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Taking life back from algorithms

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last year or so about how much algorithms dictate our lives. They come in many forms, but virtually any tech product you use in your day-to-day life relies on an algorithm: Google search, Instagram and social media of all sorts, Netflix and Spotify. Users love to feel like a service understands them, and it’s all contextual.

But if we step back from the algorithms and consider the sources for a moment, we might not be so in love with the recommendations. Last year, for example, I was telling some people I met while traveling that I have insight into how both SERP and travel articles work, having spent time in both industries.

In all likelihood, that article at the top of your Google search was written by someone who hadn’t used the product you were looking for or hadn’t visited the place you want to know about. Google has taken steps to counteract aggregation in the form of EEAT, but I wouldn’t say the average results page is great. Having worked in affiliate marketing and SEO, I can say that so many of the pages ranking for consumer goods were written by someone who:

  • Didn’t use the actual product
  • Doesn’t have useful points of comparison
  • Lacks technical expertise
  • Aggregated from more reputable sites
  • Received the product for free by the manufacturer or seller
  • Likely earns commission through affiliate links, and thus has incentive to say good things

Similarly, so many websites that rank for destinations are written by fleets of 20-somethings who either haven’t experienced much of the world and/or were tasked with assembling a list based on what’s already out there. That’s not their faults; they’re likely poorly paid, and the company doesn’t care about the list being good, so long as it’s good enough to rank. Experts on any given topic are few and far between.

What that leads to is any bar or restaurant that ends up on a “Best of” list becoming overrun by throngs of visitors, and eventually, no longer what it might have once been. I’m all for rewarding good businesses for being good businesses, but we, the users of the internet, ruin everything.

This all ties into the enshittification of everything. Cory Doctorow coined the phrase “enshittification” to describe how corporations actively worsen their products for the consumer so long as it improves profits. Endless profits! Look no further than all social media relying on an algorithm, rather than the quaint chronology of posts from friends and family. That era feels like ancient Rome at this point.

Listening to albums in full

To that end, I’ve been thinking about how to extricate more of my life from algorithms. One way I’ve chosen: To step back from playlists, shuffle and radio stations on Spotify and to listen to albums in full.

I’ve been a Spotify premium user since December 2011 (check the header image), which is kinda nuts to think about. The product has evolved immensely in that time. As I sit typing and listening to Led Zeppelin II, I consider for how long Led Zeppelin wasn’t even on streaming services and I had to rely on the box set of CDs I bought in college. A great $120 I spent when I was 19.

Anyway, I’ve found the experience rewarding so far. I’m no music snob, and don’t own vinyl because I see no need to clutter my life further with physical possessions. But here are a few albums I’ve listened to in full over the last few weeks that have felt rewarding to revisit.

Prior to this, I was feeling worn out by music. Seldom had a song or artist captured my attention for long. I think that’s been in part because I was constantly taking music out of context. That’s the reality of the music industry in an age of streaming; it’s about singles and not albums. My brother works in the industry, so I’ve gained insight into that.

But if you’re anything like me, taking time to re-contextualize, from end to end, can prove rewarding—and that goes for more than just music, too.

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