Filterworld: Algorithm cleanse
Giving up the feeds.
On September 1, I gave up algorithmic feeds. I changed my passwords and logged out of Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook (not that I use that one more than once a year). I didn’t actually shut down my Twitter account; I was too scared it would automatically delete itself after the initial 30 days and cut off a lifeline of my journalism career, such as it is. The internet suddenly felt much more still and silent, like a restaurant near closing time.
My iPhone became instantly more boring. Without the barrage of automatically updating feeds, there was simply less content to consume. I couldn’t just flip open Twitter for the latest riffs on breaking news — Jess had to tell me Queen Elizabeth died. I’m really missing out on monarchy Twitter. Likewise, I have no idea what my friends are doing because I’m not watching hundreds of Instagram stories a day. I’m blissfully unaware of just how many people are vacationing at Lake Como this weekend.
Call it an algorithm cleanse or an algorithm detox — I wanted to see what my digital life would be like without those familiar, addictive feeds. It also felt like a detox: For the first few days, I was extremely cranky as my brain grasped for the missing stimulus of content bombardment, the thousands of tiny fragments of thought that I exposed myself to in every spare moment. I was experiencing content withdrawal.
Sitting in a cafe one day last week trying to write, when I would usually be toggling between social-media tabs, I instead downloaded fidget apps for my phone that let you do things like flip digital light switches, press meaningless buttons, and stack blocks. The Antistress app has activities like slinging lily pads across a pond and unzipping an infinite zipper — actions that feel more or less as pointless and empty as scrolling tweets. As much as the overflow of content, I found that what I missed was the sheer action of swiping on a screen, like pawing virtual worry beads. If there was a version of Instagram that just displayed a feed of random geometric shapes, I would probably use it just to assuage the mental itch.
This experiment is for my upcoming book, Filterworld, which describes how algorithmic feeds have flattened our experience of culture. By the end of the book, I want to offer some possible answers for how we can escape these feeds and break down their stultifying grip on our cultural consumption. Top-down regulation could work: breaking up tech monopolies or giving users more legal rights to control their data and not be tracked. But in the end it comes down to the individual. We have to choose how we personally interact with digital technology, so this is an attempt to change my own habits. I plan to continue it for a few months, at least until my book is done.
I have to admit that I also hoped the cleanse would help me write my manuscript: Wouldn’t I be less distracted, more productive, think deeper thoughts!? It hasn’t been that long, but I’ve noticed some salutary effects. I don’t reach for my phone as quickly in moments of downtime (or while walking up stairs lol) and I’m much more likely to pick up a book and read a few pages. I think I actually engage with images (art, photographs) in a more coherent way now that I’m not constantly overwhelmed by them on Instagram. Like paintings before photography, an individual image just seems to mean more when you aren’t seeing hundreds of them at once.
In terms of my writing, without the temptation of checking Twitter every 10 minutes, I stay in my Scrivener text-editing window for longer periods, the way you’d have to stare at a blank piece of paper in a typewriter. (Does it result in better prose? You be the judge.) I still don’t think it’s entirely healthy to write more a thousand words a day, at least for me, but I find I can hit that benchmark a little faster and less painfully. It could be that my mind is just less occupied by other things: I don’t know about the daily Twitter beef, the latest meme, or random media-industry gossip. Is it that my life is less crowded with other people’s lives, the evidence of which would get force-fed to me whether I really wanted it or not?
I don’t mean to sound so reformed and puritanical, though. When people ask me what I’ve given up, I have to clarify that it’s not all online algorithms. I use Google search, driven by one of the internet’s most powerful algorithms, all the time. Gmail algorithmically filters my email by what it thinks is most important. I’m still on Spotify, though I’ve never really used the radio auto-play feature. It’s remarkably hard to escape algorithmic recommendations. Even the New York Times app, which I now read religiously in lieu of Twitter, has a For You tab just like TikTok’s that recommends a personalized list of NYT stories. (It just gave me a piece about the hyper-luxury Aman hotel chain opening in NYC — it knows my taste already.) I could give that up, too, but at least an editor has approved every story.
What I’m left with is using my friends as human content filters. Rather than social-media feeds, I spend time in group chats, one in Slack that I’ve been in for many years, and others in the chat app Discord, which was originally designed for video games. (Our Discord for Dirt, the digital culture newsletter that I co-founded, has been really fun. You can join it here.) In those chats people post good tweets, articles that they liked, and funny TikToks. It’s like Twitter but there’s way, way less of it. There isn’t new stuff every time you open the tab, and it’s less likely to purposefully annoy you. (There’s less incentive for outrage in a private group chat than the public arena of Twitter.)
It has taken a while for my brain to get used to that novel sense of finitude, though I think the withdrawal is subsiding. Plenty of products offer a more curated, less overwhelming version of the internet, but I think we’ve actually become conditioned to its chaos and grown to expect it. It’ll take more effort to re-train ourselves to finding things without the help of algorithmic feeds and then being satisfied with what we find. We have to quieten that internal internet-pilled voice that says more, more, more, new, new, new every minute. Even in this short time, I’ve found that most online media today isn’t actually designed to function without the added pillar of algorithmic feeds funneling content around to target audiences.
In the early 2010s, I would go to publications’ homepages to find their new stories. Those were the de-facto news feed, before Facebook and Twitter took over. Now, many homepages have become billboards that highlight just a few stories, without offering much detail on what they’re actually about beyond the headline. Pieces of content are atomized, adapted to travel through feeds rather than exist within the contextual space or identity of one publication. There’s a lack of coherence. I loved email newsletters before, but in my algorithm cleanse, I really love them. They arrive consistently, present a self-contained batch of curated content, and offer a variety of flavors and voices, like mini-magazines. I don’t subscribe to the actual print version, but I’ve been reading the Monocle newsletters partly because they have different daily themes and cover wide ground: politics, design, travel. (General interest rarely exists anymore unless it’s at an enormous global newspaper.)
Writers contribute to the feeds as much as we consume them, propelling the endless loop of vacuity. Posting is an addiction, too, and while I certainly suffer from it, I think all that energy is now expressed in my more serious writing, which is probably a good thing. Without the daily outlet of tweeting my random thoughts and getting instantaneous feedback — lols, likes, DMs — I’m also feeling grateful for this newsletter, where I can publish something and know it’ll get to an audience that welcomes what I’m doing. You can definitely tweet about this essay (please do) but I won’t see it! Reply with a note; I’m very likely to respond.
PS: I’m also posting a few photos on the subscription photo app Glass, @chaykak, because I really do miss that part of Instagram. Sadly there aren’t that many non-photographers on the app yet. BeReal is even better, but unless I actually know you personally, I don’t care what you’re doing at a random moment once a day.
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Find more of my writing at kylechayka.com.
Good stuff, but you’re right: “in the end it comes down to the individual” to step away from the algorithm ... and that’s freaking hard! I did a version of this experiment just with Spotify, with varying degrees of success (recounted here: https://tompendergast.substack.com/p/digging-my-way-out-of-an-algorithmic)
You know, you might want to give the Soaring Twenties Social Club community a look: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/ . Basically a group of writers, artist, flaneurs, etc. who got burnt out in various ways around social media and algorithms and are trying to find ways of self-curating works. We have a Discord too but you must be a paid subscriber to join.
One of the things we're watching is if Substack itself transcends the algo game with its internal recommender.