When I took that class a few months ago on white privilege and fighting racism, one of the reading assignments was on a website called Medium, which aims to curate “Stories to keep you informed, sane, and entertained,” with a liberal bent. It’s definitely a quality site with respected sources, and they send me daily emails with stories that cover the gamut of racism, Black experience, women’s rights, and lighter fair in dating and relationships. The daily feed is a bit too much content for me — I’m a delicate flower and these days it doesn’t take much to push me into overstimulation. But as long as I can browse and pick and choose, I’m good. Kind of like radio, you know that old-fashioned thing — I pick the station like Emerson College radio or classic rock and they do the rest.
But then I got an email that said, “Hey, we noticed you read some articles on this topic, here’s a bunch more for you.”
Wait, what? No, no, no! Don’t algorithm me! This is why I stopped liking songs on my Pandora Donna Summer station. I was young and naive when I first started listening, so I clicked on the little thumbs up icon and “liked” an ABBA song, and suddenly I was deluged by ABBA deep cuts. No, no, no! I don’t like them that much, I was just being electronically nice. So now, I don’t “like” anything, and am content to listen to repeat songs after an hour of listening. It’s a small price to pay, and feels a lot like an actual radio station.
I get that a lot of people want to control every aspect of their lives. In certain aspects of my life, I’m looking for less control. Job, family, and friends take a lot of my energy, which is good and right. Do I want to spend what’s left on micromanaging my music and reading? Not really. If I want to hear or read something specific, I’ll go find it myself. Otherwise, I kind of want you, Pandora station and Medium articles, to throw random things at me. I’m cool with it, really.
But the algorithms are on the prowl, and trying to turn me into a more narrow reader than I already am. Talk about the “echo chamber” effect. This is like the echo of the echo. I’m already a lefty leaning snowflake, so please don’t make it worse by just sending me the stuff I read. I’m not really the best judge — if I had my druthers, I’d mostly read funny articles about bad dates. But I do have some curiosity and if you show me something well-written on another topic, I may read that. But then I may be done, or I may want to know more. But I don’t know that until I get there.
While I’m browsing the shelves at the library or a bookstore, sometimes I prefer to wander the aisles and see what catches my eye. This is how I stumble upon a book I wouldn’t normally read. Or I may go right to the bodice rippers section and dive in, cuz that’s what’s on for this week. But I don’t want the librarian or the bookshop person to see my books and start telling me all the books that are similar. Unless I ask first. See how that works?
I get that places like to customize the customers experience — what with that incomprehensible alphabet soup of “UX” and “UI” and UTI, oh, wait, that’s something else. But maybe you can give me a choice first? You can even make fun of me. I would totally check a box that says, “I grew up with the randomness of radio and get crabby about having my echo chamber double echoed back at me. Please keep your algorithms to yourself.” Look you can even roll it into your goofy “branding.” Like the store Moosejaw (HQ in Michigan, don’t ya know) where I bought a coat online and had to call customer service about an issue. Those poor souls have to answer the phone, “Welcome to Mooooooooose (higher pitch) jaaaw (lower pitch).” They could make the option say, “Would you like our Mooooooooose jaw antlers to stay out of your coat buying choices? Then go ahead and click on the moose hoof. We don’t mind!”
That would actually make me crazy too, but I’m trying find a compromise here. I’m not quite sure what to do about Medium; Pandora at least gives me an option to not press the like button. How do I not read articles? Or do I have to read all of them and go crazy, or do I have to go to the main website and sift through pages of filter choices (if they even have them). Ah yes, turns out I do:
Off, please! OK. fine. That works. I’m still crabby that I had to go to the site in the first place to turn off something I didn’t ask for. If your algorithm really worked, you should have known that about me and turned it off yourself. Or you could at least use my wording — that’s a customization I can get behind.