As the crisis-hit video site struggles to stem the flow of extreme content, the CEO talks about her role as the internet’s gatekeeper.
In YouTube’s fashionable central London “space”, where good-looking young people mill around and help themselves to the well-stocked free kitchen, there is a noticeboard that asks staff and visitors: What could we do better? On one of the sticky notes, someone has written “Nothing!!” It would be reassuring for the executives who run the video site if that were true, although not many would agree that it is. Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, who is in town for a three-week tour of Europe, is one of the most impressive and powerful women in tech – and also one of the most beleaguered.
We meet in one of the studios, where YouTubers with more than 10,000 subscribers can make videos, and sit on sofas in a set with a faux brick-wall backdrop, which gives a slightly unnerving sense of fake cosiness. Wojcicki (pronounced “Wo-jisky”) seems friendly but businesslike; chatty, but is careful about what she says. There is a lot to talk about: sexism in tech, the power of social media, being a working parent of five – and especially the crises that have engulfed the company she runs, particularly this year.
Last month, the Washington Post reported that the US Federal Trade Commission had finalised a multimillion-dollar fine for YouTube’s owner, Google, after an investigation found that the site had been collecting the data of children under 13. In May, the Vox journalist Carlos Maza complained, in a tweet that went viral, that he had been the repeated victim of homophobic and racist abuse by one of YouTube’s stars (or “creators”, in company speak), the conservative commentator Steven Crowder. In an open letter, 145 employees of Google, YouTube and their parent company, Alphabet, called for San Francisco Pride to refuse Google’s sponsorship because it had repeatedly ignored their calls to take more seriously what they viewed as hate speech on YouTube and other Google platforms.
Before this, in March, YouTube was criticised for failing to act quickly enough to remove footage of the New Zealand mosque attacks, which had flooded the site. A month earlier, it was revealed that paedophiles had been using the comments section under videos of children to communicate with each other.
The platform has hosted violent or sexually explicit videos made to look like content for children (such as Peppa Pig animations), while one of its biggest stars, Logan Paul, once posted a video in which he posed next to a man who had killed himself. Elsewhere on the site, conspiracy theories proliferate. Researchers claim it is a place where far-right commentators, white supremacists and men’s rights activists have radicalised legions of young white men. Politicians are circling, concerned about how powerful tech companies have become and talking about breaking up the biggest.
In June, YouTube announced new anti-hate speech policies in an attempt to address some of the concerns. Why did it take so long? “We’ve always had an anti-hate speech policy,” says Wojcicki. “YouTube has had community guidelines from the very beginning and a number of guidelines involving hate and [incitement to] violence. What we have found is that, with every policy we make, there is content that will become borderline, or will find ways to skirt around those policies. What we were doing was tightening [rules] we already had.”
Under the new rules, certain events – such as the Holocaust and the Parkland school shooting – are now protected, so users can’t post videos denying they happened. “We also defined the language in a way that is more precise and more clear, so you could not use any protected group … to justify violence, exclusion, separation, discrimination.” The company has targeted what it calls “borderline” content – videos that skirt dangerously close to violating its policies – she says, with the platform removing comments and not allowing the videos to appear in its recommended section, the central feature that drives views.
But it’s an uphill battle; every minute, more than 500 hours of video is uploaded. The company employs 10,000 human moderators – as well as computers – to sift through it all. Surely the clean-up task is too big for them to get a handle on it? “I think we’ve made tremendous progress,” says Wojcicki. In the first quarter of 2019, they removed 8.3m videos, she says. “The machines get more and more sophisticated as we get better at identifying that content, which means we can find it faster than before. Over 75% of the content that we’re removing with machines, we find and remove without even a single view.” But is it really possible to delete enough? “Yes, I think it is,” she says. “I’ve seen the progress we’ve made and I believe we will continue to make more progress.”
Wojcicki’s target, when she became CEO in 2014, was to get people watching a billion hours’ worth of video a day – a target she met in 2016. But critics say that YouTube’s entire business model is based on increasing watch time, and that videos trading in outrage and extremism drive this by engaging people to stay on the site longer.
Does she agree with that? “No, I don’t agree,” she says, with a tight smile. “We’ve designed YouTube to be a platform that generates high-quality content and experiences, where people are learning, or laughing, discovering people like them. Philosophically, that’s the sort of content we’re leaning into. But also we are an advertising-supported platform, and advertisers do not want to run on content that is extremist or that leads to any kind of controversial societal behaviour.”
But the platform still benefits from claiming it has more than 2 billion active users – 73% of Americans use it, according to the Pew Research Center, more than any other social media platform – even if many come to watch unsavoury and inflammatory content. Is that not a problem? She asks which type of videos, although it is inconceivable that she doesn’t know what I mean. The “alt-right” stuff, the Alex Jones stuff, I say. (I could have added the videos glorifying Isis, since removed, that led to an exodus of advertisers in 2017.)
“Alex Jones isn’t on our platform,” says Wojcicki, of the far-right conspiracy theorist who had nearly 2.5 million subscribers. But he was, until he was banned last year (fans still upload his shows to the platform). “But he’s not any more,” she says. “I think it’s important to remember that news or news commentary [is] a very small percentage of the number of views we have. The vast majority of YouTube is a combination of influencers who are focused in areas like comedy, beauty, how-to, gaming.” Music is another, she says. “If you look at some of the content you referenced, that is an extremely small part of the platform.”
But hasn’t it been dangerously influential? She pauses. “Look, it’s a very small percentage of our views, and the way that we think about it is: ‘Is this content violating one of our policies? Has it violated anything in terms of hate, harassment?’ If it has, we remove that content. We keep tightening and tightening the policies. We also get criticism, just to be clear, [about] where do you draw the lines of free speech and, if you draw it too tightly, are you removing voices of society that should be heard? We’re trying to strike a balance of enabling a broad set of voices, but also making sure that those voices play by a set of rules that are healthy conversations for society.”
For all her careful, frustratingly corporate answers, Wojcicki is in an almost impossible position. Aside from the gargantuan task of trying to sift through the never-ending torrent of content, she has to contend with the fact that removing far-right commentators’ videos turns them into free-speech martyrs. She also has to keep “creators”, many of whom make a handsome living through the site, happy. I have no reason to disbelieve Wojcicki when she says “responsibility has been my number one priority”. The question is whether it is a task beyond her – and whether Google will tolerate changes that result in lower profits.
Wojcicki, 51, is the eldest of three sisters, all rooted in Silicon Valley: her youngest sister, Anne, is the founder of the genetic-testing company 23andMe and was married to Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin; their middle sister, Janet, is a professor. They are the daughters of a refugee – their grandfather was an opposition leader in Poland and their father Stanley fled when he was 11, smuggled aboard a Swedish coal tanker with his mother and brother. They went to the US, where he became a physicist and the chair of Stanford University’s physics department. Their mother, Esther, is a renowned teacher. “I think one of the most valuable aspects of our childhood was growing up on the Stanford campus,” says Wojcicki. “Stanford has all of its faculty live in the same location, so I grew up where all of my neighbours were professors.” One was the late George Dantzig, the celebrated mathematician. “I didn’t realise what he had done academically until I was at college – I had always just known him as the person who lived next door.”
Wojcicki was influenced by the passion she saw around her, she says: “University professors are generally people who care deeply about a topic.” Was there overwhelming pressure to succeed, growing up alongside so many high-achievers? “I didn’t feel pressure in the way people normally define success, whether that’s with fame or income,” she says. “University professors are always taking a cut in income to do what they want to do; they’re dedicated to their field. I suppose there was some pressure to do what was interesting, to find an area that was meaningful.”
As a child, she wanted to be an artist. She studied literature and history at Harvard, not the typical background of tech CEOs, although her business brain was apparent from an early age – she had a childhood hustle selling homemade spice ropes (plaited yarn threaded with spices) before picking up graduate degrees in business and economics. “I decided to take my first computer science class when I was a senior in college. My whole childhood was about arts and being creative – I just loved to make and create things – and it was really only in my senior year that I realised computers and software enabled you to make content, and I saw the creative aspect of it. I had this view beforehand that it was a very boring topic.” This is why she loves YouTube’s creators, she says: “That interest is what still draws me to technology.”
After college, Wojcicki worked in marketing for Intel. A mutual friend introduced her to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who rented Wojcicki’s garage, where they built their search engine, Google, soon expanding into three ground-floor bedrooms in her house (Wojcicki and her husband, strapped for cash, were pleased to have help with the mortgage).
Wojcicki joined Google in 1999, as the company’s 16th employee. “Everyone said: ‘Why are you joining another search engine? It’s not going to be successful; there are already way too many search engines.’ But I saw right away that Google was offering an ability to find information that was unparalleled.” Still, it was a risk to join this small company. “I was five months’ pregnant, and I had just bought a house, and I had student loans,” she says with a laugh. “I think it gets back to who I am as a person – I saw the internet was coming, I saw it was going to be big, and I felt at home at Google because it reminded me of the mission of a lot of universities, which is to enable resources for people to learn, to self-empower by studying and [giving] access to information.”
She became Google’s marketing manager, then a senior vice-president overseeing advertising, which is instrumental in driving the vast majority of its gigantic profits – $9.2bn (£7.6bn) in the latest quarter. Wojcicki was in charge of Google’s video platform in 2005 when she realised a startup, YouTube, was outperforming it. She advised Google to buy it – which it did, in 2006, for $1.7bn. (The billionaire investor Mark Cuban said at the time that “anyone who buys [YouTube] is a moron”, predicting that the site would be “sued into oblivion” for hosting copyrighted content.) In 2014, she became its CEO, growing it into a business that is now worth about $160bn.
Although Wojcicki is one of the most influential people in tech, she has maintained a low profile, but seems well-regarded in the industry as a steady and diligent leader. She has been vocal about the need to get more women into tech and into leadership positions (Sheryl Sandberg, formerly at Google and now Facebook’s chief operating officer, has named Wojcicki as a role model). Under Wojcicki, the proportion of female staff at YouTube has increased from a quarter to a third, she says, “and that includes our leadership”.
Why have so few women made it to her level? “If you look at the pipeline of women graduating with computer science degrees, it’s a much smaller number [than men],” she says. “In the US, about 20% are women. That just means that, when you get started, there is a smaller pool of women who have those capabilities. The challenge is getting that network started. It’s always hard if you’re the first woman, the only woman, but if you’re working in an organisation where there are a significant number, and not just in the entry-level positions, then younger women understand that they can also achieve these leadership roles.”
One of the important factors in keeping women, says Wojcicki, is a generous maternity leave policy. Google offers six months’ paid leave in the US, where there is no federal entitlement to any. “Twenty-five per cent of American women come back to work after 10 days [of having a baby], which is a crazy number,” she says. “After I had my last child, I was thinking on day 10: ‘How would I feel if I had to come back right now?’ And I thought: ‘I wouldn’t – I’d rather quit.’”
How much sexism has she experienced in her career? “I feel like I’ve been supported,” she says, then pauses. “For the most part. But a lot of times there are micro-aggressions that people aren’t always aware of and that can have a cumulative effect.” Men have spoken over her, or not taken on board what she has said, or not taken her seriously. “And so I think I’ve also developed techniques, over 20 years of being in the industry, of learning how to have my words taken seriously, and how to get attention.”
Sometimes, she says, she will simply call it out. “Or I’ll find a way to get people to really listen. What I find is, you can’t say comments in a timid, unsure way – no one’s going to listen to you and no one’s going to take you seriously. You have to be able to state your opinion in a way that is confident.” Getting attention is important, too: “So, you have to say something like: ‘No, I completely disagree with your point of view, you’re going in the wrong direction. Let me tell you what I think is the right step for the future.’ And then you’ve opened the door and people are paying attention.” Tech is getting more diverse, she says, which is vital for society. “It has become such an important force of change in so many parts of our economic landscape,” she says. “If only 25% of people coming into tech are women, then there are some stories and some perspectives that are not being shared.”
Wojcicki’s children range in age from four to late teens. They do watch YouTube, she says (the dedicated kids’ version for the younger ones). How do she and her husband, a Google executive, manage their children’s screen time? “It’s always important to have balance,” she says. “What is important to me is that kids learn how to manage technology responsibly. Just like you talk to your kids about what you do when you go out on the street, you need to have a conversation with them about safety on the internet, and also find a way to manage screen time and balance that with other activities.”
Are there arguments over screen time? “I have times when I take away all my kids’ phones, especially if we’re on a family vacation, because I want people to interact with each other. So, I take away their phones and say: ‘We’re all going to focus on being present today.’ It comes back to balance – people need to learn when it is a time [to be] focused in the conversation, and when it is OK to go and watch videos or do other activities on the internet.”
At what age did they get phones? “When my kids started to be in a position when they were on their own, taking a bus or going places, it was useful for them to have a phone,” she says. Once, her daughter got “stuck somewhere and she didn’t have any way to reach us. There are moments when it becomes important for them to have a phone. I think middle school [from about the age of 11] is a reasonable point to start educating them about it, but also a lot of times you can take it away. High school is harder – you’re dealing with children who are getting close to going to college, and you have zero control when that happens.”
She doesn’t like to manage their screen time too much, she says, preferring to let her children create “self-control methods. TV was the same when I was growing up. I was taught that, sure, some TV is enjoyable, but it needs to be balanced with sports, school, homework, reading and other activities.”
Wojcicki is worth a reported $500m. Is it hard to maintain any kind of “normal” life for her children? “I work really hard to give my kids a normal life,” she says. “In some ways, that’s very manageable, because those are my values – hard work, doing something meaningful. I do talk to my kids about a lot of the challenges we face at work, because these are issues of society and it’s interesting to hear their point of view. I work incredibly hard to make sure my children are hard-working, respectful and live balanced lives, and I try to set that example.”
A typical day involves getting up at 7am or 8am to do some exercise (“I’m not a morning person,” she adds with a smile), taking the children to school and getting to work between 9am and 10am. Sometimes, she stops for lunch, but usually she has a lunch meeting. She tells me about her working style, using impenetrable phrases such as “right processes”, but adds: “I’m not a person who tries to micromanage.” And she tries to get home for dinner.
She sets a few rules for herself when she is at home. “I do switch off, and I think that’s incredibly important,” she says. “If there’s a crisis, then I understand I need to be there and I need to be on top of that situation, but my goal is to make sure we don’t have crises. In general, I try to have evenings where I’m not looking at my phone or doing email or work.” That said, she does check her email at some point later on, because “things have usually happened in those couple of hours. I also try really hard to take a break on the weekend, and I try not to send emails to my team, because I want them to take a break. I’m a believer that taking breaks leads to higher productivity in the end and more longevity.”
Does she have time for anything else? “I like to garden,” she says. “I like animals.” She has chickens and goats. “I like to grow things. I love getting away by doing something completely different from technology, whether it’s learning about bees and having honey, or learning about different types of chickens, or varieties of fruit.” It sounds lovely, I say. She visibly relaxes and says: “It is.”
The day before we meet, the tech site Gizmodo publishes a piece on how extremist channels remain on YouTube, despite the new policies. In the face of fairly constant criticism, does Wojcicki ever feel like walking away? “No, I don’t. Because I feel a commitment to solving these challenges,” she says. “I care about the legacy that we leave and about how history will view this point in time. Here’s this new technology, we’ve enabled all these new voices. What did we do? Did we decide to shut it down and say only a small set of people will have their voice? Who will decide that, and how will it be decided? Or do we find a way to enable all these different voices and perspectives, but find a way to manage the abuse of it? I’m focused on making sure we can manage the challenges of having an open platform in a responsible way.”
Still, it is hard to resist picturing Wojcicki in her garden on a day off, attempting to nurture something beautiful while holding back the unstoppable force of weeds that just keep coming.