Fighting the Pull of Infinity Pools (2/6)

In my first post, I introduced the goal of this YouTube moderation series — to think out loud about how we can intentionally use YouTube for beneficial recreation while avoiding its pitfalls.

In this post, I want to examine why YouTube can be so addictive. Many of us have had the experience of logging on the platform to catch up with our favorite creators, only to emerge hours later from the stupor of a YouTube binge. Are YouTube videos really that compelling. Are we really so weak-willed?

Yes, YouTube has plenty of compelling content, and we certainly need to grow in self-control; however, I want to examine another reason why YouTube moderation is so difficult: namely, YouTube is designed to be addictive.

A Lopsided Arms Race

We tend to think of YouTube and other forms of social media as neutral tools. They are not bad in and of themselves, and it is up to us to use them wisely. In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport pushes back against this notion. Newport quotes a former Google engineer, Tristan Harris, in an interview with 60 Minutes:

“They are programming people…there’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true…they want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money.” (10)

According to Newport, we are engaged in a lopsided arms race. We naively approach our technology without intention; meanwhile, big tech companies pour enormous resources into designing apps that utilize our psychology against us. Why? So we’ll spend increasing amounts of time on their platforms thus maximizing their profits.

Newport outlines several strategies these tech companies use to turn our computers into portable slot machines, such as intermittent positive reinforcement and the drive for social approval. However, I want to zero in on one strategy he doesn’t mention that makes YouTube particularly addictive: the Infinity Pool.

Infinity Pools

In an interview with Art of Manliness, John Zeratsky, another former Google Employee and author, defines an infinity pool this way:

“An infinity pool is any app, or service, or product that has an infinite and replenishing source of content inside of it. If you can pull to refresh, or if it streams nonstop, like the Netflix example of starting the next episode right after the previous one ends, that’s an infinity pool. We came up with that term because there’s always more water in the pool, you know? You can always jump back in. The level is never going to go down. It’s never going to go away. It’s never going to be empty.”

Infinity pools make sure you never run out of content. Take, for example, the bottomless newsfeed employed by social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Before this feature, you would scroll and eventually reach the bottom of your screen, providing a brief cue to stop and move on to something else. By removing that cue, these apps subtly encourage you to keep scrolling further and further.

YouTube is perhaps the most dangerous of the infinity pool apps. It truly has an endless sea of content to swim in. Slowly but surely, YouTube has populated its platform with infinity pool-type features to draw users in and keep them watching. Consider the following:

  • Recommended Videos – When you log on to your YouTube homepage, you’re not taken to your subscription page (a limited content pool). Instead, you’re greeted by a wall of suggested videos based on your watch history — a perfect way to draw you into new content that you’re already interested in. Scroll down and you’ll find an endless stream of more content – Top News, recommended movies, new posts from creators, etc.
  • Up Next with Suggested Videos/Autoplay – Click on to a video. On the right sidebar, you’ll see more recommendations for similar content. If you watch until the end of the video, YouTube will show more suggested content and auto-play another video.

Draining the Infinity Pool

#1: Install Distraction Free YouTube

In my third post, I’ll be delving more into strategies for YouTube moderation, but I wanted to end with a helpful tip for combating the pull of infinity pool features: install the Google Chrome extension Distraction Free YouTube.

This extension allows users to remove many of the infinity pool features outlined above. You can remove autoplay, recommendations, the trending tab, and the comment section. For me, I eliminate suggested videos and have it so that I can only see videos from creators I’m subscribed to.

#2: Designate a Device for YouTube

As helpful as Distraction Free YouTube can be, the question quickly arises: what if you can’t install the extension on certain devices? There is no way to install the extension on mobile devices. For me, I’m also not allowed to install web extensions on my work laptop, which has been an extra source of temptation while teleworking from home.

I’m not always perfect, but I’ve found it helpful to only use YouTube on a designated laptop with Distraction Free YouTube installed and avoid watching on my phone or work laptop. If I want to take a quick break, I need to take the additional step of booting up my personal computer. Often, that extra step will itself cause me to be more mindful if it’s really necessary for me to watch.

In the next post, we’ll be delving into some practical strategies for YouTube moderation. Until then!

All posts in the YouTube Moderation series:

  1. In Search of YouTube Moderation
  2. Fighting the Pull of Infinity Pools
  3. The YouTube Moderation Toolbox, Part I
  4. The YouTube Moderation Toolbox, Part II
  5. The Value of Tactics and Toolboxes
  6. Moving Forward with Moderation


One thought on “Fighting the Pull of Infinity Pools (2/6)

  1. Dang never considered how these tools are being engineered to lock us in like this! I know twitter I used to be addicted to scrolling to refresh since updates were always happening. Now I’ll only check in the morning and turn off almost all push notifications haha


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