Thousands of YouTube users have recently reported being automatically unsubscribed from channels, forcing them to resubscribe. I am going to explain what seems to be going on, and why YouTube is, in fact, not doing any such thing.
Creators of some of the biggest YouTube channels, like PewDiePie (>50 million subscribers), have complained about the problem.
H3 says it ( but yt wont)
— pewdiepie (@pewdiepie) November 29, 2016
Recently, YouTube made a video featuring its own subscriptions manager explaining that this is not something its software is capable of doing. They investigated 100 claims of the glitch and found no software issues. At the moment, that video has a striking 36,000 dislikes.
How can so many users be wrong? Are they lying? Is YouTube? This phenomenon has been seen many times, and the latest version we are witnessing now has an identical profile to those in the past. To understand what is happening, let’s first consider a previous case where the truth is objectively known so we can see how this works.
Audi 5000 “sudden unintended acceleration” (SUA)
In the mid-1980’s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a part of the Department of Transportation, received at least 700 complaints that the Audi 5000 suddenly accelerated against the wishes of the driver. Drivers reported that when they started the vehicle, depressed the brake, and put it into gear, it immediately lurched forward in spite of the brake. The phenomenon was allegedly related to 271 injuries and 5 deaths. Things really took a turn for Audi when 60 Minutes profiled an alleged victim, a child killed in such an incident, and also aired footage of an Audi accelerating by itself. Audi denied any mechanical problem was at fault, blaming the drivers. This all seems damning for Audi, but it’s fiction. Fiction conjured by confused drivers and a predatory media. Here’s some of the reasons we know this.
- A comprehensive, independent study [pdf] of SUA commissioned by the NHTSA concluded “no malfunctions were found which could cause high engine power without opening the throttle.” All cases were attributed to driver error.
- The woman who ran over her child lied on 60 Minutes. In subsequent court proceedings, witnesses to the accident reported her admitting that her foot slipped off the brake.
- 60 Minutes fabricated the footage of the Audi accelerating on its own. It staged the scene by drilling a hole in the transmission and pumping in air at high pressure.
- In no cases of SUA were cars found to have any mechanical defect in the brakes or throttle.
- No standard production car on the road then, or now, has torque sufficient to overcome its braking system.
- The same car sold hundreds of thousands of units worldwide. Yet, only in the US, where 60 Minutes aired a deceitful smear piece, did an epidemic appear.
- After an interlock system was added, preventing shifting into drive without the brake being depressed, reports of SUA plummeted. This includes those for retrofitted cars, in which all the other systems were unchanged.
- In more contemporary SUA studies, the very young and very old are dramatically over-represented. This shouldn’t be true for any mechanical failure that occurs when shifting a car into gear (see graph below or source pdf from NHTSA). This strongly suggests driver error is a major cause, or the cause:
In order for these claims about the Audi 5000 to be true, the Audi 5000’s mechanical (none of these were electric or computer controlled) throttle and brake would have to fail simultaneously. Then, when inspected afterward, both systems repaired themselves and showed no sign of any trouble. But only in the US, not other countries driving the same car. And not the same car model with a manual transmission, whose identical brake and throttle systems somehow fared much better. This is, of course, absurd.
Were hundreds of people lying? No, they just made a mistake and panicked. All of them? hundreds or even a few thousand? Yes, and actually, those are comparatively small numbers. By the mid 80’s Audi had at least 250,000 5000’s on US roads. If we assume each car has about 1.3 drivers (some driven by 2 or 3 people), that means 700 is just 0.3%. That’s a highly realistic proportion of drivers committing one rare type of error. We know many other types of errors are far more common over several years of driving.
But millions of people were taken in. Audi’s sales crashed immediately and took more than a decade to recover. Now let’s compare the Audi SUA with YouTube’s SUU, sudden unintentional unsubscription.
1| Both alleged problems are things a user can do by mistake, but blame on a machine.
2| The alleged problem makes no sense at all.
Audi SUA: It’s impossible for the car’s engine to overcome the brake under any circumstances. Brakes don’t fail, then work perfectly, etc..,
YouTube SUU: YouTube’s business model revolves around its users easily finding and consuming its content, as much as possible, for as long as possible. Unsubscribing users would be one of the most pointlessly self-destructive things it could do.
3| The nature of the alleged problem is such that no hard evidence is ever left behind. User testimony is the only evidence.
Audi SUA: Mechanics and engineers investigating accidents were unable to find any problem.
YouTube SUU: Engineers investigating reports are unable to find any problem.
4| Large media channels drum up the alleged problem, leading it to spread and become more common.
Audi SUA: 60 Minutes
YouTube SUU: Boogie2988, h3h3, PewDiePie, Kotaku
5| Conspiracy theories proliferate.
6| Both involve motivated reasoning. It’s in one’s own interest to scapegoat.
Audi SUA: It’s very embarrassing, legally damaging, or even psychologically damaging to admit to momentarily forgetting how to drive a car, resulting in damage, injury, or death.
YouTube SUU: Content creators don’t want to admit they’re losing subscribers because viewers don’t want to remain. Creators almost always mention declining views when talking about this issue. Also, criticizing YouTube is always a popular topic.
7| Reports of the alleged problem is always present in small numbers, even across many years and totally different technological iterations of the system (until sudden explosion caused by media exposure).
Audi SUA: The SUA reports exist for all common cars. All makes, all models, every year. The numbers are trivially small, until the alarm is sounded, at which point they leap massively —>
This is pretty amazing, considering all these different cars have different control geometries, and cover the transition from mechanical to “drive by wire” systems, power brakes, etc.., Every system has had hundreds of iterations and changes across makers, models and years. The only common denominator? The driver is human.
YouTube SUU: The first accounts I can find come from early 2011. But you can find them from almost every month since then. Here’s a video from 2012. 2013. 2014. 2015. This makes the “glitch” explanation far less likely because YouTube has regularly, substantially updated its technology over the course of 6 years. If there was a code bug in 2011, it’s not likely that code would still be around or not otherwise obviated by other code in 2017. The common denominator is the human user.
8| Trivial or innocuous things taken to be evidence by believers.
Audi SUA: the placement and geometry of the pedals (note that these are not a problem in manual transmission versions of the car); small malfunctions in the throttle stabilizer that cause idling to be somewhat higher than normal sometimes. And the fact that Audi claimed no mechanical faults existed.
YouTube SUU: In this video, the speaker comments on the loss of thousands of subscribers in a single day for many big and small YouTube channels. This is because YouTube was scrubbing inactive/dead accounts. These did not drive views or revenue. Getting rid of them was a very good thing for content creators in the long run because advertisers are quick to realize inflated subscriber numbers are meaningless.
The video below having “jump cuts” or the unpolished delivery of technical people whose job isn’t PR, is construed as evidence of deceit.
9| Believers conjure irrational denials of the facts.
Audi SUA: Michael Barr, an interested party in the suspiciously similar Toyota case, refuses to accept the facts about Audi SUA to this day. Even after the 1989 NHTSA report exonerating Audi, suspicion among consumers lingered, as did belief in real SUA.
YouTube SUU: Apparently in an effort to be open and honest, YouTube presented the facts straight from the source. Naturally, believers read all manner of insanity into this reply. Here’s the video.
To summarize briefly, the subscription product manager says that nobody is being automatically unsubscribed. 100 individual cases have been investigated without finding any underlying glitch. YouTube encourages users to use the feedback mechanisms when they experience problems. She also clarified that even if a spammer/bot account does not have its subscriptions removed.
A large number of YouTube users have responded by calling it a pack of lies outright. Many, such as the popular The Know, expressed incredulity that “only” 100 cases were investigated. “If you’re scratchin’ your head because that just doesn’t seem like a very big sample size, you’re not alone…. that’s only 0.00001% of 1 billion” users.
This is fallacious reasoning for several reasons. One, when investigating reports of something, you investigate those reports. If someone calls animal control claiming there are lions running about in central Illinois, you don’t respond by surveying all of North America to check general lion content. Two, when you want to basically establish something exists, you only need one case. If Illini are reporting that lions are around, you should easily be able to verify that with a few, if not single, follow-up. If you chased 100 leads that all turned up no evidence at all and no lions, you’d have good reason to think there’s some other explanation. Three, even in a controlled scientific experiment, 100 is an excellent sample size for statistical power purposes in most cases. Statistical power doesn’t rely on being proportionate to a sample population. Stop talking about statistics if you don’t know anything about it. Four, nobody is considering that 1 billion term when thinking about the base rate of complaints. Let’s say that there have been 5,000 complaints (I don’t know the real number, I doubt it is more than this). That’s just 0.0005% of all users. Could that be the result of user error, wayward browser plugins, or trolls? Of course it could. Were it ten times as much, it could. Five, proper case investigation takes time, and in this case relies on communicating with users who may or may not reply promptly or coherently. Without knowing the methods, there’s no reason to think 100 is too small.
What’s really going on here?
User error. However, there is some reason to think a technological component exists. It doesn’t involve YouTube unsubscribing anyone, and maybe it doesn’t involve YouTube at all. In this video “Helvetica” claims to have proof of this bug. The only proof we can see, is a channel he “resubscribed” to double-listed in his subscription list. He misidentifies the problem he describes as “being unsubscribed” when it sounds more like seeing a false indicator of not being subscribed. This is very similar to the first account I found from 2011. Some sort of glitch in presentation could lead people to click on the button thinking it will sub them, but since it is a toggle, it unsubs them.
This could be the result of a web browser problem, caching/scripting problems, meddlesome browser plugins, connectivity problems, to name just a few. This is because the button reading “Subscribe” is the default presentation. It looks that way even if you’re not logged in and can’t subscribe until you do. Subsequent (honest) investigation by YouTube would probably not find evidence of any of these things if they are transient and rare.
This can’t explain the broad phenomenon because some accounts state the problem is noticing they are not seeing videos they should from channels that they frequent. In these cases, if they had had to suddenly re-subscribe out of the blue, they should remember having done so.
The explanation is thus most likely a very small number of related technical glitches + user error (misreading the subscribe button) + people prevaricating in support of fans, favorites, or over general angst about YouTube. Much like the last time. Much like the next time.
Advice to YouTube to fix this: Remove this non-functional default “Subscribe” button entirely; for users that have been subscribed to a channel more than a week, pop up a confirmation prompt asking if they are sure they want to unsubscribe before they can unsubscribe from a channel. This will remove all possible client-side glitches and bears a certain metaphorical similarity to Audi’s brake interlock.
Read more about historical mass delusions at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. I especially like the story of the genital bandits.
Mass Delusions and Hysterias: Highlights from the Past Millennium