Working for The Algorithm

The ways The Algorithm takes away our Sundays and decides our fate. An essay about how sound bites win over sound thinking, and even shapes our beliefs.

Working for The Algorithm

Every Sunday morning, I wake up gently, without a care, other than the want for coffee, and some serenity. I find myself making my way out to the back patio, after preparing a pour-over, freshly ground, easy to sip on, hard to prove your tasting note accuracy. The flavors cascade through its dynamic character traits as every drop in temperature represents one degree of change. The morning fog seems as if it's still until you see it has fallen to the leaves where it sparkles, attaching itself to some kind of texture on every leaf, that can only be seen when you are still enough to see it, and the dew features it for you, illuminated by the wash of sun at just the right angle that the morning offers you.

The only person moving quickly is every other sucker in the world, out of my sight–definitely out of my mind. Hurried to get to work, church, or some family occasion. And the dog, who uses this time to fetch whatever ball is his newest inanimate friend, an activity that he takes pride in like his own little version of CrossFit, where he is both expending energy, and connecting socially while killing time and building a little street cred. He struts, to show his glutes if dogs have glutes, and if they do he's definitely going to lick them next. I would do the same if I were him. Strutting that is. Okay and the licking because that's what dogs do.

Before you know it, my serene morning will be interrupted by bacon and eggs, which is a good interruption, compliments to the chef whose real name is my wife of two decades. But I also get another interruption. One that is less tasty and way saltier. That is – the noise of the jungle. Not the concrete one with traffic and briefcases. Not the Amazon Jungle either, unless for some reason I determine I need to buy coffee filters right away. I'm talking about the social media jungle. The realm of the internet where you find a steaming pile of reductive political memes, and curated life stories of perfection, along with photos of food and pets. I scroll through some, comment on some, like some, but mostly hate it all.

As I sit on the patio, distracted, the dog has grown weary of fetching, or had his fill, and decides to just bathe in the sun. He's not holding a phone, the latest model or otherwise. There are no megapixels capturing the scenery. No algorithms are deciding what he will watch and whether he'll reshare it. He's just soaking up the limited resource that is the moment.

Asher is not a person, although he thinks he is one, and I don't mind letting him keep up the illusion, so long as he keeps letting me dry my hands off on his fur from time to time. Unlike a person, when Asher is done fetching, he doesn't share his peloton rankings on social media. He doesn't take pictures of his dog food or post about how hashtag-blessed he is, and how much he loves the smell of neighbor-dog butts in the morning. He just participates in it.

You see Asher likes people more than algorithms. Unless an algorithm can give him an extra piece of bacon he won't pay much attention to it. Asher pays more attention to his people than anyone on the internet ever will. It doesn't matter how many likes you get, he's just going to be your best friend.

Technically, social media sucks. No offense to Mark, or the person who decided to favor inspirational posts on LinkedIn, but your platforms are not good. Big tech likes to claim they are creating something for the greater good, and I would agree if we think the world needs more tripping hazards and ocular degeneration. Otherwise, I'm not sure it's that much greater.

Let me take you back to my social media origin story. I'm no stranger to the feed. Back before Kylie Jenner was a wealthy socialite celebrity (when she was merely a wealthy six-year-old who wet her bed covered in golden 800 thread count bedsheets) I joined Myspace. I did it willingly, even after a bad experience with AOL chatrooms (a story for another paragraph). By this point, The Drudge Report was no longer the only thing you could get in your email, and people had switched from yearning for the "You've Got Mail" announcement to focusing on who to put in their "Top 8" friends list that week–something we call dynamic friend ranking based on the latest favors and injustices.

For many, the platform became an intermittent tool to promote a band or a porn site, which felt awkward with the Tom guy looking over his shoulder at you from his Compaq computer. Personally, I used social media to find music and to convince people to find mine. One needs only a simple script (now known as bots and now found mostly on Twitter or at most networking events) to add countless friends across the internet.

The metrics were incredible. The burnout was real. The tangible results were not very good. I became progressively disinterested, mostly after measuring my output compared to my effort (administrating bot automation is hard work!). I mellowed my Myspace use and shifted my focus to a more Kiersten Sinema-style approach of not giving a shit about results.

Before Long, Facebook would eclipse Myspace yet I would shrug it off, disinterested in the effort of a new platform, until one day, a profile was created for me by an insistent Facebook friend, who, as it were, is now in jail (for something other than forcing people to join him on Facebook but you're getting warmer). I ended up diving in nonetheless and it was only a matter of time before I would be asked to write a book about the topic – not predatory Facebooking, but a book about using Facebook in general. Facebook All-In-One For Dummies, 553 pages, half of which I wrote, and all of which can be found here.

Little did I know, the book would make me famous (actually no it wouldn't) and it would also burn me out on social media in general (it definitely did that) despite the hundreds of people that would pay me to help them use social media before and after, the platform delivered little more than vanity metrics. 'Not zero' was the official business result if I'm being conservative. Social media can make some people money, and it can help some people to keep in touch, but the dogs don't lick you or fetch. It merely simulates it with pictures and videos, making you wish you were there, playing fetch – happy to take either role – dog or person.

"But I have to use social media for my job," they say.

Maybe you're right. Social media is, after all, an essential business department, consisting of hundreds of very special marketing roles that are A/B testing, tracking engagement, reach, and identifying the next algorithm update to make sure all those things achieve peak performance.

I know exactly how to use it, and I know exactly what the Mark Z's of this world want from you. They want you to like dogs online more than you like your own dog. They want you to follow The Rock on Instagram instead of following your loved ones to the shore to collect rocks far more unique albeit less famous. They want more incels and fewer nomads. More people working an algorithm than people knowing how to work a room. They want more people wishing they were there than people actually being there.

The Algorithm, as I lovingly call him, has taken a front seat in our lives, and whether you are planning an anniversary or an insurrection, it requires you to consult it first. Some know that a little skin gets a lot of likes. Some are merely a victim of its power over them.

The Algorithm knows you can't help it.

But it may not help you do your job as much as you might think it does. It certainly helps you wish you were doing as well as the other brands whose stats seem to dominate. It certainly helps you wish you were here but it may not get you here any quicker.

The Algorithm is not a person, although we seem to think he is one, and I'll let it keep up the illusion as long as it allows me to wash my hands of its vibes.

Social media is not an unuseful tool. But if you get sucked in too much, you could, yourself, become a tool. Specifically, a tool of The Algorithm, to achieve its desires, with a morsel of mammon shared with the select few to ensure they keep doing its bidding. To make sure they keep influencing people to buy something here or there, but more importantly, to make sure people keep clicking, commenting, sharing, and liking, even if on the inside it makes them hate themselves. The Algorithm does not work for its people. It exists to hack every human impulse to work for The Algorithm.

I recently stumbled upon an article by Trung Phan, Why is LinkedIn so Cringe? Trung explains in great detail how LinkedIn is rife with features that encourage people to interact in unrealistic ways, boosting the things that make people more LinkedIn flavored. The LinkedIn flavor is something we all become if we spend too much time on LinkedIn because the incentive structure leaves us no other choice. Before you know it, we start every sentence by informing people that we are humbled and honored to announce it.

The Algorithm does not want you to speak to your audience. The Algorithm wants you to speak to itself, and then it will decide if you can have an audience. It will ensure you are on one side or the other, by presenting the illusion that there are two sides.

When it comes to creating sides, the next victim is the incoming elections, or more colloquially stated - us. Election interference is not only a pastime for Russians vacationing in Crimea, it's also an unmanned organic feature of bite-size conversation, and algorithmic incentives. By nature when engagement is rewarded with more visibility, most newsfeeds will be populated with things people interact with, that which echos our own point of view, or drives you to rage. As Kevin D. Williams of The Dispatch says "Rage drives clicks. Quality drives subscriptions."

Sound bites win over sound thinking. The Algorithm shapes our very beliefs, and if we're not careful, we're a product for the highest bidder.

Far be it for me to prefer a narrative controlled by Russians, bot or otherwise, but I don't find it much better than the Tweet size politics of Ron Desantis or turning public health into our public enemy while missing out on long-form journalism, dinner table conversations, and a quiet Sunday in your back yard. Making life-sized decisions based on memes and whatever gets boosted in our feeds result in a community of people fighting like a family on Thanksgiving.

Well, I guess that really is a good point, then isn't it? Division is as old as Christmas. People have been at each other's giblets over holiday meals since the Pilgrims and Indians tried to make nice before slashing each other's throats over who was there first and who was white. It seems like some things never change.

Maybe The Algorithm is a rough version of the human condition we've always been living with. Where what is socially rewarded is taking sides and getting likes, when what we really need are more Sundays when we can enjoy the sunshine and a game of fetch.

It's not lost on me that this writing is on the internet, and many have discovered it by the hand of the very source I decry in this post. Just the same, I have made some very good lifelong friends who I first discovered on the internet. But I look at it this way. A discovery is something to be sought, while the algorithm is something to be fought.