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How social media algorithms 'flatten' our culture by making decisions for us

"The act of choosing a piece of culture to consume is a really powerful one," says writer Kyle Chayka. He's the author of <em data-stringify-type="italic">Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.</em>
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"The act of choosing a piece of culture to consume is a really powerful one," says writer Kyle Chayka. He's the author of Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture.

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 hit with a barrage of content curated by an algorithm. Passionate about plants? Sports? Cats? Politics? That's what you're going to see.

"[There] are equations that measure what you're doing, surveil the data of all the users on these platforms and then try to predict what each person is most likely to engage with," New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka explains. "So rather than having this neat, ordered feed, you have this feed that's constantly trying to guess what you're going to click on, what you're going to read, what you're going to watch or listen to."

In his new book, Filterworld, Chayka examines 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-guided curation has made us docile consumers and flattened our likes and tastes.

"For us consumers, they are making us more passive just by feeding us so much stuff, by constantly recommending things that we are unlikely to click away from, that we're going to tolerate [but] not find too surprising or challenging," Chayka says.

What's more, Chayka says, the algorithms pressure artists and other content creators to shape their work in ways that fit the feeds. For musicians working through Spotify or TikTok, this might mean recording catchy hooks that occur right at the beginning of a song — when a user is most likely to hear it.

Though the algorithms can feel inescapable, Chayka says increased regulation of social media companies can mitigate their impact. "I think if Meta, Facebook's parent company, was forced to spin off some of its properties, like Instagram or WhatsApp, and those properties were made to compete against each other, then maybe users would have more agency and more choices for what they're consuming," he says.

Interview highlights

On how the internet takes power away from gatekeepers

There's this huge power of the internet to let anyone publish the art that they make or the songs that they write. And I think that's really powerful and unique. ... [In] the cultural ecosystem that we had before, there were these gatekeepers, like magazine editors or record executives or even radio station DJs, who you did have to work through to get your art heard or seen or bought. And so these were human beings who had their own biases and preferences and social networks, and they tended to block people who didn't fit with their own vision.

/ Doubleday

Now, in the algorithmic era, let's say rather than seeking to please those human gatekeepers or figure out their tastes, the metric is just how much engagement you can get on these digital platforms. So the measure of your success is how many likes did you get? How many saves did you get on TikTok or bookmarks? How many streams did you get on Spotify?

So I think there are advantages and disadvantages to both of these kinds of regimes. Like, on the internet, anyone can put out their work and anyone can get heard. But that means to succeed, you also have to placate or adapt to these algorithmic ecosystems that, I think, don't always let the most interesting work get heard or seen.

On the difficulty of knowing what's going outside your specific algorithm

These digital platforms and feeds, they kind of promise a great communal experience, like we're connecting with all the other TikTok users or all of the other Instagram users, but I think they're actually kind of atomizing our experiences, because we can never tell what other people are seeing in their own feeds. We don't have a sense of how many other people are fans of the same thing that we are fans of or even if they're seeing the same piece of culture that we're seeing, or experiencing an album or a TV show, in the same way. So I think there's this lack of connection ... this sense that we're alone in our consumption habits and we can't come together over art in the same way, which I think is kind of deadening the experience of art and making 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 is your platform like? How big of a platform do you have?" Which is almost a euphemism for, "How many followers do you have online?" — whether that's [on] Twitter or Instagram or an email newsletter. They want to know that you already have an audience going into this process, that you have a built-in fan base for what you're doing. And culture doesn't always work that way. I don't think every idea should have to be so iterative that you need fans already for something to succeed, that you have to kind of engage audiences at every point in the process of something to have it be successful. So for a musician, maybe you'll get a big record deal only if you go viral on TikTok. Or if you have a hit YouTube series, maybe you'll get more gigs as an actor. There's this kind of gatekeeping effect here too, I think, where in order to get more success on algorithmic platforms, you have to start with seeding some kind of success on there already.

On how some film and TV shows lean into becoming internet memes

You can see how TV shows and movies have adapted to algorithmic feeds by the kind of one-liner, GIF-ready scenes that you see in so many TV shows and movies now. You can kind of see how a moment in a film is made to be shared on Twitter or how a certain reaction in a reality TV show, for example, is made to become a meme. And I think a lot of production choices have been influenced by that need for your piece of content to drive more pieces of content and to inspire its own reactions and riffs and more memes.

On how algorithms impact journalism

Algorithmic feeds, I think, took on the responsibility that a lot of news publications once had. ... In decades past, we would see the news stories that we consumed on a daily basis from The New York Times front page on the print paper or as on The New York Times homepage on the internet. Now, instead of the publication choosing which stories are most important, which things you should see right away, the Twitter, or X, algorithmic feed is sorting out what kinds of stories you're consuming and what narratives are being built up. We now have TikTok talking heads and explainers rather than news anchors on cable TV. So the responsibility for choosing what's important, I think, has been ported over to algorithmic recommendations rather than human editors or producers.

On how passive consumption affects how deeply we think about culture

What I worry about is the passivity of consumption that we've been pushed into, the ways that we're encouraged not to think about the culture we're consuming, to not go deeper and not follow our own inclinations.

I think passive consumption certainly has its role. We are not always actively consuming culture and thinking deeply about the genius of a painting or a symphony. ... It's not something we can do all the time. But what I worry about is the passivity of consumption that we've been pushed into, the ways that we're encouraged not to think about the culture we're consuming, to not go deeper and not follow our own inclinations. ... And I suppose that when I really think about it ... the kind of horror that's at the end of all this, at least for me, is that ... we'll never have the Fellini film that's so challenging you think about it for the rest of your life or see the painting that's so strange and discomforting that it really sticks with you. Like I don't want to leave those masterpieces of art behind just because they don't immediately engage people.

Sam Briger and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.