Saturday, March 23, 2024

Mass personalisation - when every cafe looks the same

Photo by shawnanggg on Unsplash

Remember when you first used Amazon and they offered recommendations of other books you might like based on what you had bought or browsed on the platform? Often the recommendations were very much in line with your tastes and you discovered new books or music. Google searched for results that matched your browsing, giving you a personalised search service. We felt served, but today we feel used and manipulated by algorithm-driven recommendations that are now extremely commercialised. If you keep getting fed music or literature that you already like you'll never discover anything new. It's a bit like the radio stations that promise to play only hit music - that means you'll never hear anything new until after it has become a hit. The trap of personalisation becomes even more worrying when you show interest in more extreme political views and the algorithms offer you increasingly extreme material until you see very little else. Add to that the power of influencers on social media and our flock instinct and the result is a global streamlining. In the end everything looks or sounds roughly the same.

This streamlining is the subject of a fascinating podcast and article on The Verge, How to save culture from the algorithms, with Filterworld author Kyle Chayka. Kyle is the author of a book called Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, about how global trends are created on a viral scale, via social media and streaming services.
It’s a book about how digital platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Spotify took over our modes of cultural distribution in the past decade. Algorithmic recommendations, like TikTok’s For You feed or Netflix’s homepage, control the majority of what we see and hear online. Though they promise personalization, the net result of so many algorithms is a homogenization of culture.
Mass personalisation leads in the end to a final common denominator, as in all the trendy cafes, restaurants and BnBs looking very similar no matter where they are in the world.
I was traveling around the world quite a bit and landing in all these different cities, and I would notice that every Airbnb I stayed in had the same kind of aesthetic signature, every coffee shop I went to in Reykjavík or Kyoto or LA or Berlin all had the same stuff in it, and I just started wondering or almost being anxious about why all the sameness was happening
Products, services, trends and influencers pay for ratings in the main platforms and if you press the right buttons you can go viral. Ratings and reviews matter and these can now also be manipulated with the help of AI bots. Some music, books, films etc get pushed more than others. Our personalised services are not as personal as they seem. Our tastes are moulded by the algorithms. The question is how to escape. According to Chayka you need to reconnect with yourself and ignore the recommendations, reviews and like-counts.
Being more thoughtful is a good start. I think what I came out of it with was you want to know that you like what you like because you like it, not just because it was recommended to you and exposed to you repeatedly in a feed. Thinking about your personal taste, having a real encounter with a song or a piece of art or a piece of clothing where you don’t think about how many people liked it, where you don’t think about the Instagram account, where you just sit with your own feelings and have an experience of culture that’s in front of you that’s changing your mind or your soul or whatever, that’s truly what I want people to have. I want you to sit and stare at a painting and be like, “What does this make me feel? I don’t care how many likes it has. I don’t care how many followers the artist has. How am I feeling right now?”

I try by using for example Duckduckgo for searching since it doesn't track me. I get a more diverse set of results than with Google but that is the point. Google frequently suggested my own blog posts or articles whereas I can hardly find them with Duckduckgo! I've stopped using TripAdvisor since since reviews can be written by bots or trolls. I don't use Amazon anymore and my use of Spotify is sinking to the point where I don't think I want to subscribe anymore. We don't need to go completely offline but treat the big tech platforms with extreme care and suspicion. There are alternatives out there.