Desperation Algorithms

This started as a single observation while I mindlessly consumed from the content hose, once again avoiding the seemingly inherent meaningless of modern life: It seems like every algorithmically-generated content feed from the big content platforms over-indexes on recency in a way that makes the platform feel desperate and needy. My interactions with YouTube are often some variation of this pattern:

“You like videos about shredding guitar players, eh?!”

“No, I just watched that one video…”

“LET ME SHOW YOU ALL THE SHREDDING GUITAR VIDEOS NOW!”

“I’d enjoy seeing options from the wide array of stuff I’m interested in, which you know all about based on my watch history and playlists.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. Maybe watch this shredding guitar video? You like those, right?”

Unless it’s after 9 pm, in which case it’s 90% brown noise videos

“You like brown noise at night, right? Here are 100 options!”

“No, I sometimes put on a brown noise video when I go to sleep, but that’s usually closer to midnight.”

“9 pm and midnight are basically the same time.”

Unless the platform’s business plan is more desperate than the algorithm. Spotify, for example, is clearly hoping their podcast and audiobook offerings help make it some money because their home “page” feed is basically:

  • Here are the last four things you listened to.
  • Here are a bunch of podcasts, even though you’ve listened to maybe 2 podcasts on Spotify, and 99.99% of your usage is for music.
  • Here are a bunch of audiobooks, even though you’ve literally never listened to an audiobook on here.
  • Here are four suggested playlists based on the last four things you listened to, even though you have a library with many different genres and obviously listen to full albums 90% of the time.
  • That’s it, that’s all we’ve got. Oh, you’d like to find something to listen to in your carefully curated library collection? Ha ha! Don’t be silly, there’s no reason you’d want to peruse that useless data!

Those are the two platforms I care about. Instagram and Facebook are on another level.

Instagram is basically like, “LET ME REFRESH THAT FEED FOR YOU EVEN THOUGH YOU ONLY NAVIGATED AWAY FOR ABOUT 2 SECONDS! YOU WANT NEW STUFF, RIGHT? THAT STUFF I JUST SHOWED YOU 2 SECONDS AGO IS CRAP! I’VE ALREADY FORGOTTEN IT EVEN EXISTS!” Instagram is only ever yelling.

“YOU LIKE SCREENSHOTS OF TWITTER, RIGHT? I’VE GOT A MILLION OF THEM! LOOK!”

“SORRY, I HAVE TO SHOW YOU AN AD BETWEEN EVERY MEME!”

“LET ME REFRESH THAT FEED FOR YOU!”

Instagram also yells when you try to click anything in its microscopic UI. “YEAH, YOU CAN CLICK THAT. NO, NOT THERE. NO, NOT THERE. IT IS THESE THREE PIXELS RIGHT HERE.”

Facebook’s algorithm is basically trained on one million drunk uncles. It doesn’t yell as much as Instagram, but its feed has turned into The New York Post regardless of who you friend or follow. On the rare occasion I find myself scrolling, it is usually a matter of seconds before I’m shown something that makes me jump-scare close the tab, after which I am forced to go in search of a unicorn chaser.

And yes, I have returned to Insta and FB after leaving such platforms years ago. The former because my wife posts there almost daily. Both because that seems to be where all the local cycling organizations are organizing. Unfortunately, based on the UX described above, I’ve been unable to get any utility from either platform. My current plan is to simply push to them when I have events/content I would like people to know about, and…hope for the best? My expectations are low that anyone will actually see it, but based on how many local organizers have told me, “Oh, it’s on Instagram”—or more frequently, “It was on Instagram,” because I totally missed it, and often was shown the relevant information after the fact—somehow they are getting said utility from the platform, I just haven’t figured out how yet.

There’s one more comical aspect to this failure of the algorithms: ads. The very thing that funds the entire shitshow. I canceled my YouTube premium subscription that I’d had forever when they increased the price by 100% last year. I hoped the ads would inspire me to watch less YouTube, but they haven’t in any meaningful way. Gotta consume that lifestyle content.

Just like the algorithm that tries to keep me consuming content on the platform, the algorithm that chooses ads from the platform’s vast inventory is comically bad. In the case of YouTube, I have checked or unchecked all the boxes in Google that make it so it can’t track me quite so closely. But they still know about all those videos I’ve watched, right? Still, I get the most ridiculous ads. There are a couple that are clearly auto-generated from an image and some text, the image being a low-resolution copy of the company’s logo, which the YouTube ad generator stretches and squashes into a blurry, pixelated mess. Then there are the ads for hyper-conservative content, my little view into the frankly paranoid and seething world of the far right. I get these ads either in spite of or because I have watched left-leaning content on the platform.

But mostly I just get the same ads over and over. The aforementioned ad with the blurry logo, dog food commercials despite the fact I haven’t had a dog in years, and Airbnb even though I rarely travel.

Instagram, on the other hand, knows my preferences better than I do and has an ad inventory brimming with opportunities for me to spend money to fulfill my desire for greater meaning in my life. Bikes, outdoor clothing, notebooks, productivity apps, the perfect gadget for my existential ennui. On occasion, I will have momentarily searched for something on the broader internet and had a Facebook cookie dropped into my browser, despite my better efforts to prevent it, and my Instagram ads will get confused, creating cognitive dissonance as I scroll my bike-ad-bike-ad feed like the consumerist pig that I am. “No, no,” my soul will exclaim, “I was only searching for that product because I need it for this unpleasant home repair task I’m required to undertake, that reminds me of the terrible capitalistic obligations I have entered into, stop pulling me out of my attempts to distract myself!”

In the contemporary moment alienation is driven by algorithms. Media platforms play on libidinal impulses in order to increase time spent on the platforms. Over time this leads to a sort of refinement of libidinal excitement. At first, my Instagram Discover page feeds me thirst traps and DIY tutorials. Eventually, I am fed things closer to my conscious and subconscious taste. Before long, I am funneled into a micro-genre of my own libidinal drive. Normative sexualized pictures give way to new physiognomies that resemble something closer to an anime character than a human. Pottery demos dissolve into survivalist vlogs. With increased engagement, the early images cease to be exciting and I become libidinally numb. I become aware of these subconscious algorithmically driven impulses and pursue them further. But eventually there is an end to every rabbithole. The dopamine rush of finding the new refinement eventually runs dry. Interest becomes fetishized, and then an identity, and then the means to alienation in itself.

When there is nothing left to consume, people begin to generate new narratives, aesthetics, and beliefs that extend fandom into ideology. People start to generate ideas about reality that make sense of the worsening conditions of contemporary life.

Algorithmic Alienation And Transcendence

In a world defined by user-generated content sorted by algorithms, we all become desperate attention-seekers. We all become impossibly uncool. To the point where the coolest kids don’t care about being cool. Generation Z has created an entire career category out of amassing audiences on UGC platforms large enough to begin shilling for vitamin powders and meditation apps that promise to solve our health problems induced by spending so much time in front of UGC platforms. Generation Alpha kids primarily understand this career as one of the most desirable, supplanting professional sports as the aspirational dream of youth.

Generational lines are an interesting division when thinking about this aspect of “late capitalism”. Gen X (my generation), disillusioned by the Boomer embrace of greed-as-liberating-force in the 80s, spawned irony-as-culture, grunge, and the World Wide Web. We built the underpinnings of all of this, but few of us captured the spoils, those few being the most evil of internet oligarchs now.

The Millennials (especially the older ones) arrived just in time to create and exploit. The founders of almost all the UGC platforms we now suffer under were Millennials. They sold off their creations to the oligarchs, and most often set out to increase their spoils with new attempts to find internet gold.1

Gen Zs have become the new stars of culture. The youngest always are, but now instead of giving a large percentage of their earnings to agents, managers, and publishing executives, it is a flat 30% off the top to the biggest companies in the world. No one questions it. The platform is the platform. A necessary evil.

Even those thinking critically about all of this are still publishing their words on Substack, FFS.

See also: Cutting the Big Five (2019), Mediated and Where Do You Go when Facebook Is Gone? (2018), …the Dumb Machines of the Technopathocracy (2010)

  1. I have a theory that the Gen Z pejorative “boomer” actually stems from their frustration with Millennials, who seem to have largely embraced the Boomer attitude of individualist wealth accumulation, while Gen Zs (who aren’t successful “content creators”) struggle. But because generational lines are not that distinct, being mad at a group of people who are, in some cases, barely older than yourself is difficult to rationalize.