The Reflection of Our Algorithms

I am my algorithm, my algorithm is me.

Published June 24, 2023
The algorithm has a skewed perception of our preferences. A click is a vote, a like, an approval. The TikTok algorithm will keep feeding you videos about the Illuminati if you watch one in its entirety. Twitter will keep showing you “Taylor Swift music video easter eggs - THREAD:” after you clicked on one by accident.

The algorithm works on 1s and 0s. There is no nuance for guilty pleasure, no room for my innocent curiosity. To consume is to approve—to give a "yes" that will change the shape of my neverending stream of content. Our consumption patterns surpass us; they determine what lies in our immediate future. The proactive user must curate their feed to reflect their explicit preferences, reducing them to a "yes" or "no."

Our user patterns have no feelings, creating a reductive reflection of the thoughts and emotions we experience when consuming content. Sometimes, I hesitate to click the "Not interested" button—am I really ready to say goodbye, forever? Once it’s gone from the feed, it will leave me for good. My algorithm has a better memory than me, maybe because I trust it to behave as an extension of myself. I entrust my algorithm to take on aspects of my preferences and personality so I can free up some extra space in my brain.

On TikTok, I constantly see the comment "Trusting the algorithm to bring me part 2." My algorithm knows me like a close friend. I trust her to predict what might amuse me, with each swipe of my finger ushering in one of her little gifts, specially chosen just for me.  

The fallibility of her prediction is likely; there is no way to know for certain if I’ll enjoy each of her gifts simply because it's related to what I typically consume. My preferences are often spontaneous, instinctive, illogical.

Sadly, my dear friend Algorithm isn’t choosing her gifts based on her intimate attention to my preferences. She isn’t strolling through the wine shop, reading the backs of each bottle of orange because of that one time I mentioned liking Georgian wines with dried apricot notes and a finish of honey.  She doesn’t ask the wine clerk what will pair best with dinner (charred citrus chicken and fennel parsley salad).

My friend Algorithm selects my little gifts based on preferences of the masses. She’s the distant aunt who buys me a copy of Normal People for my birthday because she heard through my mom that I liked to read. She asks ChatGPT “What’s a good gift for a 26 year old female who lives in Brooklyn and listens to Dean Blunt?” 

If the majority of users who consume DeepTok also watch Corecore, you’ll be prescribed that content based on the assumption that you fit the majority. This nullifies our sense of individuality, a negation we are subjected to continually through our use of social media. On a TikTok that underlines an extremely specific human experience, the top comment will always be "Damn, we all living the same life fr."

Does the algorithm force us into the majority? Is it possible to express individuality when the algorithm feeds me what's most popular? Perhaps this is why those of us who have deleted social media say it with a sense of pride. Like an addiction that we've managed to rehabilitate ourselves from.

No, I haven't seen that TikTok. In fact, I don't see any TikToks.

Is it the case that we turn to social media to identify with others rather than exhibit our individuality? Or are we somehow seeking to do both, simultaneously? We submit ourselves to the masses—we become one with it—but also delight in our unique user patterns. A common dinner party talking point among my friends is "What side of TikTok are you on?" It's a peek into the recesses of our unique virtual selves.

Your algorithm isn't a reflection of you—it's a prediction of who you will be in the future, configured from past data. In a way, the passive user is shaped by their algorithm. If they fail to make their preferences known—to correct their algorithmic portrait—they wind up consuming what their algorithm prescribes. They submit a "yes" to their algorithm. This “yes” says: "You were right, more of this." In a way, they start to reflect the portrait that their algorithm paints.

Sometimes your algorithm feels too long gone, a portrait based on your past self, a bygone era, the girl from yesterday who spent an hour watching cows get their hooves trimmed, a girl who no longer exists. Time to deactivate and start again.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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