By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Even by the nightmarish standards of the empire she oversees, Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive officer of YouTube, has had a dreadful start to 2019. During a single week in February, BuzzFeed reported that her company was running advertisements alongside anti-vaccine content; there was a nationwide panic over the platform’s abetting child suicide; and a viral video showed how pedophiles were flourishing on the site. And then there was the bestiality.
Thumbnail images implying human-animal sex were discovered next to children’s videos, and after an uproar, Wojcicki was obliged to call a staff meeting to address it. The topic, she allowed during a recent interview, was one “I never thought I would be handling.”
Wojcicki, 50, was sitting in a conference room at YouTube headquarters in suburban San Bruno, California, wearing jeans, a cardigan and an expression of pure stoicism. In an industry that celebrates eccentricity, Wojcicki presents as exceedingly normal, bordering on boring, even as elements of her digital realm burst into the real world in forms that are increasingly grotesque and sometimes dangerous.
Several months earlier, not far from where we sat, Wojcicki had spent 40 minutes hiding from an active shooter: a YouTube user furious about new ad standards, who shot three employees before taking her own life. Wojcicki said she knew that her policy changes could “upset some people,” but “seeing that someone could be so angry that they would come here is really hard.”
Her tenure as CEO wasn’t supposed to be dominated by pedophilia and attempted mass murder. When she got the job, in 2014, Wojcicki was hailed straightforwardly as the most powerful woman in advertising, someone who’d helped turn on the cash spigots in her time at Google and would presumably repeat the trick at YouTube. In the five years since, Wojcicki has introduced new forms of ads as well as subscription offerings for music, original content and the cord-cutting service YouTube TV. But somewhere along the line, her job became less about growth and more about toxic containment.
Political figures and tech luminaries alike are castigating YouTube for not doing enough to rein in the crooks, crackpots, racists, Russian agents and charlatans who call the platform home. New horrors are ceaseless — last month, just before a New Zealand terrorist massacred 50 people, he urged people to subscribe to a popular YouTuber — and reinforce the view that the platform is corroding society.
Remarkably, for a person who oversees a website with more daily visitors than Facebook, Wojcicki has managed to keep a low profile and avoid much of the blame. Last year, when other social media executives were summoned to Congress for a scolding, she was not invited. She stayed home and campaigned against a new European Union law that could hold services like YouTube liable if their users upload copyrighted content.
While Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey and others have gotten their share of public scrutiny, Wojcicki largely has not. I wanted to get a better sense of what she was like as a CEO, how she was trying to tame YouTube’s hydra of issues and whether there was any sense of urgency within YouTube. And so during the past several months, I spoke to more than a dozen current and former YouTube and Google employees and interviewed Wojcicki three times.
What I found was both reassuring and alarming. At the top of the world’s largest and most volatile video platform is a calm, levelheaded person. But her deliberate style may be at odds with the pace and scale of horrors and just plain stupidity that relentlessly arises on YouTube. On April 2, Bloomberg News published an article that painted a damning portrait of her and other YouTube brass — so focused on maximizing usage statistics that they looked the other way when employees raised concerns about the company’s recommendation system. Wojcicki seemed taken aback. In an April 7 interview, she said YouTube has not ignored its problem with hosting extreme and conspiracy-minded content. She said that it was a large and complex issue and that the company was starting to make a dent. She wasn’t defensive but was defiant and — most surprising for someone usually so measured — a little angry.
“It’s not like there is one lever we can pull and say, ‘Hey, let’s make all these changes,’ and everything would be solved,” Wojcicki said. “That’s not how it works.”
At one policy review meeting I observed in San Bruno, her methodical approach was on full display. In a narrow conference room lined with whiteboards and TV screens, she sat quietly with a dozen YouTube employees, watching a video called “Condom Challenge,” in which water-filled prophylactics fell onto people’s heads in extreme slow motion. Rather than bursting, the condoms inverted and engulfed their faces like a fishbowl. Wojcicki pondered whether the clip, which has nearly 15 million views, was merely juvenile or crossed the line to life-threatening. Like so much on YouTube, such “challenges” — when creators perform stunts and call out a friend to do the same — often begin as harmless memes but morph into something more problematic.
Wojcicki and her staff considered their thicket of policies. A “dangerous” (risk of bodily harm) activity could stay on YouTube as long as no minors were involved. But “ultrahazardous” (risk of death) challenges would be removed. One staffer ventured that the condom challenge seemed to belong in the former category. Wojcicki disagreed.
“There’s no reason we want people putting any kind of plastic over their head,” she said, peering over the screen of her open laptop. But the video stayed up. For every minute Wojcicki spent discussing it, users uploaded to the site an additional 500 hours of footage.
‘The first cousin of the Google royal family’
Unlike many of her tech-CEO peers, Wojcicki (pronounced “Woe-jisky”) does not have a tidy origin story to tell reporters; there was no aha! moment in a dorm room that has been polished and embellished over the years. She didn’t drop out of Harvard; she graduated. But in 1998, Wojcicki and her husband rented part of their Menlo Park, California, home for $1,700 a month to a pair of Stanford University graduate students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They had just started a search engine called Google.
Wojcicki was working for Intel at the time, and one day, she wasn’t able to find an important piece of information because Google was down. She realized that she had become dependent on “the site developed by those two dudes in my garage.” Wojcicki joined Google as its 16th employee and its first marketing manager. With a baby on the way, she was going to work for a company with no revenue. She helped turn Google into a juggernaut, developing its signature advertising product, AdWords, and overseeing its first foray into content sharing, called Google Video. In 2006, swallowing her pride, she encouraged Google to acquire a rival service called YouTube for $1.65 billion. (Morgan Stanley recently estimated that the division is now worth $160 billion.)
Over the years, Wojcicki built a personal fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions, and she remains a close confidante of Page, who is now the chief executive of Google’s parent, Alphabet. One former executive told me, “Susan is the first cousin of the Google royal family.” Wojcicki’s biological family is remarkably accomplished. She is the oldest of three sisters; the middle one, Janet, is an anthropologist, epidemiologist and former Fulbright scholar; and the youngest, Anne, co-founded 23andMe, the DNA testing company. (Anne was also married to Brin until 2015.)
Being part of a high-profile clan can cause confusion. Chris Dale, a YouTube spokesman, once learned that People magazine planned to run a story that Susan Wojcicki was dating Alex Rodriguez, the former New York Yankees slugger. Dale recalls sheepishly calling his boss — who had been married for more than 20 years — in the middle of a parent-teacher meeting to ask if she was having an affair. She was not. Anne, not Susan, had been seeing Rodriguez.
Since taking over YouTube, fame has been something Wojcicki has tried to avoid. But she is warm and approachable in person, and for one recent interview, she arrived at the office dressed like any other Google employee, with black cowboy boots and a backpack slung over one shoulder, ready to discuss her track record. “One way I think about some of the decisions is putting myself in the future and thinking: In five or 10 years, what will they say?” Wojcicki said. “If someone were to look back on the decisions that we’re making, would they feel we were on the right side of history? Would I feel proud? Will my children feel like I made good decisions?”
Whether vacuous or violent, YouTube troubles arise at a dumbfounding pace. Last year, YouTube banned both the “Tide Pod” challenge, which involved biting into laundry detergent pods, and “No lackin” videos, in which participants aim guns at each other. Confronted by one crisis after another, Wojcicki has introduced policies to curb the spread of problematic videos and raised the bar on which videos can carry advertising. The challenge is cleaning up the mess while keeping her various constituencies — users, creators, advertisers, parents, lawmakers — happy, or at least not irate.
When she became CEO, Wojcicki inherited an audacious goal: Get users to watch more than 1 billion hours of videos every day, a tenfold increase from 2012. She kept the target in place and made some changes at the margins. In 2016, YouTube scaled back recommendations of sensational and clickbait-y videos, because it found users were drawn to watching them but later regretted it — a lot like eating junk food. Two of Wojcicki’s inflection points came in spring 2017. That March, major advertisers, including AT&T and Johnson & Johnson, boycotted the service after reports that their messages appeared on offensive content. Then, in June, three men drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge. Media reports said one of the attackers had watched the inflammatory YouTube sermons of an Islamic cleric. Wojcicki said the attack clarified for her that her company could no longer keep content at arm’s length and hide behind a broadly articulated set of community guidelines.
“We needed to have a deeper understanding of the issues, we needed to have much deeper enforcement, and we needed to have much more precision in our policies,” Wojcicki said. In the months that followed, she added thousands of human reviewers to examine controversial videos and created an “intelligence desk” to identify percolating issues on the internet more quickly. Her staff also deployed Google’s machine-learning systems to flag extremist content. These days, YouTube says it is pursuing what the company calls “responsible growth.” When asked what that means, Wojcicki said an easy explanation was a challenge.
To boil it down: YouTube wants to remove the content that violates its policies more quickly and effectively; promote better, more authoritative material; and limit the spread of videos that are potentially harmful but do not break the rules. Wojcicki said the third category, so-called borderline content, has been the most challenging. Earlier this year, the company announced that it was changing its algorithm to stop recommending material like conspiracy videos that can become a gateway to the unsavory.
YouTube said it would employ human raters, starting in the United States, to evaluate certain content. Those judgments will help inform what the recommendation engine flags. (Clearly, the algorithms need attention. They mistakenly added information about the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks to footage of the Notre Dame fire.) YouTube said it plans to introduce the change to another 20 countries this year, deploying raters in each market to understand the preferences of local users.
When asked why she didn’t act sooner, Wojcicki said she wished she had. “If I were to go back in time, I certainly would have accelerated all of these features, and I would have accelerated all of this work because now I’ve realized how important it is,” she said. “I realized at the time, too. We always thought it was important, but I can’t emphasize the number of people and systems that it is taking for us to implement it.”
‘Everybody is angry at you all the time’
At the YouTube policy meeting I observed, Wojcicki asked 37 questions in one hour. They were short. And direct. In one exchange, a YouTube staffer (I agreed to not use their names) briefed her on an uptick in users uploading soft-core pornography.
Wojcicki: “You feel good about the changes we made, and that that group has been managed?”
Staffer: “Yes. I mean, they’ll keep evolving.”
Wojcicki: “How did we find it?”
The staffer described an anomaly-detection system.
Wojcicki: “And then you terminated those accounts?”
Staffer: “That’s right.”
YouTube’s mammoth video corpus and flow of new kinds of content present a challenge that simply never ends. Another test is always around the corner, whether it be the 2020 presidential elections or AI-generated “deepfake” technology. In the meantime, it’s hard to declare progress, much less victory, when the failures are so notable. Wojcicki said that seeing harmful videos and the hateful behavior of people online is the worst part of her job. “It’s probably not even rewarding, because everybody is angry at you all the time,” she said. “But I think it’s probably some of the most important work that I will do in my career, because it’s setting a standard of responsibility for the internet.”
She has become a pariah among a vocal minority of YouTube enthusiasts who think she has gone too far to alter what made YouTube popular in the first place. When Wojcicki started her own YouTube channel in fall 2017, her videos were overrun by negative comments, including anti-Semitic remarks and insults about her looks and manner of speaking. Her first post — a slick montage with YouTube stars offering advice on making videos — received five times as many thumbs-down votes as thumbs-up. When YouTube published a year-in-review compilation, which excluded reference to its troubles, it became the most disliked video in the site’s history. Even Wojcicki’s kids, she said, told her that it was “cringey.”
The growing backlash against YouTube has complicated some personal relationships. Marc Benioff, the chairman of Salesforce, said last year that social media was potentially as harmful as cigarettes and needed to be regulated. Wojcicki has been a Salesforce board director since 2014, and Benioff is a longtime acquaintance. For this article, YouTube arranged for an interview with Benioff to provide insight about her. But on the morning of a scheduled call, Benioff was feuding on Twitter with its CEO about a proposed tax to pay for services for the homeless in San Francisco.
He joined the call 40 minutes late, saying he had only five minutes to spare. When I asked how Wojcicki reacted to his comments about social media, Benioff became upset. He said he wasn’t “prepared to answer” the question and had expected to speak about her leadership style. Then he ended the call. In a written statement sent a week later, Benioff said: “We’re living in a crisis of trust, and as I’ve said before, that if our industry doesn’t self-regulate, the government will do it for us. But I don’t think that reality fazes someone like Susan because she knows, no matter what, the power of trust and transparency far outweighs whatever regulation that may come our way.”
‘She is not going anywhere’
The easiest way to judge a CEO’s performance, of course, is to study a company’s financial results. In the case of YouTube, that’s a matter of guesswork. The company is a few layers deep within Alphabet and its financial results are not disclosed. YouTube reveals data points in drips and drabs, but the numbers are too absent of context to be of much use. On the last earnings call with analysts, for example, Google said that the number of YouTube channels with more than 1 million subscribers nearly doubled last year and that the number of creators making more than $10,000 annually grew more than 40%. But investors do not know YouTube’s profit or costs, or how Wojcicki has affected them over time.
From what we can glean, though, YouTube’s business appears to be thriving. Alphabet cited its “strong contribution” as a key factor for the company’s record profits in the fourth quarter. Analysts estimate that YouTube’s annual revenue has surpassed $15 billion and is growing at 30% to 40% a year. If building a business with Netflix-size revenue inside Alphabet wasn’t enough to gain Wojcicki job security from YouTube’s policing struggles, there’s also the Larry factor. She technically reports to Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, but she answers to Page. She remains one of the few people at the company with “walk-in access” to the reclusive co-founder, one Google executive told me. “She is not going anywhere,” this person said.
One reason Wojcicki defies easy characterization is that her core function keeps changing. Today, her job is to be something like the standards czar of an anarchic civilization. Before that, when YouTube started home-growing celebrity icons, she was a budding media mogul. But in whatever role YouTube has needed her to assume, Wojcicki has not lost sight of the skill she learned early on at Google: how to keep advertisers happy.
Marc Pritchard, Procter & Gamble’s chief brand officer, who is responsible for one of the biggest advertising budgets in the world, said that his company has had some rocky moments with YouTube in the past few years and that Wojcicki has been a steadying presence. Like other major marketers, P&G stopped spending on YouTube in early 2017 when it found its advertisements running next to videos with violence, extreme language and other consumer-unfriendly qualities. When Pritchard called Wojcicki with the bad news, he said, the conversation was not contentious. She told him: “You’re an important partner. We’re going to work together to get this fixed.”
Almost a year after P&G put its wallet away, the “Tide Pod challenge” started to spread across YouTube. Tide is one of P&G’s flagship brands, and Pritchard said that late one Friday night, Wojcicki called him with reassurances that her company was on top of the problem. She added a metaphor about the scale of the challenge: YouTube had started out as a small city, but it had grown into a metropolis.
“I think you’ve grown well beyond a metropolis,” Pritchard recalled telling her. “You grew into a galaxy. That has implications beyond anything you would have ever known.” Within a few hours, the worst Tide Pod videos were scrubbed from YouTube, and the platform changed its algorithm so anyone searching for them would be shown a safety video.
“No debate, just action,” said Pritchard. A few months later, P&G announced that it would resume advertising on YouTube.
Over Presidents Day weekend, Wojcicki was traveling with her family when another ad disaster struck. A YouTuber named Matt Watson posted a video with the title “YouTube is Facilitating the Sexual Exploitation of Children, and It’s Being Monetized.” It demonstrated how pedophiles were coordinating their behavior on the site, including on some videos sponsored by big brands, and those companies started to pull their advertising.
Wojcicki asked her staff to do a “content review” to remove any problematic videos and comments. She coordinated with senior executives and the “incident commander,” a rotating position she had created to ensure that every “escalation” — that’s corporate-speak for “a terrible thing found on our platform” — had a point person overseeing the response. Eventually, YouTube said it removed inappropriate comments from thousands of videos and would disable comments permanently on most content featuring children under 13.
Wojcicki said while the situation was regrettable, it also demonstrated that some of YouTube’s new policies are helping. YouTube was able to turn off comments on millions of videos over a holiday weekend, something it would have struggled to do in the past. A month later, when YouTube’s human reviewers were overwhelmed by a deluge of videos of the mass shooting in New Zealand — at one point, footage of the shooting was being uploaded every second — Wojcicki said the company intentionally disabled search functions. It also bypassed human reviewers and let its computers immediately take down any videos that were automatically flagged.
She said each horrible incident helps the company be better prepared for the next one. And there will always be a next one, as long as YouTube remains open to allowing anyone with an internet connection to upload a video. After a long conversation, Wojcicki became introspective. She said she joined Google because she wanted to do something meaningful with her life and saw the company’s mission of helping people find the right information as inspiring. But now she recognizes that her ultimate legacy will be whether YouTube can get a handle on its problems.
“I know we can do better, but we’re going to get there. We’ll get to a point where we have solved a lot of these issues, and I feel like we’ve already made significant progress,” she said. “I own this problem, and I’m going to fix it.”