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YouTube with a blank home screen is a beautiful place

The YouTube app on an iPhone.
Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

I knew it was coming, but it still came as a little bit of a surprise. I opened the YouTube app on my phone and was greeted by … nothing. No Mr. Beast, a video creator whose videos I have never watched — and never will. No tech tips from an overcaffeinated Peanuts character. (I think. Given my advanced age and inability to find entertainment value in someone trying to sell me something, I may not have that quite right.) No random recipes from someone who somehow managed to hide a full kitchen just off camera in the middle of the woods and preps ingredients using only a hand-carved stone hatchet.

This is YouTube without recommendations. And it is wonderful.

I recognize that I probably don’t have the most typical YouTube experience. I’ve worked in journalism and publishing longer than YouTube has been in existence, and since the mid-aughts (Google purchased YouTube in 2006), nary a day goes by in which I have to watch some sort of YouTube video for my job. Maybe it’s sports. Maybe it’s straight news. Maybe it’s politics or tech or whatever else. I’ve watched — and linked to and embedded — more videos than I could ever remember.

And, yes, I’ve also watched all kinds of videos for myself, on my own time, both for entertainment and as education. I grew up sailing and in recent years have managed to add a few drops back to my seagoing soul with some sailing-related channels. I’ve taken up photography in recent years and subscribe to a handful of channels that teach in a way that makes it fun.

But a long time ago — I have no idea when, though I do remember it being a very conscious decision — I turned off my YouTube watch history. That decision was made, in part, due to the aforementioned randomness of what I have to watch in a professional sense, and what I watch for myself. But it also was done out of some small (and certainly more than somewhat misguided) belief that maybe I just don’t want to have a readily accessible list of everything I’ve watched. Go check yours out and see just how cringey your viewing habits may be.

YouTube as seen in a web browser.
YouTube in a web browser is blissfully blank, too. Phil Nickinson / Digital Trends

And so I have no watch history. Don’t mistake that with Google having no record of what you watch. Those are separate things. But it made me feel just a tiny bit better on some small level.

Meanwhile, YouTube recently announced that those who don’t have watch history enabled would stop seeing a screen full of recommended videos. In its own words, “features that require watch history to provide video recommendations will be disabled — like your YouTube home feed.” And it’s not exactly clear that YouTube sees turning off your watch history as a bad thing: “With no feed of recommended videos, thus allowing you to more easily search, browse subscribed channels, and explore Topic tabs instead.”

I’m inclined to agree. I’d rather search or drill down through categories than to be bludgeoned by recommendations that, as often as not, aren’t anywhere close to being something I want to watch. I also still use RSS feeds (the death of Google Reader, by the way, really just separated those who were serious about the format from those who weren’t) and email lists, and I don’t rely on social networking services to maybe give me what’s important.

And now? I see a blank screen when I fire up YouTube anywhere. No more being blasted with recs for vids I will never, ever watch.

And it’s not like YouTube doesn’t recommend any video to me anymore. They’re still visible alongside and below and after videos. They’re just not front and center. They’re not longer the first thing I see when I open the YouTube app or go to the URL in a browser.

For me, it’s a much better, more deliberate, experience. And that’s not a bad thing.

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Phil Nickinson
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