I miss when kids entertainment was evil only because it wanted to sell kids stuff.

by MATT STOKES | JANUARY 25, 2018

Einstein once said, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense. It would be without meaning.” A Beethoven symphony could be quantified by its sound waves, he went on to say, but would that really describe the thing?

Indeed, and could one really explain the pure, unmitigated strangeness of kids’ YouTube to people who don’t have kids? Are words adequate for communicating what exactly the hell a Surprise Egg video is?

The subject has gotten a lot of attention for the past half-year, culminating in James Bridle’s magisterial essay “Something is wrong on the internet.” Bridle dives deep into the world of kids’ YouTube (And by “kids’ YouTube,” I’m referring to the huge industry of YouTube videos created for consumption by kids primarily on mobile devices, disseminated both through YouTube’s app and the YouTube Kids app.), explaining how content creators are chasing what algorithms are showing kids are responding most to. Put simply, kids are telling YouTube exactly what they want, and the people who make videos for YouTube are giving it back to the kids.

And kids are responding. The video below has more than 304 million views—compare this with “Too Many Cooks,” which has 14 million views but about which 304 million words were written. And this video is just a typical entry in the Surprise Egg genre, one of millions of other videos with tens of millions of views.

But you shouldn’t give kids what they want, because kids want to see weird shit. And I mean that literally—kids would be happy watching nonstop footage of poop, the weirder-looking, the better. And like science fiction stories where clones of clones of clones get more and more fucked up with each iteration, algorithm chasing will inevitably lead to some bizarre output. And as article after article has explored the world of algorithm-dominated content on kids’ YouTube, I’ve been surprised at how familiar I am with every single video the articles embed to show off how weird this world is.

I know “Finger Family”!

I know “Johnny Johnny”!

I know “Little Baby Bum”!

I feel like Matt Damon in Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey  and Anne Hathaway find him hibernating alone on his planet—just happy that other people exist. I can’t believe other people—other parents—have seen these crazy videos. As the discourse about kids’ YouTube has often noted, it’s not that these videos are inappropriate, it’s just that there is something… off about them.

Bridle says that it’s because, if they are not literally being produced by automation, they might as well be. Even when bots aren’t creating the videos, when the videos are being made by human beings, the human beings are doing what machines are telling them to do. It’s the robot apocalypse, in a sense… just in a way we never could have seen coming.

News reports from time to time will describe graphic violence slipping through YouTube Kids’ filters and kids seeing truly disturbing things. I worry about that, but my larger concern is a much more old-fashioned one: I am worried about the degradation in quality of the entertainment my kids consume. We’re living through a golden era of family movies, where even the mediocre ones like Ferdinand and The Boss Baby are orders of magnitude better than comparable titles from 20 years ago. But at the same time, instant gratification and algorithm-driven streaming video weakens the attention span kids have and saps their desire to watch 90-minute-plus movies, or even half-hour TV shows (Let alone read books.).

Writing the previous sentence makes me feel silly, though, because this is the exact same thing every generation of parents says about the crap their kids are watching. But I think there’s an epochal shift going on, and it’s making me nostalgic for when the worst thing that could be said about companies like Disney is that they’re consumerist and materialist, turning your kids into customers and making them want to go to theme parks.

Recently, my seven-year-old was sick and missed two days of school. During that time, she watched a lot of Uncle Grandpa, a show that ran on Cartoon Network from 2013-2017. The show is charmingly absurdist and occasionally very funny, but it’s ultimately pretty forgettable and empty. Its being on the television made me so damn happy.

Cartoon Network, for all its flaws, is part of a corporate structure that involves layers of professional people putting a lot of work into a product that is carefully reviewed, with quality-control mechanisms in place. The end product might be not be intellectually nourishing for the viewer, but the chances the viewer will see an actual dead body are zero. I miss the old kind of evil.