seems like the people that really got into it and watched it really liked it.”

Miller posted the video on YouTube six days after premiering it on Thrasher’s video host and made a point to follow the same guidelines every other large channel does: use an accurate description, enticing keywords, and engaging thumbnails to garner views. He also arranged a Candid Glitter social media push on Instagram using his personal account, his filmer account, and the accounts of everyone involved with the video. Two years later, Candid Glitter sits on Miller’s channel with a mere 5.3k views.

“As far as I can tell, the YouTube guidelines don’t help us at all,” Miller started. “I can’t stand the algorithm's emphasis on quantity over quality, and I really don’t even like playing the social media game, it can be exhausting.” 

His gripes with YouTube include a lack of alternate options to promote his content “I don’t think our demographic consumes skateboarding really anywhere other than Thrasher, YouTube, and Instagram” he says, conflicting messages regarding monetization, “YouTube tried to get me to monetize in the past, but I don’t think I’m eligible for it anymore for one reason or another;” and an insistence on calls-to-action at the end of the video. “With the style of videos I’m trying to make, that type of call-to-action doesn’t belong in it at all.”

The latter is an issue unique to skateboarding. Big-name skate videos are de facto marketing tools intended to raise awareness of a brand’s products and riders, but independently-made skate videos are a testament to the craft, often nothing more. There isn’t necessarily a product to buy, a mailing list to subscribe to, or an action to immediately take on the YouTube screen; more often than not, filmers just want to be rewarded with people enjoying their efforts.

“If you made it to the end of the video: thanks, that's all we really wanted from you,” Miller finished.

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Miller’s story is hardly unique. YouTube’s algorithm provides smaller filmers and channels few pathways to organic growth. 

It’s hard enough for a skate video to stand out on merit alone anymore, especially when you’re competing against a handful of channels with millions of subscribers and YouTube’s definition of “skateboarding.” If people are not actively searching for, or even aware of, your skate video, and it’s not being promoted by YouTube in search results or recommendations, the view count will remain stagnant. 

This forces smaller filmers and videos to rely more and more on good press, word-of-mouth buzz, and “viral” fame, such as making the Quartersnacks Top 10, to fight the centralization of skate media and build an audience for their channel. To their credit, YouTube prioritizes “new” releases to give them a chance to build steam and take off, but it’s tough to get people excited about your video when it was released elsewhere weeks prior.

At the same time, viewers have grown comfortable being presented with the algorithm’s selection of skate videos, rather than taking the initiative to discover new videos that, for all they know, might not exist. Existing viewing habits, combined with millions of videos available at our fingertips, also means we’re also less likely to watch a full-length skate video from intro to credits, potentially disqualifying it from the monetization process. These problems basically don’t exist for larger channels with the time and budget to game the algorithm with hundreds of videos.

What’s more, the algorithm takes to the craft’s subtleties with the grace of a chainsaw. Whereas skateboarders are drawn to a new video due in part to similar editing styles, featured skateboarders, soundtracks, scenes, or eras, YouTube might only draw broad associations between titles, the channel hosting a video, or the date a video was uploaded. For example, a search for “Alien Workshop” brought up a number of classic Alien Workshop videos and parts, but it didn’t draw a connection to Quasi, Fucking Awesome, Bronze 56k, or any number of less-established Alien Workshop offshoots. These comparisons make sense to a neural network but lack the cultural sway that compels a real-life audience to invest their time into new work. 

Long story short: discrepancies in the way YouTube’s algorithm treats well-established movements and up-and-coming movements means more and more small filmers and editors are likely to get shut out of the system unless the audience already knows about their work and can actively seek it out.

Despite apparent unfriendliness to small channels, YouTube remains one of the best places for independent filmers to host their videos: it’s the second most popular website in the world with a relatively graceful user experience that allows viewers to search for videos and access their watch history. Luckily, there are lots of small steps viewers can take to help YouTube’s algorithm recognize and promote work they enjoy.

If you’ve been passively watching and enjoying local skate videos on YouTube and you want to support the filmers and editors, it’s time to get active. Obviously, buying a DVD or digital copy of the video when available is a great first step, but liking the video, subscribing to the channel, and leaving a comment under the video can go a long way in helping YouTube’s algorithm recognize and recommend the video to like-minded viewers. Think of it as recommending the video in passing to someone at the skate shop or sharing it on #skatetwitter. Creating a playlist of lesser-viewed videos that don’t pop up in your search results as much is a great way to stay atop parts and features that you enjoy and know you’ll want to eventually revisit.

At the same time, be more conscious of the skateboarding content you consume on YouTube. If the algorithm relies on engagement, then interacting with Braille Skateboarding or Andy Schrock helps them grow their fan base, so no more hate-watching unless you want to open the floodgates for your recommendations to become nothing other than clickbait hyper-focused on skateboarding. While we’re at it, consider unsubscribing to massive media outlets, whose content you’re guaranteed to come across one way or the other.

As for non-YouTube alternatives, competing video hosting platforms are bleak and often hampered by clunky navigation. Since skate videos don’t lend themselves to live stream platforms such as Twitch, Vimeo is the only viable alternative to YouTube available right now. Despite coming about a few months before YouTube, Vimeo doesn’t have the visibility of its successor, nor does it have the seamless user experience YouTube has that allows you to build a library and search through videos with relative ease. Thanks to Vimeo On Demand, it’s easier for filmmakers to earn money for their content; however, the challenge lies in convincing skateboarders to migrate over to a new platform that lacks the library and selection of videos available for public consumption.

The modern skate video is a cultural cornerstone, regardless of whatever platform it conforms to. It’s our first proper introduction to skateboarding, a benchmark for physical and artistic progression, and if we’re lucky, a cherished marker in time. It's important we make sure skate videos stick around for generations to come. This involves supporting smaller filmers and editors so they can thrive documenting their local talent and scenes without resorting to clickbait or spam to game the YouTube algorithm. After all, your favorite skateboarders and filmers wouldn’t have become more than flow kids working in their local scenes if no one saw their work.

“I’m not up late at night editing thinking about how to please the YouTube algorithm,” Miller said when asked if he builds out his videos with online engagement in mind. “I’m thinking about how, to the best of my abilities, to make something that years later we’ll look back on and be proud of and it’ll act as a time capsule of sorts.”

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