Filterworld: Algorithmic pathways
Finishing a book draft, and other recent writing.
Big news! I recently finished my manuscript for my upcoming book, Filterworld. It contains six chapters, with an introduction and conclusion, exploring how I think algorithmic feeds and recommendations — TikTok, Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify — have flattened culture. What I mean by flattened is that sneaking feeling that so many forms of culture are more homogenous, more repetitive, less interesting, and less fulfilling in our era of massive digital platforms. (It’s the AirSpace of everything.)
The book feels to me like a conversation we increasingly have to have: Algorithmic feeds have utterly taken over both how we create and consume culture. Visual artists have to succeed on Instagram to sell their work just as musicians have to tailor their songwriting to the TikTok feed to get audiences. On the consumer’s side, automated recommendations turn us into more passive listeners, watchers, and readers, thinking less about the culture we consume and having worse relationships with it as a result. The net result is a world of averages: ideas and aesthetics optimized for engagement that are as acceptable as possible to as many people as possible.
Filterworld is scheduled to be published by Doubleday in January 2024, a year and a bit from now. This newsletter is the best way to follow the book — there won’t be a pre-order or anything else for a while. But I’m really excited to share more of it. In the meantime, I wrote a short essay below about “algorithmic pathways”: some of the ways we discover culture online now, and a particular rabbithole I’ve been following through Spotify.
I’ve also been continuing my Internet column for The New Yorker, largely covering the meltdown of Twitter under its new owner Elon Musk. Here’s a recap of those pieces and a few others:
Twitter Is Already a Hellscape (Nov 3)
A Twitter Employee’s Account of Surviving Layoff Day (Nov 4)
Essay: Algorithmic pathways
I’ve been slowly gathering a playlist that collects something like “underrated ‘70s bangers,” as Jess and I have been referring to it. It started because of some quirk of Spotify radio; I was playing so much 1960s jazz that the algorithm took a risk and played me Donald Byrd’s 1973 “Where Are We Going?,” which is incredible. Byrd was a jazz trumpet player and the slow burn of the introspective R&B track is heightened by meandering improvisational horn filigrees. Byrd’s 1975 follow-up “Places and Spaces” is similarly great, somewhere between jazz, funk, and orchestral pop, sprinkled the odd marijuana reference. Other tracks followed, like Todd Rundgren’s 1972 “Cold Morning Light,” plus the hit “I Saw the Light” from the same album, and Stephen Bishop’s 1976 “Save It for a Rainy Day.” The recommendations moved from jazz-adjacent closer to soft / yacht rock, with bouncy guitars, horn sections, and back-up choruses. As I sought out more examples of the genre, my recommendations honed in further and dredged up more obscure tracks.
These were musicians I had maybe heard my parents play as a kid or caught on a classic-rock radio station once. It’s not that they were never famous, but I had never really listened to them closely. Bonnie Raitt’s 1971 “Thank You” was unexpectedly moving, placid but deep. Late Christmas night in 2021 during a dance party, Jess’s younger brother, I think, put on the track “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” which was released in 1972 by a band named Looking Glass, not that anyone knows their name now. Encountering it at random outside of its fame (it hit #1 on the Billboard 100), I couldn’t believe how good it was. What’s so striking is the song’s compressed, detailed storytelling, through which the characters become increasingly rounded. But it’s also the blaring horn section and echoing vocal chorus, irresistible melodic sweetness. Elliot Lurie must have brushed the face of god when he wrote the song. Like those Incan stone walls, it forms an immaculate and indivisible whole.
“Brandy” seems too bizarre to me to fully qualify as kitsch, at least from the perspective of today, and maybe that’s what makes it great — the hint of wrongness. I’m plagued by the feeling that its narrator has never actually seen the ocean and is just making things up based on postcards. (A “sailors story” is posed as a recognizable trope even though I’m pretty sure it’s just a random phrase?) Another 1972 hit, King Harvest’s folky “Dancing in the Moonlight,” is the same. From its music-box synthesizer opening to its shambolic backbeat and banally chill lyrics — “It’s such a fine and natural sight” — the strange constituent parts cohere into something that seems inevitable. Yeah, dancing in the moonlight is great, so it stands to reason that a song solely about that would be great, too. The image that it sketches in my mind is of a Charlie Brown-style nighttime farm field populated by friendly jigging gnomes and werewolves wearing ratty drug rugs. “It’s a supernatural delight.” Sounds great. As they say on TikTok, I want to go there. My other reaction is like, Wow, people must have been on so many drugs when this was cool.
The band King Harvest (there needs to be Online Ceramics-style fan t-shirts for them) formed in Ithaca, New York, but produced its one-hit wonder in Paris after four members moved there in 1971. At the time, they wrote songs for French film soundtracks. Imagine the collision of continental existentialism and Grateful Dead-ish roots rock with people probably wearing big floppy straw hats. Powerful aesthetic! By 1976 the band broke up and many of its members apparently worked for various factions of the Beach Boys. On a subsequent, lesser-known King Harvest album called Young Love, put out originally in 1980 and rereleased in 2014 (it’s hard to find coherent information), there’s a song called “Wheel of Life.” It has the same musical palette as “Dancing in the Moonlight” and is both terrible and great, in the way that a loose, unfinished sketch can be as compelling as a finished painting. “Our lives are changing in so many ways / And everything’s turning out fine,” the lyrics go. Not even good or great, just fine! The music was not plagued by ambition.
It’s clear that there was something in the air in the early 1970s that appeals to me now, half a century later. That particular era has become part of my current music taste, alongside City Pop (same vibes, really), mid-century jazz, and bossa nova. Algorithmic recommendations were able to set me on the path by placing a few songs into the feed. But everything else I had to dig up myself, by listening to the full albums and seeking out B-sides, googling my way to obscure music blogs. If you wander around enough, it’s possible to find out that “Dancing in the Moonlight” was first recorded by a band called Boffalongo, before its writer joined King Harvest. There’s a version on YouTube (personally I think it’s worse), and in the video’s comments the track’s actual drummer has filled in details about its history.
You would never know this by looking at Spotify, where it’s barely possible to find out when a rerelease was originally recorded, let alone try to sort songs by date to the early ‘70s, for example, except for playlists of the top 100 hits from each year. (Spotify’s crime of decontextualizing music into a mass form of MIDI replicas is under-recognized.) The real curation is done, fitfully, by human users, who sort songs into their own thematic playlists. To get below the smoothed-out surface of the recommendation feed, whose only priority is to keep you listening, you have to go elsewhere. And finding out more details about something you enjoy always has a way of making it more interesting, more complicated than just experiencing it in a vacuum.
My wandering to find more background, to figure out what it is that I like about this music, reminds me of a desire path, those DIY tracks through grass fields or cutting sidewalk corners. If the algorithmic feed is the sidewalk, conveniently providing a clean and clear-cut avenue to progress on, a personal cultural pursuit is the messier desire path, which moves in unexpected directions. I saw one yesterday when I was walking our dog Rhubarb back up a hill from a park near our apartment.
The desire path wends its way around natural hillocks and curves. It doesn’t always proceed in a straight line. But it reflects a certain human independence, a compulsion to move through the world in a way that isn’t already rigorously defined or controlled from without. In this blunt metaphor, the Spotify (or Twitter or TikTok) feed is the sidewalk, and the more organic trodden path is what happens when you seek things out on your own, whether it’s a musician, artist, or writer. Letting the algorithmic feed wholly control your experience only makes it worse.
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Find more of my writing at kylechayka.com.
"Yacht rock" 😍
My dark suspicion about "Brandy" is that the sailor wasn't into the sea, he was into other sailors. I mean if Brandy was so hot....
From roughly the same period, hits by the band War are a great listen, have aged very well. "Why Can't We Be Friends" and "Low Rider" in particular. Weird to think that Eric Burdon (of the Animals) was involved with that band.
But of course all these songs were once the sidewalk, the inescapable algorithmic feed, built to conform with strictly commercial pressures of AM radio and driven by what the available technical formats and tooling could support. Nothing organic about it. You wanted your song to fit on a 45 rpm record, so that determined song length...etc. I guess sometimes the desire path and the sidewalk intersect.