Creating a YouTube Walled Garden

Last month I killed my YouTube addiction. Maybe addiction is too strong a word, but I had a nasty habit of falling into the related videos rabbit hole. There's been more instances of me re-watching (RE-WATCHING) talk show interviews (TALK SHOW) for an hour or hours more than I intended to. YouTube is great, and there's a number of channels I happily follow, but I don't like how YouTube makes it so easy to fall victim to unintended binges.

This phenomenon isn't rare. YouTube makes skipping from video to video easy and enticing to keep the viewer on the platform, and ultimately, watch more ads. Every video provides a custom list of “related videos”, which is a mix of suggestions based on the current video and other somewhat related videos that YouTube can guess you might click on based on your viewing activity. But that’s not all: the Home tab is filled with videos you're probably interested in, and just like any social network, it’s one that I found myself aimlessly scrolling through while bored or while looking to tune out.

My problem with binging on YouTube is that it doesn't feel like the pleasant distraction I’m looking for. I'm happy to catch up on my favorite channels. But it's so easy to click on a related video. YouTube watching evolves into a continuous test of willpower.

I've removed many addicting social media platforms from my life (bye, Facebook), but I didn’t want to cut out YouTube altogether. But I also knew that relying on my own self-control was a fruitless task. It would be like fighting against biology.

So I got creative. I'll explain how I extracted my video feed out of YouTube's addictively curated experience and enforced some healthy limits on my time inside the app.

From YouTube to RSS

One way I would get sucked into YouTube binges is by opening the YouTube app itself to check the feed. This would inevitably lead to scrolling through the Home tab, full of videos curated to get me to click, which was no good. I had to get my feed out of the app.

Hmm, I needed a Really Simple way to Syndicate my feed... oh, yeah, that's what RSS is for!

I still use RSS for following a few blogs, so it made a lot of sense to bring my YouTube subscriptions there. You might think this would be manual and tedious task. Fortunately this isn't the case. YouTube allows you to export your subscription feed to an OPML file, which conveniently enough, is the precise format that RSS expects!

I use Inoreader to manage my RSS feeds, and the app makes it easy to import and OPML file. Inoreader created a folder with all of my YouTube subscriptions. One nice thing about RSS managers is that you can organize feeds into folders, unlike YouTube. I follow a lot of Tech channels, so it's nice to give them their own folder.

Each new video becomes a new item in the feed, which shows a link to the video and text of the description. This situation is perfect for me: I can read the description to check if the video is actually worth watching before it plays, something that isn’t really possible on the app itself.

Killing the curated feed

Even though I copied over my feed to RSS, this wouldn’t stop me from seeing the Home tab or related videos. So something had to happen to the YouTube app itself. But I still needed something to watch the YouTube videos on. It’s possible to watch the YouTube videos without the app, but then you lose out on some features that make watching a good experience, like picture-in-picture and background playback, among others.

The YouTube app doesn't allow you to hide the Home or Trending video feeds, but signing out of the app seemed like a pretty effective way to make those videos less interesting to me.

At this point I opted to install YouTube Vanced, a modified APK of the YouTube app. The modifications add a number of features, like removing ads, and AMOLED friendly black theme, and more. You can't sign in without some extra work, either. I won’t dive into all of the features of it here, but it’s worth investigating if you have an Android phone! At this point, I disabled the stock YouTube app altogether.

Now, the Home tab and the suggested videos are no longer connected to my account, so the app doesn’t have my long viewing history to predict what I would click on. And to make sure the app wouldn’t start developing a new log of my favorite videos, I enabled the recently released incognito modes, which prevents the app from keeping a record of both my searches and watching history. With these enabled, I’m presented a blissful list of clickbait and viral videos I could care less about!

Moving the subscriptions to YouTube and then making the app less enticing put a good left and right hook on my app addiction. All was left was the final jab:

Setting time limits

To prevent my watching sessions from going off the rails, I wanted to prevent myself from spending too much time in the app. Thanks to the recently released version of Android, my phone's OS offers an easy way to do this with a new feature: Digital Wellbeing. Android Pie's new suite of health focused features offers the ability to put time limits on apps. So now I can't spend more than 30-45min a day on the app.

How's it working?

It's been a month or two that I've been working with this system, and it's been perfect. I'm happy to report that I can't remember the last Conan O'Brien interview I've watched. (Sorry, Conan.)

Obviously just deleting the app is the best way to stay off the platform. But for someone like me who wants to continue to use the platform, this has been a good system for me.