Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Kyle Chayka in a screen capture from a 2022 talk posted on YouTube. More height was added to the plain background via digital retouching.

As a New Yorker staff writer about the Internet and digital culture, Kyle Chayka is surprisingly critical in “Filterworld,” his newest book, of the media he makes his living off of. Describing the way digital algorithms have leached difference and culture out of our everyday lives, Chayka’s book is the product of eight years of research, and is a combination of reported investigation and critical essay. “The anxiety is very real,” Chayka said, describing the common fear of algorithms that are either too accurate or not accurate enough. “Users have no agency.” Chayka will be speaking locally about “Filterworld” on Friday. We interviewed him Jan. 4; the conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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I know that you classify “Filterworld” as a reported critique – what argument did you end up making?

My hypothesis to all of this is that these algorithmic feeds and digital platforms force people to act in the same way. They force creators to fit their work into certain molds that succeed online, whether that’s an Instagram aesthetic, a TikTok dance or a relatable tweet. They then also pressure consumers to act a certain way, which is basically to be very passive – the feeds would love it if we would all just consume whatever we were served, paid as much attention as possible and never logged off. I think the combination of those two things and the incentives on platforms to optimize for engagement has made culture less interesting and has turned us into worse consumers of culture.

So there’s a more varied culture we’re missing.

You could point to the popularization of indie music from the ’80s through the 2000s. A lot of bands back then were making really interesting music that wasn’t immediately appealing, that took a long time to catch on and would rely on small audiences. It was everything from the Velvet Underground to even Frank Ocean at some points. And I think that ecosystem had a sense of patience, a tolerance for slowness and small scale. That non-virality is missing today where, if you want to succeed as a musician, the fastest way to do it is to make a hit on TikTok that millions of people cut 10 seconds out of and then reuse for their own accounts.

Should there be restrictions s around these platforms and algorithms?

Yes, for sure. The United States has really failed to regulate social media almost in any way. Companies like Meta have been crying out for regulation, because they think it’ll help them escape more blame for the things they’re doing wrong. In the European Union, there’s a whole suite of laws now that protect user privacy, give you more ownership of your data, stop you from being surveilled all the time and even let you even opt out of some algorithmic feeds. The U.S. just totally doesn’t have that. My conclusion was that at the most basic level, it would be great if we had more anti-monopoly measures where we would force Facebook and Instagram, for example, to be competitors rather than being owned by the same company. More competition among digital platforms would help give users more options in terms of how they want these platforms to work. It would give them more ability to leave and find different spaces to be in. As it is, Meta, Google, TikTok and maybe now OpenAI have just sucked up the vast majority of any digital platforms that we interact with. That obviously leads to widespread homogenization and flattening and boredom because we simply have no other options.

What happens if algorithmic regulations don’t change?

Right now we’re stuck in a really vicious cycle – since we consume so much culture through these platforms, all the culture that succeeds is optimized for those platforms. We need to take our attention away from the platforms, to find other ways of consuming art and culture that don’t just work through these algorithmic feeds. Popular culture is always going to thrive on the most massive platforms that exist, whether that’s cable television or the radio or TikTok. There’s always a mainstream popularity that succeeds. But I hope essentially that the Internet starts working in a different way and that we move out of these massive digital platforms and find smaller ones, slower ones and more interesting ways of consuming things, and let those start to drive culture rather than Facebook and TikTok.

How has social media changed the way we function, specifically?

The Trump election, in many ways, was a consequence of social media and of algorithmic targeting, because the Trump campaign used Facebook targeted ads within the algorithmic newsfeed to great effect. The Clinton campaign didn’t make use of that as much. They just didn’t realize how powerful it would be. I think there was this realization that algorithmic feeds and like directing people to personalized content was very powerful. You can also kind of sense how cultural forums shifted to generate memes and to become viral. TV shows have more little moments made for gifs that can spread online. Politicians say very tweetable things for apps. Artists in particular felt the pressure to conform to the popular aesthetics of Instagram, simply because those are the main channels to reach anyone.

What advice would you have for “Filterworld” readers?

Logging off is always good. You can get off Instagram, get off TikTok, and find some of those sources of content or art elsewhere.There’s more interest, creativity and originality in just going to the library and picking out a random book than there is in chasing what’s popular. You have to get offline, you have to seek out randomness and surprise and try to appreciate what’s around you – really come to grips with what’s in front of you, rather than skating on the surface of this algorithmic feed. I think it’s about seeking depth and intentionality, rather than giving into that passivity that the algorithmic feeds require.

  • Kyle Chayka speaks at 7 p.m. Friday at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge. registration is not required.

This post was update Jan. 17, 2023, to correct that Kyle Chayka reads Friday.