I don’t know all the technical mathy shit about algorithms, but what I do know is they’re ruining the internet. Specifically social media.
Especially Facebook, but especially Twitter.
I’m new to Instagram, but I’ll just assume it’s ruining that too.
So what are algorithms? I’m sure many of you know, but it’s worth a quick review.
Algorithms are a set of rules to be followed in mathematical calculations. On the internet and social media, algorithms track how people respond to information, whether news, posts, ads, etc. Then, based on the kinds of things you and others respond to, the algorithm shows people stuff it thinks they’ll like or respond to. Obviously, the overall popularity of a news story, say, or a particular user on social media, has a huge impact on the algorithm’s calculations. In short: the more popular something is, the more the algorithm will feature that information, especially among people who share a particular interest–say politics or sports.
You can turn them off if you want to, but you have to do it every time you open the app. Ain’t nobody got time for that! The default is that you see what the algorithm wants to show you, and even if you or I choose to turn them off, the unwashed masses of humanity will not.
And frankly, I don’t blame them.
Because when we use social media, it’s a casual thing. We’re waiting in line at the DMV, riding the bus, waiting for the dog to do his business, or just dinking around at work. It’s low-level mental masturbation at its finest and most worthless.
We’re on there to see what’s going on—from our friend’s 800th photo of his kid, to the latest hot take on politics, to the newsy news we’re interested in… whatever.
Problem is, because of the algorithms, it’s all the same shit. I happen, as many of you know, to be pretty interested in politics—and now that’s basically all I see on Twitter. Even though I follow people who tweet about sports, fishing, life, etc., all I see is politics.
On Facebook, it’s a little better, but only because I try to like most anything people post specifically to counter the algorithm. And I still see mostly political shit.
There are a number of problems with this:
- It’s boring. I actually find myself less apt to get on social media because I know it’s going to be the same shit I always see. Oh, I get that engagement is up, but that’s because a lot of people have become mindless drones who’s highest mental capacity is to scroll through their social media feed. Plus–and I know this is hard to believe–there are huge numbers of people not yet on social media, which means there’s a massive untapped market of consumers who are joining everyday. It’ll be exciting at first, but after awhile, they’ll find what I’ve found. Same shit. Different day. Sorry algorithms: you’re boring me.
- It’s limiting. I don’t–in fact cannot–interact with a lot of my friends, because if they don’t actively like or share or retweet my posts—and vice-versa—we’re like digital ships passing in the night. And look, I get it: there are a lot of people who don’t want to have me remind them how shitty things are politically–just like I don’t want to see every goddamn picture of your adorable fucking kid. But what if I wrote something that isn’t political (like this)—maybe even something they’d be interested in? They’ll never see it. And vice-versa: maybe a friend posts something about an important event, needs help, or has a business she wants to promote. Sorry—you’re out of luck lady. Because even though we’re friends/followers, the algorithm treats us like we’re not.
- It’s making the information bubble worse. We’re almost never going to see something we disagree with (btw, it’s OK to disagree with people, but don’t be batshit crazy like my ex-friend who’s convinced Trump’s a genius who’s engineering everything to be perfectly wonderful—it’s all just a ruse you see. NO. He’s a bumbling asshole narcissist who has no business in office. Take off the tinfoil hat and come back to reality, Courtney), or anything that challenges our thinking. I mean every new follower (and as a policy I always follow back) I get on Twitter agrees with me and vice-versa: yes, Donald Trump is a fucking terrible President, and Republicans are an unserious party running a con on stupid, angry, old, and/or racist white people in the South and Midwest so they can make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful. Great. We all get it.
But that’s not all I want to talk about. I like baseball, fishing, beer, cooking, fantasy football, working out—I could go on, but the point is, just because someone’s interested in one thing particularly, doesn’t mean that’s all their interested in. Who fucking knows? Maybe I want to pick up archery, or tune into the NBA (which I don’t normally watch) because Draymond Green says he’s going to kick LeBron in the balls next time they play. Social media should be just the place where that kind of thing happens (not the ball kicking per se–the knowledge some ball kicking will happen), but instead, we’re handcuffed by the algorithms; no more than a robotic set of narrowing interests.
Now I know what the haters will say: “you’re just not popular—you and your blog suck balls so you don’t get likes.”
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all, and it’s probably true: ChuckingRocks is a shitty little political blog with a small following. Worse, I tend to be kind of an asshole at times, which doesn’t endear me to fans or promote likes and retweets (but hey, at least I’m a fucking real person and not a corporate yuppy who copies everybody else). So yeah, I’ll own it: I’m sure part of it is me and my dickery.
However, as most of you’ve probably noticed by now, the actual quality of any individual post has precious little to do with its popularity when it comes to the algorithm. All that really matters is how many followers you have and how active they are. As you might guess, the more popular handles just dominate everyone else.
The worst is Twitter. Some of the shittiest posts ever, filled with handles and hashtags and really fucking stupid text, get retweeted hundreds of times. Like this one:
What an incredible display of mind-blowing thinking–at 3:07 AM no less. 186 retweets and 60 favorites.
And yet, there are amazing tweets, the absolute apex of 140 characters, that get nothing. Not saying what follows necessarily meets that criteria, but seriously, what fucking liberal wouldn’t retweet this? Or at least like it?
A: They would. At least a couple of my 600+ followers ought to. But it didn’t get a single retweet or like. Because none of my followers saw it. You see, I’m not Judd Legum, a grandstanding Democrat, or some other really high powered liberal media fuck, so my tweets get filtered down to the bottom of my followers’ feed, and because Twitter prompts you constantly to see the “newest” tweets (by newest, they mean, the newest ones selected by the algorithm), it’s almost like I don’t exist.
I used to be bitter about that–but now I don’t give a shit. I’m too bored with Twitter to be angry about it.
Facebook’s algorithm isn’t much better. Today the first thing I saw was a bunch of sparkly white words (the content was similar to the “I want a girl” revelation) against a pink background written by a high school “friend” whom I’ve never actually interacted with personally—not even in high school. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad to see what she’s up to: recently she had a divorce and I appreciate her honesty about that on Facebook because most people don’t have the courage to share their negative experiences that way—but I wouldn’t say what she posted today was particularly worthwhile or interesting.
Point is: whether I’m a loser who nobody likes or not, quality has almost nothing to do with popularity or exposure on social media. To begin with, a lot of people are stupid, and even smart people like watching stupid things. Like cat videos.
And the simpler something is—the more it will be liked, shared, or retweeted. Because it’s not controversial. Everyone gets it. Which means social media has become yet another media platform that, because of the boring algorithms, plays to the lowest common denominator (1)—the dumbest humans in the world—just like TV and Hollywood and most radio programming, like for instance, NPR’s Morning Edition, which is just pure garbage. I mean, they regularly interview Hugh Hewitt, a guy who’s fame is based primarily on his puritanical partisan hackery and the fact he has an alliterative name conservatives can remember.
(Just look at that smarmy, self-satisfied fuck. Courtesy: NBC)
Can we all just take a moment to say thank God for podcasts?
Anyway, that’s just social media. I’m sure there are a lot of other internet services who are also fucking things up by using algorithms (*cough* Google).
Here’s why that’s bad: on a macro level, algorithms are basically doing to the internet and social media what our economic system is doing to our country (and the world for that matter)–the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And that sucks, because the greatest thing about the internet is that anyone can have a voice. Anyone can become a creator. Whether it’s art, film, literature, music, a new product—whatever—anyone can put their stuff out there and be discovered. If we’re honest, that’s the internet’s greatest attribute: not the wealth of information (which is admittedly pretty great), but the democratization of opportunity—especially economic opportunity.
Or at least, that used to be true. The reality is the algorithms are methodically filtering that opportunity away, and that’s not just bad for the creators: it’s bad for everyone. Because high powered fucks, whether producers, literary agents, etc., are often astoundingly wrong about their assessment of an idea’s viability. As with social media, quality often has precious little to do with whether something is green-lighted or trashed.
A prime example is Harry Potter, which was rejected a bunch of times before it got published. We all know how that turned out. Martin Weir, writer of The Martian, was rejected too—but was discovered because he posted parts of the story on his website (back in 2009, mind you, when the fascist algorithms were only in their infancy–and not even operable on social media to the best of my knowledge), started to attract a following, and went on to self publish, sell a ton of copies, attract an agent, etc. The rest is history. And keep in mind, the same kinds of people who reject books like those are the same kinds of assholes writing algorithms that fuck the obscure, small-time artist.
How many Harry Potter’s out there can’t get traction because the fucking algorithms want to show you every tweet from Jon Favreau (the Obama advisor—not the movie guy. Love you Favs, but I don’t need to see every fucking one of your tweets; I already listen to Pod Save the World)? A lot, is my guess.
So can we rewrite the code? Please? I get it: algorithms aren’t going away—but can’t we just tell them to randomize shit more? Variety is the spice of life, right?
Because algorithms: right now you’re boring us. And ruining the internet.
(1) Appealing to the lowest common denominator is never a worthwhile thing to do—it incentivizes dumbing things down so any idiot could understand it, as opposed to building people up and asking them to extend themselves intellectually. For that reason, it might actually be the single worst aspect of our society. Not only does it lower the intelligence of our national discourse—it essentially excuses people for being lazy thinkers, jackasses, and idiots. Read Hillbilly Elegy? The fact we constantly pander to the lowest common denominator makes those people’s lives possible. Because instead of being ashamed for being the low-class, violent, lazy fucking savages they are, they’re pardoned—thought of fondly as another stitched square in the quilt that is America. Because they’re consumers too right? Ugh.
If you like the above, check out my new novel Cherry City Pulp! An awkward, sexy, funny, and sometimes violent story about relationships, sex, high school, and young people growing up in Oregon, chock full of satire and social commentary. Also, please help me out by making a donation on ChuckingRocks.com. Every penny counts. If you can’t make a donation at this time, the other way you can help is to spread the word–so please, like, share, email, tweet, and/or retweet our posts. Remember to follow me on twitter @Chuckingrocks or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.