The pandemic helped me discover YouTube, and yes, I know I’m late to the party

Until recently, I had almost no interest in watching YouTube for anything longer than a four-minute music video. But just a few weeks into March this year, as the coronavirus pandemic shut the U.K. down, YouTube became a lifeline that I’ve held on to ever since.

The hours of entertainment YouTube has provided has definitely helped keep me sane this year, but looking back on that period of discovery made me realize that it was a good thing I was staying inside a lot, because of the considerable work it took to build a decent list of subscriptions.

Here’s how it all started.

The beginning

It’s not like I was blissfully unaware of this thing called “You Tube” before 2020, and until that time only tuned into weekly shows broadcast at a set time on my CRT television for entertainment. It’s more that I didn’t watch very much television at all, outside of some streaming apps, plus a few very occasional shows on catch-up services like BBC iPlayer. I simply didn’t have the time, need, or desire to watch more.

When March arrived, my previously busy life came to a sudden stop as travel ended, and like everyone else, I wasn’t able to go out and meet friends or carry on as usual. We were told to stay at home, so stay at home I did. I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, and a very clear need to take my mind off the horrors of the real world.

As the first weeks of the strictest lockdown period progressed, I began to really miss driving, something I often did to relax but wasn’t really allowed to do (for frivolous reasons, at least) at that time. Video chats with a friend usually resulted in trawling Autotrader and dreaming of the chance to make poor car-purchasing decisions again, and after one such conversation, I started searching for how much people spent to maintain a car collection.

After a while, my Google search led me to this video. I watched, and my YouTube odyssey began.

Cars, and the Mukbang effect

I’d never watched a channel like Hoovies Garage before. I’d watched videos from some of the very big-name car YouTubers before, but found the hyperactive, look-at-me, googly-eyed, “what’s up guys” schtick they all have extremely irritating, and couldn’t imagine spending any time watching their nonsense at all. Tyler Hoover is not that person, and his engaging style, self-deprecating humor, and willingness to buy bad cars appealed to me, so I watched. And I watched.

From Hoovies Garage, I found Tavarish’s channel, where bad cars were worked on in an honest way, and VINWiki too. I watched the back catalog of each, and soon explored the more relevant (to me) U.K. car content, too, discovering the excellent Harry’s Garage channel, Carfection, Furious Driving, JayEmm on Cars, Number 27, what’s now The Late Brake Show, and various others. I also returned to channels I’d watched in the past, such as Mighty Car Mods and Shmee150. They became my escape. I was in the passenger seat or under the bonnet (or hood, for those non-Brits) of all the cars on screen, as I couldn’t go out and enjoy my own.

I’d heard anecdotes and read stories about how some people watched Mukbang videos — a genre that began in South Korea where people watch someone eat large, elaborate meals — to satiate their own appetite. I was doing the same thing, but fantasizing about driving by watching car videos.

Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Beyond car-related content, YouTube replaced the gym with some guided workouts, helped me get started with yoga, allowed me to listen to ASMR for when it was hard to sleep, and even reminded me of living in my favorite places in the world with some delightful personal vlogs. I also watched a lot of international video, from Korean pop group Iz*one’s entertainment videos and AKB48’s Yuki Kashiwagi’s regular video series, to seeing former Nogizaka46 member Mai Shiraishi start her own channel.

My YouTube subscription list became filled with people I liked doing things that made me happy. It could send me back in time to when the world wasn’t a nightmare, and help me look forward to the future, all in a way that is unique to the platform and how videos are shared on it. However, as satisfying and mood-boosting as it was, to get to this stage was quite a slog.

Discovery

Although various channels have helped me through this year — and I’m not only enormously grateful to those who continued putting out regular videos, but also incredibly impressed by much of the quality — it has taken quite a lot of work for me as a viewer to get to this stage. And YouTube itself has not endeared me in the process.

First is the realization that to watch YouTube on a consistent basis, you really should pay for YouTube Premium. Without it, the ads become overwhelming, and enjoyment is quickly spoiled. At $12, or 12 British pounds, a month, the price is quite steep, but by canceling Spotify and switching to YouTube Music, it was easy for me. It’s addictive because once you’ve tried it, you won’t want to go back to the ad-infested free option.

Angie Yeoh/Shutterstock

But far worse is the discovery aspect. I found new channels either through collaborations, organically using search, or by chance. YouTube’s discovery algorithm, trending page, and recommendations have been entirely unhelpful. YouTube insists on showing me what’s new from channels I’ve ignored because they’re awful, never shows me new videos from channels I’ve watched fairly consistently but not subscribed to, and fills the trending page with videos about subjects I never, ever look for.

I’m not putting this issue entirely on YouTube, because for the most part, YouTube Music’s recommendations and playlist building is very good, so its algorithms do work sometimes. Instead, it may also be because of the sheer amount of videos on YouTube, how little I care about the majority of very popular YouTubers, and the fact what I’m looking for may not be there at all, and I’ve already reached the bottom of that particular well.

Time well invested

Unless you are happy to watch any old rubbish, finding videos and video makers you like on YouTube is a hugely time-consuming effort. I came across Number 27 — a British car channel mostly featuring a Ferrari 308 — quite by chance, as it never showed up in my searches, as I presumably wasn’t using the right words. YouTube’s search is fine, provided you’re specific, and that’s not easy when you’re looking for personality as much as content.

This is where the discovery aspect falls down, and where personal preferences aren’t really catered fto. When looking for yoga videos, for example, I didn’t want the class taught by someone with a body that was entirely unobtainable to me, or by someone who had forgotten to put most of their clothes on. This took away a lot of the recommended YouTube videos, and while I understand it’s impossible to provide individual preference options like this, the discovery algorithm didn’t really compensate by showing me variety. It just seemed to focus on the thumbnail and the amount of views.

Finding channels I liked, presenters I didn’t find obnoxious, on subjects I was interested in took ages. Months, in fact. If I hadn’t have been locked in the house, desperate for any kind of escape, I wouldn’t have put in the amount of effort required. The good thing is, now that I’m past this stage, I understand what a great shame that would have been. If you’re like me and haven’t delved deeply into YouTube much, take a few hours to do so. It’s genuinely worth it, pandemic or not.

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