If you opened Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram about a decade ago, you'd likely see posts from friends and family, in chronological order. Nowadays, users are bombarded with algorithmically curated content. Passionate about plants? Sports? the cats? Policy? This is what you will see.
“[There] They are equations that measure what you do, monitor the data of all the users on these platforms, and then try to predict what each person is most likely to interact with. The New Yorker Writer Kyle Chayka explains. “So, instead of having this neat, structured feed, you have this feed that's constantly trying to guess what you're going to click, what you're going to read, what you're going to watch or listen to.”
In his new book, Filter world, Chaika studies the algorithmic recommendations that dictate everything from the music, news, and movies we consume, to the foods we eat and the places we go. He argues that all this machine-directed regulation has made us obedient consumers and diminished our likes and tastes.
“For us as consumers, they make us more passive by simply feeding us too many things, by constantly recommending things that we are unlikely to turn away from, and that we will tolerate.” [but] “Don't find it too surprising or difficult,” Chaika says.
What's more, Chaika says, algorithms pressure artists and other content creators to shape their work in ways that suit feeds. For musicians working through Spotify or TikTok, this might mean recording catchy clips that happen right at the beginning of the song — when the user is most likely to hear it.
Although it may seem that algorithms are inevitable, Chaika says increased regulation of social media companies could mitigate their impact. “I think if Meta, the parent company of Facebook, had to spin off some of its properties, like Instagram or WhatsApp, and those properties were created to compete against each other, then maybe users would have more agency and more choices for what they want.” “Re-consumption,” he says.
Highlights of the interview
About how the Internet takes power away from gatekeepers
There is a tremendous power to the Internet that allows anyone to publish the artwork they create or the songs they write. I think that's really powerful and unique. … [In] In the cultural ecosystem that we had before, there were gatekeepers, like magazine editors or record executives or even radio station deejays, through whom you had to work to get your art heard, seen, or purchased. So these were human beings with their own biases, preferences, and social networks, and they tended to block people who didn't fit their own vision.
Now, in the age of algorithms, let's say instead of striving to please human gatekeepers or know their tastes, the measure is how much engagement you can get on these digital platforms. So your measure of success is how many likes did you get? How many TikTok saves or bookmarks have you gotten? How many streams have you gotten on Spotify?
So I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of systems. For example, on the Internet, anyone can showcase their work and anyone's voice can be heard. But that means that in order to succeed, you also have to appease or adapt to these algorithmic ecosystems that I think don't always allow for the most interesting works to be heard or seen.
About the difficulty of knowing what's going on outside of your specific algorithm
These platforms and digital feeds, they kind of promise a great community experience, like we're connecting with all the other TikTok users or all the other Instagram users, but I think they actually compartmentalize our experiences somewhat, because we can never tell what other people are seeing in their own feeds. We have no idea how many other people like the same thing we do, or even if they see the same culture we do, or experience an album or TV show, in the same way. So I think there's this lack of connection…this feeling that we're alone in our consumer habits and we can't come together around art in the same way, which I think kind of kills the experience of art and makes it harder to have that kind of collective enthusiasm for specific things. .
On how success on social media determines who gets book deals, TV shows, and record deals
Every publisher will ask a new author, “What's your platform like? How big do you have?” Which is almost a euphemism for “How many followers do you have online?” – Be it that [on] Twitter, Instagram or email newsletter. They want to know that you already have an audience engaged in the process, and that you have a built-in fan base for what you do. And culture doesn't always work that way. I don't think every idea has to be so repetitive that you actually need fans for something to work, that you have to engage the audience at every stage of the process for something to work. So for a musician, you probably won't get a big record deal unless you go viral on TikTok. Or if you have a successful YouTube series, you might get more offers as an actor. I think there's this kind of gatekeeping effect here as well, where in order to have more success on algorithmic platforms, you have to start by seeding some kind of success there already.
About how some movies and TV turn into internet memes
You can see how TV shows and movies have adapted to algorithmic feeds through the kind of one-line, GIF-ready scenes you see in many TV shows and movies now. You can see how a moment in a movie is shared on Twitter, or how a particular reaction on a reality TV show, for example, is turned into a meme. And I think a lot of production choices have been influenced by this need for your piece of content to attract more pieces of content and inspire more reactions and clips and more memes.
On how algorithms impact journalism
I think algorithmic feeds have taken on the responsibility that a lot of news publications once had. …In decades past, we saw and consumed news stories on a daily basis New York times First page on print paper or as shown in the The New York Times Home page on the Internet. Now, instead of a publication selecting the most important stories, the things you should see right away, an algorithmic Twitter or We now have speakers and commentators on TikTok instead of news anchors on cable TV. So I think the responsibility for choosing what's important has been shifted to algorithmic recommendations rather than human editors or producers.
About how negative consumption affects how deeply we think about culture
I think passive consumption definitely plays a role. We don't always consume culture and think deeply about the genius of a painting or a symphony… it's not something we can do all the time. But what worries me is the negativity of consumption into which we are pushed, the ways in which we are encouraged not to think about the culture we consume, not to delve deeper and not to follow our own inclinations. …And I think when I really think about it, the kind of horror that lies at the end of all this, at least for me, is … We'll never have a Fellini film that's as challenging as you think about it for the rest of your life, or watch The strange and disturbing painting that will really stick in your mind. As if I don't want to leave those masterpieces behind just because they don't immediately engage people.
Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavey-Nesper, and Beth Novy adapted it for the Web.
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