‘The Tyranny of the Algorithm’ theguardian.com

Kyle Chayka, in the Guardian, describes the universalized interior design trends of what he calls post-recession “hipster coffee shops”:

Of course, there have been examples of such cultural globalisation going back as far as recorded civilisation. But the 21st-century generic cafes were remarkable in the specificity of their matching details, as well as the sense that each had emerged organically from its location. They were proud local efforts that were often described as “authentic”, an adjective that I was also guilty of overusing. When travelling, I always wanted to find somewhere “authentic” to have a drink or eat a meal.

If these places were all so similar, though, what were they authentic to, exactly? What I concluded was that they were all authentically connected to the new network of digital geography, wired together in real time by social networks. They were authentic to the internet, particularly the 2010s internet of algorithmic feeds.

This is an excerpt from Chayka’s new book “Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture”, out this week. I have put myself on the waiting list for it at the library and I am looking forward to reading it, but I am already skeptical of the argument it will make based on what is presented here.

Based on the title, you can probably predict it references Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat”, which is a questionable start. Where Friedman proposes an economic playing field he says has been levelled somewhat by globalization and technology, Chayka argues a similar effect has occurred in cultural and expressive terms primarily through algorithmically promoted, sorted, and filtered ideas. On its face, this will be a compelling investigation. I think the role played by automated systems in our understanding of current events needs ongoing serious longform exploration. There have been plenty of books about individual companies, and there have been article-length vibes-based stories, but the only deep exploration in this vein I can remember is Cathy O’Neil’s excellent “Weapons of Math Destruction” from 2016. Chayka seems to present a more recent evaluation.

Unfortunately, my first glimpse of it is this Guardian story. While the book has a more generic title, this excerpt is specifically about the apparent influence of Instagram and Australian café culture on coffee shops and restaurants. Chayka writes that it is not any specific aesthetic quality which is disputable but “the fundamental homogeneity, which became more and more entrenched” in otherwise unrelated areas. But this just sounds like it is describing trends accelerated by the web, not necessarily something impressed upon us by what photos are on someone’s social media feed. The world is full of incongruous architectural, language, branding, and fashion choices — but, then again, it has been for a long time before social media or even the internet. I am curious to read how Chayka expands upon this argument.

Later in this excerpt, there is one more thing I found notable. Chayka, regarding businesses’ use of Instagram:

The effect May observed could be called “follower inflation”. High follower numbers correlate less and less to actual engagement over time, as the platform’s priorities change or the same content tricks stop working. It’s a familiar feeling for all of us who have been on Instagram over the past decade. While it might hurt your ego to receive fewer likes on a selfie, it’s a real financial problem when that follower footprint is how a business makes money, whether it’s a cafe attracting visitors or an influencer selling sponsored content.

What is not established in this piece is whether a business being popular on Instagram necessarily correlates with being popular in real life. Photogenic business features and art exhibitions are something I have written about before, and I still think there is lots to be explored therein. I am sure photo walls and brightly-coloured decor is attractive and lures people in. What keeps them coming back and spreading the word, on the other hand, is a place worth visiting beyond the aesthetics. Some of my favourite places to visit in Calgary have terrible social media presence, but they are constantly busy because they are good.