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By Farhad Manjoo
Will ChatGPT kill Google?
That’s been the hot question in Silicon Valley since November, when the artificial intelligence company OpenAI released ChatGPT, a chatbot so astoundingly human seeming that many saw it as a preview of how we’ll all search for information one day. Sure, the speculation is jumping the gun. As I and lots of others have pointed out, ChatGPT is interesting but far from ready for prime time.
Still, talk of Google’s demise is not unwarranted. The search engine turned 24 in September, which in tech qualifies as prehistoric, and I’m one of the many pundits who’ve complained about its waning utility in its near-monopolistic dotage.
But there’s no need to wait for ChatGPT to find a better source of information than Google. For a large number of my most important internet searches these days — when I’m looking to learn something, fix something, buy something or decide something — there are two places I look most often, neither of them Google.
One of these places is Reddit, a site whose outsize role in my life I plan to write about in a future column.
The other is YouTube. The gargantuan video site is a lot of things to a lot of people — in different ways, YouTube is a little bit like TikTok, a little like Twitch and a little like Netflix — but I think we underappreciate how often YouTube is a better Google. That is, often it is the best place online to find reliable and substantive knowledge and information on a huge variety of subjects.
Much of the rest of this column is going to sound like falling-over praise for YouTube, so let me say at the jump that I understand its many problems. For one thing, “reliable,” on the internet, is relative. YouTube has been rolling out policies against misinformation and extremism that are more stringent than they used to be, but like just about every other place online, it can be a font of lies and a haven for radicalism, and its engagement-hungry recommendation algorithm can gin up sensationalist controversy just as surely as Facebook or Fox News.
YouTube also wields enormous power over the ecosystem of online creators, and it offers no relief from monopoly. It is owned by Alphabet, also the parent company of Google, so battling Google’s market power by switching to YouTube is like buying Doritos instead of Fritos to to stick it to Frito-Lay.
All that said, there are many times YouTube is the internet’s best source for answers to your queries.
The most obvious is when you’re trying to learn some physical skill. If you want to make a soufflé, fix a clogged drain, learn guitar, improve your golf swing or do essentially anything that is best understood by watching someone else do it, there is almost no point searching anywhere other than YouTube.
I’ve written before about my hipsterish penchant for taking up old-timey pastimes like ceramics and sourdough. Hobbies like these tend to involve developing an intuition for the craft that can come only with practice — but that practice, I’ve found, can be supercharged by watching other people do the thing many, many times. My pottery class took place once a week for just a few hours, not enough time with the clay to develop much of a feel for it. But in the week between classes I’d watch dozens of YouTube ceramists throwing pots, and each time I went to class I felt I’d absorbed some of their tricks. I’m certain I got much better much faster than I would have in the days before YouTube; actually, if I hadn’t been able to see other people’s progress online, I might have just quit.
It’s not just hobbies and household skills that you can pick up on YouTube. If you want to understand something of any real complexity, I’ve found that a video on YouTube is often more informative than what’s available elsewhere on the web. You may have read a few months ago about the physics breakthrough in which researchers created a tiny wormhole using a quantum computer. This 17-minute video by Quanta magazine got me closer to comprehending it than anything else.
It’s not a substitute for real-life instruction, but as many parents learned during the pandemic, YouTube can be a tremendously helpful aid for students learning math, science, history and other subjects. It has been more successful than many rival online platforms at fostering a set of creators who produce high-quality educational content; check out channels like Crash Course and Veritasium.
And then there are all the university lectures. YouTube abounds with whole semesters of popular courses from the country’s most prestigious schools. A few years ago, I went on a Shakespeare bender because I found an irresistible set of lectures by Marjorie Garber, a Shakespeare expert at Harvard. I learned of Richard Feynman’s greatness after watching some of his famous lectures. And if you ever find yourself missing high school chemistry, do yourself a favor and watch the M.I.T. professor Donald Sadoway’s intro course.
A lot of parents are leery of YouTube, and I don’t think they’re wrong to worry. There is a lot of terrible stuff there — videos that are hateful, ignorant, foolish, conspiratorial or otherwise inappropriate. There’s also a lot of plain inanity; a huge part of YouTube is no better than the vast wasteland of pre-golden-age television.
But this is unavoidable; there are also a lot of terrible books in the library. At the same time, I am routinely stunned by some of the things my kids have learned from YouTube that I never could have when I was their age. We were watching “Saving Private Ryan” the other day when my 12-year-old began pointing out historical inaccuracies in the film’s depiction of D-Day. I don’t think I’d even heard of D-Day at his age. Thanks to his copious consumption of YouTube war documentaries, he can’t stop talking about the North African campaign.
Whither Google search, in all this? Many of my Google searches are navigational (e.g., looking up a Wikipedia page or an article I read last week) or in some other way very simple (looking for some word’s synonyms, tomorrow’s weather). For anything more, it’s Google’s sibling I’ll check first.
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