Boobs on the Tube

REVIEW: 'Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination'

November 13, 2022

Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination bills itself as "the definitive, deeply reported account of YouTube, the company that upended media, culture, industry, and democracy."

Written by Mark Bergen, a technology reporter at Bloomberg, the book looks to "reveal the inside story of YouTube's technology and business" and how YouTube aided Google in its rise to "unimaginable power."

Bergen begins by rather excellently summarizing the frenzied early days of YouTube, chronicling the creation of the company by its founders Chad Hurley, Jawed Karim, and Steve Chen while also providing a rare honest insight into the long-forgotten reality of tech startups (particularly in the early 2000s).

Tales of ideological disagreement, frantic and confused initial development, and even early offices "teeming with rats" are nicely intertwined, guiding the reader to the turning point in both YouTube's timeline and the tone of the book itself: Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of the video platform.

The book continues in its attempt to distill the undeniably dense and complex history of YouTube in the years that followed, digging into the sheer scale of YouTube's infrastructure (and therefore the challenges that arose surrounding advertising, storage, and content moderation), Google's response (or lack thereof) as Congress grew more wary of Big Tech, and the impact of era-defining events on the Silicon Valley giant, such as the Arab Spring, the deadly Christchurch shootings, and Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election.

But in many ways, Like, Comment, Subscribe in its entirety could be viewed as a metaphor for YouTube itself: brimming with fascinating nuggets of information, but also bloated with pseudo-information and held together under the guise of false objectivity.

Like YouTube's pivotal shift from "view count" to obsessively fueling "watch time," there's a feeling of anecdotal padding throughout the book in the form of editorialized and sometimes irrelevant tales of various YouTube creators.

Some of these examples tie inextricably into the high-level development of YouTube itself and were demonstrable of the various challenges and scandals that appeared as significant policy potholes along the way. Figures like PewDiePie, Logan Paul (both YouTube megastars with their own experiences of controversy), and Nasim Najafi Aghdam (the woman who carried out an attack on YouTube's San Bruno headquarters in 2018, wounding three people before killing herself) were all understandably included, as was an overview of the explosion of multichannel conglomerates that used (and sometimes abused) creators in YouTube's video gold rush.

However, a multitude of other examples—such as Harry and Sona Jho and their creation of "Mother Goose Club," a channel in which "colorful animals sang nursery rhymes"—blurred the lines between guiding the narrative by expanding upon YouTube's existence and (like YouTube videos themselves) stretching out the "watch time." In this case, read time.

This becomes especially frustrating given the comparable lack of insight provided on topics central to YouTube's growing influence over national and international politics and culture.

Indeed, as Bergen's exploration of YouTube's rise progresses, the tone of the narrative itself shifts to carefully (and subjectively) frame areas of supposedly objective debate regarding YouTube's own political bias.

This includes implicitly dismissing concerns regarding Hillary Clinton's health during the 2016 campaign, ignoring the objective breadth of immigration views which are lazily and falsely bundled beneath the banner of "great replacement theory," or inherently classifying the trustworthiness of sources based on their political leaning.

One such example was the description of The Young Turks' Cenk Uygur as just a "liberal, voluble radio veteran," who complained that conservatives were "making up stuff out of whole cloth," next to the description of Rush Limbaugh as a "failed disc jockey" who "creat[ed] an entire brand of media drenched in sexism."

The fact that Uygur has his own history of both open and sometimes inaccurate partisanship (and sexism) was ignored.

And while Bergman did successfully cover an impressive number of political and cultural phenomena and scandals, perhaps the most relevant points of contention in recent years (for conservatives online, at least) appeared whitewashed.

Waves of violence (and corresponding misinformation spread by the mainstream media in partnership with Big Tech) in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd were described simply as "the nation's largest mass protests since Vietnam." The Southern Poverty Law Center was described solely as a "nonprofit." And while the fight against misinformation during the early months of COVID-19 was addressed, no mention was made of the once-censored arguments that now appear to be completely accurate.

On a different level, Bergen does raise an important point which often goes unnoticed: the fact that the mainstream media have often viewed YouTube (and by extension, Google) as a threat, jealous of the accessible freedom of information-based expression provided by new online media.

It could, however, then be argued that Bergen (as part of this media apparatus) is no longer an objective commentator on the reality of YouTube, at least due to the unfortunate existence of transitive bias, made worse by the subtle (and likely unintentional) political subjectivity applied when discussing (or failing to discuss) figures on the broad political left or right.

Overall, Like, Comment, Subscribe feels like three different works haphazardly sewn together. The first provides a fascinating insight into the creation of YouTube. The second is reasonably successful in grappling with the sheer scale of YouTube's rise under Google. The third dilutes the effort with splintered accounts of hand-picked (and sometimes cherry-picked) YouTube creators and instances of friction.

As a result, while undeniably well written and enjoyable to read for those who are starting to explore the history of YouTube, Bergen could perhaps have spent more time objectively unpacking the true challenges of the internet's most powerful video platform, rather than wasting precious pages on the viral unpacking of Kinder Surprise eggs.

Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination
by Mark Bergen
Viking, 464 pp., $30

Ian Haworth is a writer, speaker, and former Big Tech insider. He also hosts a weekly late night show, Off Limits with Ian Haworth.