The internet is an amazing place for getting inspiration, meeting new people and learning anything your heart desires. It’s given billions of people a voice who didn’t have one before, and they’re using it with gusto — myself included.
It’s an amazing development I can only celebrate. However, there is one little issue that bugs me a bit. To make sense of all those voices, companies have introduced algorithms that filter our input to match what they guess are our interests and desires. For that reason, our online feeds keep showing us things that are similar to what we’ve clicked on previously. By analyzing our behavior in the past, it tries to predict our behavior in the future. Very clever.
But also very restricting. By making suggestions that match our previous behavior, it guides us to stick to our old patterns. It doesn’t challenge us, doesn’t expose us to different perspectives, and doesn’t help us broaden our horizon. I understand why current algorithms operate like this: Their job is to keep us engaged in the platform they serve. Of course, the best bet is to give us more of what we seem to like.
However, the way those algorithms have been designed is very flawed in my opinion. I don’t just want to see what I like. I want to see what is true. I want to be challenged. I want to be inspired. And I can’t do that if I’m only exposed to the same old. Of course, it’s great that my Facebook feed isn’t spammed with content from people I met 5 years ago and barely know, but on the other hand, I’ll also never get to know these people better if I don’t see their content — what’s the purpose of being connected online if the algorithms don’t support that connection?
Sure, I can search for stuff and people, but I rarely know what to search for or I simply forget about it, and let’s be honest: Most of us are lazy internet users. We’ll happily stay within our comfort bubble if we’re not forced to behave otherwise. I’m not going to think of that person from back then if I’m not reminded. And with how the system currently works, I’m not reminded.
Algorithms and Creativity
What bothers me is the restrictiveness enforced by these algorithms. I go online to be inspired for my creative work and understand the world more fully. But if I’m only confronted with my comfort bubble, I’m not expanding my understanding of the world; instead, I’m receiving a messed-up idea of what the world looks like. Our global community is more than trends, like-minded people, and cats.
In addition, creative work needs input, and not just any kind of input, but diverse and novel stuff. Creative innovation happens when diverse ideas and perspectives clash together in new and unexpected ways. It’s in the sweet-spot between two independent ideas that novelty emerges. When we get too used to our context — be it our physical or our virtual context — our creative expression stagnates. It lacks the fuel for great innovation.
Of course, I have my interests and my no-gos. I love a feed full of creative processes and artwork and I’d be very dissatisfied with being bombarded with football. But hey, learning is never a solely comfortable journey. Having one’s worldview challenged isn’t always fun either. Life is a constant experience of randomness, and although more posts would seem irrelevant if the algorithms would start allowing this diversity I long for, I truly believe that there is a great lesson in that – a lesson of empathy.
The more perspectives I’m confronted with and the more diversity I experience, the greater my understanding of the world and its inhabitants will be. Seeing people’s passion for football can be very inspirational, and getting a piece of artwork in your feed even if that’s not part of your interest sphere will give you a greater sensibility for art over time. I think it would enrich our lives if we didn’t just see the same ol’, same ol’. Sure, we’d spend less time consuming things we would think of as relevant, but perhaps we would then spend less time consuming things online in general, and I don’t think that would be such a bad development.
So what’s the solution to this? I don’t have a one-size-fits-all, but what I would love to have instead is a Cocktail Algorithm — an algorithm that mixes things up with a random flavor here, a curious spice there, and a bit of sparkling glitter to top it all of. Yes, I still want to see suggestions that are relevant based on my previous habits, but not only, and maybe not even mostly.
Wouldn’t it be cool if algorithms were written to support indie content just as much as popular content? Or if they had a weekly or monthly theme where random stuff related to a certain topic would appear in our feeds? Or, for the sake of giving users control, if you were allowed to select different kinds of algorithms so you could decide how spicy and diverse your feed should be at any given time?
I don’t want to drink the same ol’ common denominator beer. I want fun and funky cocktails to broaden my horizon and make my internet experience as cool and inspiring as possible. So please, dear platform developers out there. Challenge us! Broaden our horizon. Dare to spice things up. Grow our empathy and our creativity. You’d do everyone a favor.