In 1995’s The Road Ahead, Bill Gates wrote glowingly about the personalisation technology in his then-under-construction mansion. As quoted in New York Magazine:
“First thing, as you come in, you’ll be presented with an electronic pin to clip to your clothes,” wrote Gates. The pin connected visitors to the house and its myriad services, from lighting and temperature to what news program to show on the many TVs spread around the home. “As you walk down a hallway, you might not notice the lights ahead of you gradually coming up to full brightness and the lights behind you fading1.”
26 years on, our phones make the whole world a worse version of the Gates house. If he was building it today, Bill’s bathrooms probably wouldn’t open until you’d listened to a 60 second read about the latest subscription toothbrush offers2. The article goes on to say:
Music was similarly able to follow visitors. “It will seem to be everywhere,” wrote Gates, “although, in fact, other people in the house will be hearing entirely different music or nothing at all.”
Bill was on the mark there—we constantly stream our own playlists now. Seven million copies of Cracked Rear View took Hootie and his puffy friends to the top of Billboard’s album charts in 1995. In 2020, Taylor Swift’s Folklore took the top spot with only 1.27 million albums. The mass market is no more, splintered into millions of smaller markets like a Mogwai after a late night swim.
When there are essentially infinite entertainment and information options, how do we choose what to consume? The Algorithms will save us.
Every man is an island.
An algorithm (at least as applied to media like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and even Pinterest) is a set of rules that decide which content to show a given person when they access the service. It’s the ultimate in niche marketing, theoretically targeting a message all the way down to an individual person.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of showing people things they are more likely to be interested in, based on what you know about them3. But II don’t want to be advertised to more “effectively4”. I don’t need to buy more things, and it’s easier to ignore irrelevant advertising. The algorithms are theoretically supposed to make the services better for me, but that’s not actually the case.
In fact, the algorithms are designed to increase my engagement. Engagement is not the same as enjoyment. I do not want to know how much time I have spent over the last 4 years hate-reading political twitter posts that add nothing to my understanding, drain my empathy and increase my stress levels.
But because I “engaged” with the worst posts, I see more of them. Twitter at least gives the option of a straight chronological feed, but for months it would switch me back to its algorithm-driven “Top Tweets” feed every few days. Facebook and Youtube are even worse, both of them proven tools for radicalising opinions and creating information bubbles which are difficult to break into.
I’m tired of it. I want my dumb feeds back, the ones that just show me what I subscribed to, in chronological order. It’s impossible to get all the way there, but there are steps I have taken that help.
Stop feeding the algorithm
- Clear and turn off watch and search history (because that’s used to generate recommendations)
- Consider using an extension to hide comments and recommendations
- Opt out of personalised Google ads
- Turn off “personalized ads”
- Remove all the “interests” Twitter thinks I have5. This script helps make it faster.
- Choose “Latest Tweets” as my default view
- Considering muting some key trigger topics
- I removed everything I could, while retaining an account for work purposes (and to contact some people). This extension was helpful in getting that done.
- Use a Facebook container in Firefox to restrict Facebook’s ability to track me
- Used an extension to hide the news feed completely
If these algorithms were really good, they could show me what would be genuinely educational, challenging my beliefs with accurate information. But they can’t distinguish “engaged” from “informed”. Or more likely they just don’t care to.
I used to think it was foolish to rely on technical solutions to help me deal with bad online habits, but now I think it makes sense to use the technology to address a problem created by lots of people with lots of technology.
With a few tweaks I can still use these services and get value from them, and retain a little more control over my own engagement. It’s worth the effort.
First off, Bill, when I find myself walking towards a bright light while the world fades out behind me, I’m going to assume I’ve been murdered. Probably by the Blue House of Death.↩︎
Use offer code “10peecent” at checkout for 10% off your first order.↩︎
Lawn bowling clubs love their advertisements for retirement villages and funeral planning↩︎
No, I’m not into “Walmart”, thanks Twitter↩︎