Hidden Wonders

Privacy·Technology·Tutorial

On Youtube


Published:

Table of Contents

Introduction[#]


If you’re on the internet, odds are you’ve used Youtube. After all, around 11% of global internet traffic is used just for Youtube. However, Youtube has a whole lot of stuff no one wants, including advertisements, which are correlated with a decrease in happiness; trackers, some of which are so invasive that Google was recently fined for collecting this data on minors without parental consent; and the censorship of “dissident opinions” and independent journalists while continuing to favor major companies over individual creators (CNN or FOX never get a video “mistakenly” taken down). The situation with independent journalists is especially concerning considering trust in mainstream media is at an all time low. I believe that most people will find at least one of these points problematic to some degree, which leads to the big question: what can we do about it?

Dealing with Ads[#]


If all you care about are ads, then your problem’s relatively easy to solve: get uBlock Origin. It is undoubtedly the best ad blocker out there, and is available on almost every browser. Another awesome browser extension for Youtube is SponsorBlock, which automatically skips the sponsored portions of Youtube videos.

If you’re on Android, you can get uBlock Origin or SponsorBlock using a browser that supports desktop browser addons (my recommendations would be either Kiwi Browser or some variant of Firefox for Android), but of course this would only work if you wanted to use the Youtube mobile website.

Brave or Bromite are also valid options since they ship with their own ad blockers by default, but uBlock Origin works better in my experience.

NOTE: Youtube Vanced has since been shut down.

Android also has Youtube Vanced, which works identically to the official Youtube app except it blocks ads and adds some additional features (AMOLED dark mode is really nice). If you’re on iOS for whatever reason, you’re pretty much out of luck; I’d recommend switching to Android, or maybe just subscribing to Youtube Premium if you already have the money to throw around for an Apple device. Jailbreaking it might give you an option for ad-free apps, but that’s outside of my knowledge. In all likelihood, the best answer for mobile devices is to not use them for watching videos in general. Mobile devices all run a proprietary OS (with a few exceptions), so the probability of the OS itself spying on your video-watching habits is probable regardless.

More Privacy Respecting Alternatives[#]


In the same vein as Vanced, NewPipe is an incredible application that supports downloading videos as either audio or video, blocks ads, and gets rid of almost all privacy concerns Youtube has by not using any proprietary Google APIs. While not as pretty and slightly less functional in certain ways than the aforementioned Youtube Vanced, it strikes the perfect balance between privacy and usability for my personal use case. I especially find it useful that you don’t need a Youtube account to subscribe to videos; NewPipe uses RSS feeds to get videos, which we’ll discuss more later.

NewPipe breaks sometimes due to Google changing stuff in Youtube, so I’d recommend getting F-Droid and then adding NewPipe’s own repository to F-Droid to get the most recent version. Of course, NewPipe still fetches videos by connecting to Youtube, making it not entirely satisfactory for some.

For whatever reason, NewPipe has refused to include SponsorBlock in their application. A fork of NewPipe containing both SponsorBlock and Return Youtube Dislike is available at this git repository.

I will mention that a lot of people dislike NewPipe for whatever reason, but I find no issue with it after using it for a few years now. As long as you’re getting the most recent updates from F-Droid, the application will be able to play videos exceptionally well. The UI does leave a bit to be desired at times, but the only thing that really bothers me is the inability to sort by most viewed or oldest on a Youtube channel. Less polished than the official Youtube app, but it’s worth it to get rid of ads and trackers.

Invidious[#]


There is another option out there, however: Invidious. It’s an option I don’t hear discussed too often, and for good reason. It often has some major issues, and many of the instances are very slow (they are much better than they used to be as of 2022). However, if you take a look at all the different Invidious instances here, you’ll almost certainly find some that work well. You can test for yourself, but the best instance I found was yewtu.be, which loads comments most consistently (a problem with a lot of the other instances, but not as much as of 2022).

Another big feature of Invidious is that some instances are able to load videos without needing to connect to Google’s servers at all, making Invidious the most privacy respecting option discussed. Of course, this is much harder to maintain for the website’s owner than fetching the videos from Youtube because it works by their server hosting the videos directly. Also useful are the existence of Tor and i2p versions of the site. Additionally, you can also host your own instance.

mpv & yt-dlp[#]


Rather than watch videos directly through Invidious——an experience that can be pretty disappointing——I tend to use it as a catalog to find Youtube videos before playing them locally on my computer. On both Linux and Windows, I use mpv and yt-dlp to watch any videos I might be interested in. Installation on Linux should be straight forward, and you can use chocolatey to install software using a package manager on Windows. From this point it’s simple; type mpv [url] to play whatever video you want. You can also drag and drop the video url if you prefer. There’s a lot of configuration you can do with mpv, but I’ll just link to the documentation and be done with it; the default settings are good enough for the average user.

As an aside, there’s also the ff2mpv browser extension, which allows you to play links in browser in mpv without using the terminal.

For yt-dlp, some commands of interest are yt-dlp [url], which automatically downloads the highest video quality freely available, as well as yt-dlp -x ---audio-format best [url], which downloads only the audio from a particular video. No more using shady youtube-to-mp3 websites! Do note that a lot of this stuff requires FFmpeg, which is probably already installed alongside yt-dlp on Linux; otherwise, install with chocolatey on Windows.

Another more advanced function is downloading higher quality video quality formats, which is a bit more confusing. Typing yt-dlp -F [url] will print out a bunch of information; Youtube stores a bunch of different file formats separately, so by default yt-dlp might only download something that’s in 720p. To download higher quality video, first look at the format codes on the left of the output. We then can type yt-dlp -f [best video]+[best audio] [url], where [best video] and [best audio] are the format codes from the previous command that correspond to the desired audio and video quality. On the back end, yt-dlp downloads the audio and video separately and then FFmpeg will mux the two together. Yt-dlp also works on hundreds of other sites, as can be seen here. Read the documentation (available here) for additional options such as embedding thumbnails and subtitles or customizing the filename of the download.

Cool stuff I’m too lazy to write about[#]


Piped is similar to Invidious with a more modern looking design.

FreeTube is a dedicated YouTube application. It uses it’s own API to load videos, but can also use an Invidious instance of your choosing.

Using RSS feeds for videos[#]


RSS feeds are incredibly useful tools for aggregating content for websites, and it just so happens that Youtube has an RSS feed feature built into it; this means that you can “subscribe” to channels on Youtube without needing a Google account. The general format for doing so is https://www.youtube.com/feeds/videos.xml?channel_id=[channel_id], and you get this information from the url of a channel that is in the general form https://www.youtube.com/channel/[channel_id] (I refreshed my memory on how to do this using this link).

The same can also be done for Invidious instances, but using a different format: when a channel url is in the format https://invidio.us/channel/[channel_id], the format for the RSS feed for that channel is just https://invidio.us/feed/channel/[channel_id].

My RSS reader of choice is newsboat, but I understand that since it’s essentially Linux only and is a TUI program, a lot of people aren’t interested in using it; if this is the case, just use whatever RSS reader works for you. You can launch videos directly in newsboat using the instructions here. There’s also tons of information about how to use newsboat in that previous link, so make sure to check it out if you have any questions about the program. At minimum, you should also add the line reload-threads 100 to your newsboat config file; this will make it so one-hundred different RSS feeds can load at the same time, rather than having to wait for each one to load one at a time.

I don’t feel like going over it because you shouldn’t be using Windows anyway, but for Windows you can use Windows Subsystem for Linux to use newsboat on Linux by replacing, say, mpv, with mpv.exe

Bitchute is really bad[#]


It’s been a few paragraphs, but maybe you remember my tirade at the beginning about how Youtube is censoring people and promoting big corporations over the very individual content creators that built up the site in the first place. None of the options mentioned so far have addressed this, so lets look first at the worst option available: Bitchute.

Man, Bitchute is absolute garbage.

Even if the content wasn’t garbage——it’s almost exclusively right-wing politics, much of which (not all) is made up of far-fetched conspiracies——the overall UI and search functionality certainly is. The UI is subjective, so go and make your own decisions if you dare, but the search results never give good results. If there’s a certain Bitchute channel you want to search for, often times it won’t show up even if you enter in the channel name exactly.

As a final nail in the coffin, this entire time I was typing this paragraph I was trying to load a video on Bitchute published in 2018 and it never loaded; this is because old videos that aren’t watched too much sometimes just break after a while. It is absurd to me that this is even possible; I think it may have been due to some infrastructure changes on Bitchute so it might not happen again, but a video platform that you can’t even trust to preserve your videos is not a platform anyone should seriously be considering using.

PeerTube is really cool[#]


Luckily, the other two major alternatives to Youtube are way better; first, I’d like to talk about the more interesting interesting of the two, PeerTube. Essentially, PeerTube is a federated software that uses peer-to-peer technology to serve videos. Federated software means that there are multiple instances that are hosted by different individuals, but these instances can communicate, or “federate”, with one another. Bitchute also launched with a peer-to-peer feature, but it seems like they’ve ceased using it. PeerTube is built on Activity Pub, which means accounts from other services that use Activity Pub can interact on PeerTube instances.

This all sounds pretty good, but lets look at the usability of the service. Searchability was originally pretty terrible on PeerTube——each instance being separated from each other made it hard to discover new content - but this official PeerTube search engine seems pretty good——at least in theory. I can search up cat videos and I actually get cat videos, which is already a mile better than Bitchute. The problem is that the search engine only indexes “approved” instances, so its not very usefulness. All the fun instances are probably not indexed by it due to being a bit too fun.

Content-wise, there is some good stuff out there if you look for it, but there’s definitely not much of it. Some technology content is out there among other things, but it is probably a smaller platform than Bitchute is. Videos don’t randomly disappear, but they do sometimes take a bit of time to load depending on the instance.

The real appeal of PeerTube is that an individual content creator can host his own PeerTube instance and have absolute control over his videos, something no other Youtube alternative really has. With Bitchute, you still have to answer to whoever controls Bitchute, but with federated software like PeerTube you have complete control over your content. This platform is the best alternative to Youtube in theory, but in implementation it still lacks the usability and adoption rate that Youtube has. I believe that due to its technical complexity relative to Youtube and the fact that it requires self-hosting, it will remain niche for the foreseeable future.

The Winner is Odysee[#]


The final alternative——the one I believe to be the best——is Odysee and the LBRY protocol. Their website proudly displays the line “LBRY does to publishing what Bitcoin did to money,” which sums up what they’ve achieved here pretty well. Odysee is the most popular of a number of websites that can serve LBRY videos; in this sense, it’s somewhat decentralized like PeerTube is, but definitely to a lesser extent since the creator is not hosting their videos on their own server.

LBRY is a blockchain technology, and by using the platform you receive LBRY tokens that you can donate to content creators on the site, who also can get LBRY by uploading videos and getting views. This is an incredibly unique method of monetization and it is far more privacy-respecting and less annoying alternative to the ads with which most websites are funded. A more technical explanation of LBRY is probably a bit out of the scope of this article, but here’s an article for anyone interested in learning more about how LBRY works under the hood, and here’s a simpler article that skims over some of LBRY’s features that I probably missed.

While PeerTube is definitely better than Odysee on paper, in the real world it’s a completely different story. Odysee videos work very well and tend to load quickly. There is a bit of buffering sometimes, but rewinding the video a few seconds almost always amends this minor issue. This buffering is exclusively the fault of Odysee’s bloated frontend, for videos played in mpv almost never buffer.

Odysee’s search functionality is the equal of Youtube’s, and I always seem to be able to find the videos I want when using their search function. Odysee also gives tons of recommendations like Youtube does as well, which makes it way easier to discover new content on the site. PeerTube has recommendations as well, but they don’t seem to be too good from my experience due to the overall lack of content on PeerTube. This leads me to the big reason Odysee is the best Youtube alternative: it has by far the best content. There is enough regular content that you can browse the platform without getting exclusively political videos shoved in your face as is the case with Bitchute.

There are also quite a few major content creators that have Odysee accounts because of how easy Odysee has made it for creators to sync their existing Youtube channels onto Odysee——one example is Veritasium, a science channel with millions of subscribers over on Youtube. This is great because it means Odysee has managed to get enough normal people using their platform that it can function as a viable alternative to Youtube. What now may be mostly a Youtube backup has the potential to grow into a larger site as Youtube continues to alienate its users (removing dislikes, for instance). Bitchute will remain a niche platform for right-wing politics, PeerTube will likely remain an obscure solution for people who want complete control over the platforms they host those videos on, but Odysee has a slim chance at becoming a second Youtube someday if it continues to gain widespread adoption. After a few more features are added to the platform, it will at least be equal to Youtube on a technical level (stuff like livestreaming has been added only recently).

The issue with the LBRY protocol, however, is that it’s far too centralized for what’s supposed to be a decentralized protocol. Everyone uses odysee.com; I can’t even name another site now that lbry.tv is planning to be shut down. This is dangerous because without decentralization there is nothing to keep Odysee from becoming the new Youtube——in a bad way——if it ever miraculously gains a greater market share. I should note that there still is the lbry.tv desktop application, but I wasn’t thrilled with it.

There are some librarian instances out there, and Odysee itself doesn’t have the best reputation for privacy so this service solves that problem. Notice how funny it is, though: we have an Odysee alternative for what itself is supposed to be a Youtube alternative. Evidently, the market for Youtube alternative, while quite a few exist, is not as good as it could be when we have to reinvent the wheel for a second time to get a viable platform.

Mentions of Other Platforms[#]


Rumble is a video platform that has gotten fairly big, especially for news reporting. However, it is not a solution to Youtube at all. There is no RSS feed (there might be if you log in, but who wants to be required to do that?) and the service is completely centralized. If the platform were to ever reach the popularity of Youtube, the cycle of censorship would continue. It’s better than Youtube at the present, but it doesn’t solve any problems.

There’s also old stuff like Dailymotion, but who uses that? I was going to link to the page but decided against it because the site is a privacy nightmare. Rumble and Odysee are fairly decent when it comes to privacy (not perfect unfortunately), and PeerTube is unrivaled.

Closing Thoughts[#]


It’s also worth mentioning that the existence of all these different platforms is one of the major pros to using RSS feeds; using RSS, you can subscribe to different channels across different sites and have them all in the same place. In my newsboat urls file, I have urls from Odysee, Invidious, and Bitchute all viewable and playable with mpv, browser not required. This makes transitioning to one of these newer platforms a lot less painful for the end user, for if there are a few Youtube channels that you still want to be subscribed to that aren’t on Odysee, you can still keep track of those channels while also making use of these other platforms.

RSS feeds are the ultimate answer to internet censorship of videos; if someday Bitchute or Odysee start censoring videos like crazy like Youtube does, you can just add different sites to your RSS feed with no loss of convenience for the end user. If everyone used them, sites like Youtube——or, for that matter, all major social media sites——would have a lot less grip on keeping their users locked into their platform.


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