Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


YouTube: Alice’s Rabbithole or Hypertext to Hell?

Posted on | November 24, 2015 | No Comments

Edited remarks from the conference on
YouTube: Ten Years After
November 20, 2015
Hannam University
Linton School of Global Business

I’m happy to be a part of this commemoration of YouTube’s tenth year anniversary and thank Dr. Youngshin Cho for being our keynote speaker and enlightening us with his very informative talk.[1]

Hopefully, you are familiar with the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The young girl from Lewis Carroll’s (1865) classic follows a giant rabbit into a dark hole and falls into a world of strange experiences, exotic creatures, and unusual paradoxes…

The story has been much discussed over the years, and speculations on the meanings of Alice’s adventure range from experiences with psychedelic drugs, spoiled foods, wild dreams, and even repressed sexual fantasies.

YouTube has all of these things, but my interest today is not to focus on content specifically but to point to, and for us to think about, the path, the journey, the discovery process inherent in the YouTube experience. I want to talk about the user experience, and specifically how it is guided by computer algorithms and a type of artificial intelligence.

While the meaning of Alice’s story will no doubt continue to be a topic of curious debate, there is a consensus that Carroll’s narrative is based on a sequence, a trajectory, a path that she follows. The term “rabbit hole” does not refer to a destination as much as it has come to mean a long, winding, and sometimes meandering journey with many connections and offshoots that often lead to serendipitous and surprising discoveries.

I’m not the first to connect Alice’s journey to online activities. Others have pointed to the Internet as essentially designed to function as a “rabbit hole;” primarily because of the way hyperlinks work, connecting one web page with another, taking the user down a voluntary “surfing” trip into new sites and visiting strange ideas and wonders along the way.

Interestingly, before we had the World Wide Web, we had the Xanadu project by Ted Nelson. He coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in a publication way back in 1965. Xanadu is originally a name for Kublai Khan’s mythical summer palace, described by the enigmatic Marco Polo. “There is at this place a very fine marble palace, the rooms of which are all gold and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.” Nelson’s Xanadu strove to transform the reading experience with computer technology for an equally rich experience.

Let’s go to another mythical place, South Korea’s Gangnam district. Psy’s musical parody of the Seoul suburb’s delights and duplicities was an extraordinary YouTube hit.

With over 2,450,000,000 hits, the Korean singer’s Gangnam Style is leading YouTube with the most plays, but my immediate interest is the list of thumbnails of recommended hypertexted videos on the lower right side.

A key to understanding YouTube is its recommendation engine, a sophisticated computer algorithm and data collection system that finds content related to your search or the content you are watching. These computer programs reduce what could become a complex decision process to just a few recommendations. It will immediately list a series of videos based on metadata from the video currently displaying and from information gathered about your past viewings.

In a business context, this is called customer captivity, an important competitive advantage and a barrier to entry for other firms. It’s a technique to engage people in your content and keep someone on a web site by offering related or similar choices. Amazon and other e-commerce firms are increasingly using it. Netflix’s recommendation engine is also noteworthy.

The list of Youtube’s recommended videos are likely to vary but will probably include other versions of Gangnam Style and the rather awful Gentlemen, which brings me to my next topic.

Hypertext to Hell? Well, you may have heard the music hit “Highway to Hell” by Australian heavy metal band AC/DC whose lead singer drank himself to death a year later. Well, I wish him all the best and thank him for the excusing my homonym.

I think hell differs for each of us. There is an SNL skit where a very famous musician, Paul Simon, of Simon and Garfunkel, meets with the devil and sells his soul in order to be a famous musician. Years later, when the time comes to pay up, he discovers he is stuck in an elevator, listening to Muzak, the soft “easy listening” instrumentals of his classic songs, such as The Sound of Silence and Mrs. Robinson, for all eternity.

Here I am referring not to anything afterlife but rather the earthly hell we put ourselves into on occasion. YouTube can offer that same experience, if you choose. I discovered one pathway to a personal hell in a series of videos arguing for the validity of the “flat earth.” Some people actually believe the idea that the earth is round is NASA propaganda. I guess that is my personal hell because I was always fascinated with space and interstellar travel and perhaps quaintly believe astronauts landed on the Moon.

Well, I don’t want to leave you in hell. So I’ll return you to (1980) Xanadu with this video from the movie of the same name with the late Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra.

In closing, I’m going to make a slight jump and suggest that the human mind works very much like a recommendation engine. It gives you more of the thoughts on which you choose to focus. If you focus on positive thoughts, your mind will start to give you more of those, presenting you with similar ideas and emotional experiences. If you focus on topics you hate, your mind will give you more of that, driving you into a personal hell.

So be careful with your mental clicks, and avoid the highways to hell. Sometimes you go down that rabbit hole; sometimes you traverse the hypertext to hell. Make the right choices and get out if you find yourself going down the dark side (switching metaphors). Just do another search.


[1] Dr Youngshin Cho is a Senior Research Fellow at SK Research Institute in Seoul where he is conducting research on media trends and strategies of media and ICT companies, as well as looking at the impact of change in media policy. He obtained his PhD in Media and Telecommunication Policy from Pennsylvania State University in 2007 and his MA from Yonsei University in 1998. One of the country’s acknowledged authorities on these subjects, Dr Cho is also a consultant with the government on media policy.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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