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Essay: The digital death of collecting
How platforms mess with our tastes.
Hi everyone! This missive contains a recap of my columns on digital culture for The New Yorker and a B-side essay that helped me figure out my column on how social-media interfaces manipulate us. (That’s the official version; this is just if you want the lengthy behind-the-scenes.) The essay is also related to the themes of my upcoming book on algorithmic culture, Filterworld, and engages with one of its heroes, the 20th-century critic Walter Benjamin. Send me any thoughts!
New Yorker Columns
Facebook Wants Us to Live in the Metaverse: Mark Zuckerberg thinks Facebook is a “metaverse company.” What does he have in mind for this hypothetical virtual reality?
The Poetic Misunderstandings of A.I. Art: A.I.-generated imagery has become popular on Twitter, but the gap between the prompt text and the end result is the most interesting part.
Why Twitter’s New Interface Makes Us Mad: When social media design changes, it’s usually a way to push users toward new behaviors they might not actually want to do.
Ivermectin, the Crate Challenge, and Runaway Memes: What do horse medicine as a COVID cure and falling from a pile of crates have in common? They’re both bad ideas that spread on social media.
A Dent in Apple’s App Store Domination: Epic Games sued Apple when it wasn’t allowed to use its own payment systems in the app store. The lawsuit result means the digital economy will be a little more open.
The Digital Death of the Collector
I am rearranging my music collection — looking at the album covers, hearing snippets of the songs in my head as I see each one and recall the memories attached to it. There are the albums I listen to all the time and then those I only pick up once in a while so as not to dull their effects. The overall list is something only I could have come up with, a compendium of the music that’s important to me personally.
Actually, it might be more correct to say that my record collection has been rearranged for me: I opened the Spotify app on my laptop a few weeks ago and found that everything I had saved was in disarray. The albums weren’t where I thought they were. I couldn’t flip through them with my usual clicks, the kind of subconscious muscle memory that builds up when you use a piece of software every day, like your thumb going directly to the Instagram app button on your phone screen. Spotify had updated its interface and suddenly I was lost. I couldn’t put on the jazz record by Yusef Lateef that I play every morning when I start writing and I couldn’t figure out where to find the songs I had saved by pressing the heart-shaped like button. The sudden lack of spatial logic was like a form of aphasia, as if someone had moved around all the furniture in my living room and I was still trying to navigate it as I always had. Spotify’s new “Your Library” tab, which implied everything I was looking for, opened up a window of automatically generated playlists that I didn’t recognize. The next tab over offered podcasts, which I never listened to on the app. Nothing made sense.
In the digital era, when everything seems to be a single click away, it’s easy to forget that we have long had physical relationships with the pieces of culture we consume. We store books on bookshelves, mount art on our living-room walls, and keep stacks of vinyl records. When we want to experience something, we seek it out, finding a book by its spine, pulling an album from its case, or opening an app. The way we interact with something — where we store it — also changes the way we consume it, as Spotify’s update made me realize. Where we store something can even outweigh the way we consume it.
In 1931, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called “Unpacking My Library,” describing these relationships with cultural objects. In the essay, Benjamin narrates removing his book collection from dusty crates, untouched for years. The volumes are splayed loose on the floor, “not yet touched by the mild boredom of order,” all set to be rearranged on shelves once more. For Benjamin, the very possession of these books formed his identity as a reader, writer, and human being — even if he hadn’t read all of them. They sat proudly on his shelves as symbols, representing the knowledge that he still aspired to gain or the cities he had traveled, where he encountered a book in a previously unknown shop. Collecting books was his way of interacting with the world, of building a worldview.
Benjamin’s library was a personal monument, the same kind that we all construct of things we like or identify with. Its importance was dependent on permanence — collections are made up of things that we own, that don’t go away unless we decide they should. “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects,” Benjamin wrote. “Not that they have come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” In other words, we often discover ourselves in what we keep around us. But the progressive relationship, the codependence or co-evolution of collection and person, wouldn’t happen if the order of Benjamin’s shelves and the catalogue of his books kept changing every few months, entirely outside of his control. That’s what Spotify’s interface updates felt like to me: a total disruption of the pieces of art and culture that I identified with.
Even if the change in the interface was minor — requiring an extra click to get to my playlists or moving the link to my saved albums — it’s a reminder that I don’t actually own any of what I’m listening to. I’m just paying for access month by month with my subscription fee to the streaming service. My relationship to music is ultimately dictated by the Spotify platform, both what I can listen to and how I listen to it. Unlike Benjamin, I can’t pack up my collection and take it with me. My cultural aspirations are at the mercy of a corporation in Sweden: If Spotify clashes with a particular record label or decides a song format is unsuitable, I won’t be able to access it anymore through the channel I use most often, and I might very well just stop listening to it.
We don’t often think about bookshelves on their own, separate from what they contain, but they are great devices. They display books or albums and you can choose from among the displayed options in a relatively neutral way. The collector is the only one who decides how to arrange her possessions, ordering books by author, title, theme, or even (unfortunately) color of the cover — and they stay in the same places they’re put. That’s not true of our digital cultural interfaces, which follow the whims and priorities of the technology companies that own them. They shift constantly and are far from neutral: If Spotify suddenly gives the category of podcasts a prominent new placement, for example, it’s because the company has decided that podcasts are going to make up more of its revenue in the future. The interfaces follow the company’s incentives, pushing its own products first and foremost, or changing familiar patterns to manipulate users into trying a new feature.
The same thing has happened with Instagram, lately, too — the changing interface makes me feel like I’m suddenly operating unfamiliar machinery, piloting an ungainly tractor in a construction site. I can’t perform the same actions I used to, and so I can’t use the app in quite the same way. These changes leave no trace; unlike an outdated television or microwave, once the digital app updates itself the older version ceases to exist, smoothly replaced as if it were never there in the first place (an erasure that lends a peculiar ephemerality to our memories of technology). The biggest change on Instagram circa 2020 was the replacement of the button at the bottom center of the screen. Instead of pressing that convenient spot to publish a new image on your account, it began loading Instagram’s relatively new Reels feature, a video-feed clone of the far more popular TikTok. The priority of the platform was no longer creation, building your own set of images, but consumption, passively watching videos.
I have never watched an Instagram Reel video on purpose because I have absolutely no desire to — I associate Instagram much more with photographs from friends’ lives than short, highly edited wannabe TV clips. But I have hit the button by accident many times and recoiled in shock when some dance routine set to loud pop music pops up. To actually post a photo, I now have to move my thumb to the top of the screen, hit a small plus sign, then choose which kind of format I’m trying to upload — Post, Story, Reels, or Live, which are all slightly different flavors of content. It feels like the app itself doesn’t know what it wants me to do, and thus I don’t know what to do with it. Should I still post mundane snapshots, or do I need to learn a meme dance? My personal Instagram archive, a decade-long account of my adult life in images, still exists on the platform, but that album of memories feels defunct, relic of an earlier era of the software. When I look back at it, I don’t feel nostalgic; I feel lost.
My lostness comes from the sense that our cultural collections are not wholly our own anymore. In the era of algorithmic feeds, it’s as if the bookshelves have started changing shape on their own in real time, shuffling some material to the front and downplaying the rest like a sleight-of-hand magician trying to make you pick a specific card — even as they let you believe it’s your own choice. And this lack of agency is undermining our connections to the culture that we love.
For Benjamin, the importance of collecting stemmed from its endurance and persistence, a longterm commitment that the collector makes to the collection. “A collector’s attitude toward his possessions stems from an owner’s feeling of responsibility toward his property,” he wrote in his library essay. Benjamin would have detested the era of algorithmic platforms not because they’re so all-encompassing and overwhelming — Benjamin had no problem with infinite copies — but because they’re so ephemeral. It’s very difficult to be responsible for what we collect on the internet; we can’t be stewards of the culture we appreciate in the same way. We very literally don’t own it.
You can accrue a delicately curated digital library of music only to have it thrown into disarray when the app changes. Or your collections can be lost entirely when it shuts down. Just as each new digital interface erases its earlier versions, the disappearance of particular apps throws the meaning of content gathered on the app to the wind. It’s not like a bunch of eight-track tapes found in the trunk of an old car that can be played again with the proper technology and experienced, essentially, in full once more. Building a collection on the internet is like building a sandcastle on the beach: eventually the tide washes in and it’s as if it never existed in the first place. Such is the feeling I get when I look back at my accounts on platforms like Tumblr, where I once collected 408 pages of anime GIFs, fragments of poems, and evocative video game screenshots for the better part of a decade, or the photo albums I posted on Facebook around 2007, a feature that is more or less gone, at least from its original purpose of publishing actually impromptu photos of your friends.
The shifting sands of digital technology have robbed these collections of their meaning; the context in which they originally existed can no longer be experienced and they only appear as nostalgic ruins, the remains of once-inhabited metropolises gone silent. Many of the images I once shared on Tumblr are now broken links. I could have downloaded these collections in their prime and made sure I could always access them, but that couldn’t capture the meaning of their flow and the social exchange that they once represented. What I see when I look at my Tumblr archive that’s still extant online is a glimpse of a slower, more intimate, linear, and coherent digital space than what now exists in the turbo-charged feeds of the algorithm era. It reminds me that things were once different, but also doesn’t give me much hope of recapturing that meditative pace.
Algorithmic feeds are by their nature impersonal, though they promise personalized recommendations. The more automated a feed is, the less we users feel the need to gather a collection, to preserve what’s important to us. If we can always rely on Instagram’s Discover page or the TikTok For You feed to show us something that we’re interested in, then we have less impetus to decide for ourselves what to look for, follow, and save. The responsibility of collecting has been removed, but that means we offload it to the black box of the automatic recommendation system. Over the past two decades, the collecting of culture — like maintaining a personal library — has moved from being a necessity to a seemingly indulgent luxury.
It goes back to the significance of the bookshelf: When we didn’t have access to automated feeds and streaming platforms, we had to decide for ourselves which culture to keep close by. As a teenager in the 2000s, my on-demand access to music was contained within one of those rubbery CD binders in which you slot albums into transparent cases, like pages in a book. I flipped through them aimlessly when deciding what to play on my portable discman, my range of choices limited to what I already owned but also deepened because I had a relationship to every disc in the binder. I still have nostalgic memories of that binder; I can feel the texture of the case and the sense of possibility that it held in my mind.
Yet that relationship has become increasingly abstract and indirect as the expansion of digital technology in our daily lives has accelerated. From CD binders I moved to audio players like iTunes, where I still maintained a collection of MP3s, scrolling through them to find a particular musician or album. Then came larger online platforms like YouTube and Pandora, where you could look up videos or songs whenever you wanted but also let the platform create a feed for you, a digital radio station curated by algorithm. Finally, in recent years, Spotify became the single international behemoth of mainstream music, an unavoidable iceberg of content. You can save or bookmark albums on Spotify and call up a musician to listen to, but the structure of the service drives you toward passive listening, following its recommendations without having to make decisions. As I’ve used Spotify longer and the interface has changed shape, I’ve found myself becoming a more passive user, saving fewer albums; thinking less about the specifics of the albums or artists I’m hearing; and losing track of my library. What’s worse for me as a collector and cultural consumer is ultimately better for the platform: I’ll keep subscribing to Spotify because it’s the only way I’ll have access to the music. There’s no CD binder I can take with me.
In the era of the algorithmic feed, these platforms have become the containers for our cultural artifacts as well as for our cultural experiences. While we have the advantage of freedom of choice, the endless array of options often instills a sense of meaninglessness: I could be listening to anything, so why should any one thing be important to me? The constructive relationship between consumer and culture goes in both directions. When we find something meaningful enough to save, to collect it, the action both etches it a little deeper into our hearts and it also creates a context around the artifact itself, whether song, image, or video — and context not just for ourselves but for other people, the shared context of culture at large. That’s what Benjamin described when he wrote, “The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner.” Just as collections require permanence, they also need individuals, whose voices and tastes they express. The mass of Spotify isn’t actually a collection; it’s an avalanche.
Benjamin thought that the figure of the collector was vanishing even in his own time, the 1930s: Public libraries existed, of course, but those couldn’t compare to the individual, slowly gathering volumes at home. “Only in extinction is the collector comprehended,” he wrote, prematurely mourning the loss of a lifestyle and an identity that he held dear for himself as much as anyone else. Yet even with all its excesses of content, our era of algorithmic feeds might herald the actual death of the collector, because the algorithm itself is the collector, curator, and arbiter of culture. Not only does that represent a loss of agency and control, it’s also a loss of feeling. Benjamin’s library called up in his mind and heart an array of scenes, the places and people that brought the books to him:
Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris; memories of Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, of the Danzig Stockturm where the late Hans Rhaue was domiciled, of Siissengut’s musty book cellar in North Berlin; memories of the rooms where these books had been housed, of my student’s den in Munich, of my room in Bern, of the solitude of Iseltwald on the Lake of Brienz, and finally of my boyhood room, the former location of only four or five of the several thousand volumes that are piled up around me.
The placelessness and self-erasure of digital platforms and the enforced passivity of the algorithmic feed have removed these experiences. I don’t form the same kind of nostalgic memories using Spotify that I did with the binder of CDs that sat with me on the couch or in my car as a teenager, and in any case, after the stretch of time that nostalgia needs to develop, that version of Spotify’s software will be long gone, inaccessible even if I wanted to recapture it.