Algocult: Adapting to the algorithm (Plus upstate Airbnb panic)

When you have to format your art to fit an algorithmic aesthetic.

Hi! I have some new writing to share and a short essay on algorithmic culture: what it means for creators to have to “adapt to the algorithm” to succeed on a digital platform.

The Airbnb Gold Rush in Upstate New York (The New Yorker)

I really like when I can experience something in my own life and then report it out into a larger story about what’s happening to a lot of people. In this case, I had a funny experience booking an Airbnb in the Catskills for a quarantine escape with friends, but that turned into a much wider look at how the pandemic demand for rural houses and the short-term rental economy is changing the landscape of upstate New York.

Books for getting through a creative block (Artnews)

I don’t normally do a lot of book recommendations but it was fun putting together this list of writing that I turn to when I don’t know how to proceed with some project or idea. All of these texts (some will be familiar from my book) are challenging and often counterintuitive, provoking you to think in new ways, whether it’s about art, writing, or any kind of work.

Algocult: Adapting to the algorithm

As I write more about how algorithms influence culture, I find myself using the word “adaptation” quite often. I analyze how creators and content have to “adapt to the algorithm” in order to find an audience on a platform. That means their content has to fit the native format of the platform, like Twitter’s 280-character limit; match the characteristics that succeed on the platform’s algorithmic feed, like dances on TikTok; and suit the platform’s business model in order to make money, like YouTube’s interstitial ads. These are all incentives that motivate the production of particular styles of content.

That sounds cold and theoretical but it’s easy to see in practice. The official YouTube account published a tweet this week that quickly got them in trouble, because it mocked how people adapt to its algorithm (they later deleted it):

(There’s actually two examples of adaptation here: YouTube is trying to mimic a Twitter meme format in order to succeed on the platform and seem less corporate.) The joke they’re trying to make is that YouTubers often have long preambles or needless footage in their videos — they’re not tightly edited. That’s in part because when the video is longer, the creators can put more ads into the video and make more money (also good editing is time-consuming and expensive):

So YouTube says more play time = more money, and creators follow the incentive, like recipe blogs that include a long preamble to make more room for automated display ads (another algorithmic business model).

I found another example of adaptation to the algorithm in this great profile from The Verge of a music producer and beat maker, Ricky Desktop, who got famous via TikTok videos. The reporter asks him what makes a great beat for TikTok. It’s worth reading Mr. Desktop’s answer in full:

You need concrete, sonic elements that dancers can visually engage with on a person-by-person basis. I know that sounds super scientific, but that is how I think about it. If you’re trying to make a viral beat, it’s got to correspond with the viral dance.

In order to lock in on that, you need elements of the music to hit. So for example, I have this beat called “The Dice Beat.” I added a flute sound, which in my head was like, “Okay, people will pretend to play the flute.” And then there’s the dice sound, where they’ll roll the dice. It was super calculated. I would create the music with the dance in mind.

He’s saying that a great beat needs a visual component to thrive on the platform! You need to imagine in advance what the sound will look like! Because if people aren’t recording their own dance to the music and sharing it, the beat won’t go anywhere on TikTok.

This might not be so different from composing a song that works well for square dancing, or something, but it’s still incredible to me. The music has to be a meme from the very beginning. I don’t think this makes for better or worse music, but it definitely makes for shorter music, music that can be cut into microsecond clips the way a TV show now gets cut into repostable GIF loops. Music that is sharable. Kind of weird to me, who grew up on unlistenable indie radio stations!!!

In this way, the structure of TikTok leads to a particular style of beat, of song, of dance. Now that we’re familiar with the genre, we can listen to a new song — audio only, even — and say That sounds like TikTok. The algorithmic platform has forced musicians to adapt to it, like fish growing to fit their pond.

My essay for Vox “My Own Private Iceland” is being republished in Best American Travel Writing 2019, which has made me think about that piece again and the effect of algorithmic platforms on tourism. I think Iceland has succeeded in the age of Instagram in part because it is so visually incredible — it produces iconic images by nature (lol) of its landscape. Amazing waterfall = lots of Instagrams. Picturesque hot spring = tag your friends.

Has Iceland adapted to the Instagram algorithm? Well, the landscape is the landscape; you can’t mold it, but you can build viewing platforms and selfie spots, encouraging more people to take more photos and fill out hashtags. So maybe it was pre-adapted to the Instagram ecosystem, just waiting for a faster, easier way to share images. Locals told me it was the massive volcano eruption in 2010 that really sparked the new wave of tourism to Iceland, simply because so many people saw images of the landscape on TV. Then they were like, I want to go there. So they did and then posted their own photos.

Adaptation is a self-reinforcing cycle because the more creators match the established format, the more that format gets entrenched, the more the algorithm only spreads stuff that is similar to it and the more users come to expect it.

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