Freedom and Discovery in the Age of Algorithms

Aisling Carlson
Chief Business Officer
June 15, 2021

You’re on your phone and notice the same ad (for a product you viewed a couple of hours earlier) following you everywhere. Spotify makes a curated playlist, just for you. You double-tap one meme and suddenly your Instagram Explore page is full of more...memes. We’re all familiar with algorithms, and whether we’re conscious of it or not, our online experiences are dictated by the invisible tugs and prods of ever-more-sophisticated machine learning. With the latest iOS 14.5 update for iPhone users and its new “app tracking transparency” tool, the friction between individual privacy and data sharing is at an all-time high, and even Facebook is starting to sweat.

Like all things tech, there’s nothing black-and-white about algorithms themselves. Despite their dystopian potential, there are genuinely intriguing and positive outcomes of digital hyper-personalization. But the current situation is incontrovertible — all pros aside, algorithms are making us lose a sense of online serendipity. It’s harder than ever for us to discover new ideas and people and marketplaces in the digital sphere, and we’re tasked to ask — what do we do about that?

crowd outside of apple store in new york city
Image courtesy of Pexels.

The Promises of the Algorithm Age

We aren’t always a fan of being advertised to, but personalized ads and content, in theory, make a lot of sense. There’s value here for both consumers and brands — younger millennials, for instance, are way less likely to react to an ad for backyard landscaping equipment or baby formula, no matter how strong the CTA is. It makes sense that the right brands would want to get in front of the right audiences by using demographic and psychographic markers, like age, location, activities, and interests. And if you’re struggling to pick a flick for movie night, doesn’t Netflix make the decision-making process that much easier by telling you that there’s a “97% match”?

The truth is that hyper-targeted content, at a certain level of sophistication, can cut through the noise of the marketplace and show us exactly what we may want or be looking for. And when AI understands you well enough (like a very, very close friend), there’s a lot of potential for lateral discovery: if you’re an eco-conscious shopper, there’s a greater chance you’ll be served ads for other eco-conscious brands.

Machine Learning and the “Filter Bubble” Phenomenon

Here’s the thing — you might think algorithms are “objective” because they involve math, but algorithmic bias is a very real and terrifying phenomenon. Whether it’s due to flawed/incomplete training data or information that is itself biased, algorithms can easily perpetuate inequities that disproportionately target certain groups, such as people of color. An alarming study published in Science in 2019 found that Black patients at a large hospital were more than twice as likely not to be referred to necessary care by an algorithm because of data that reflected systemic racism in healthcare. There are countless other examples of this in facial recognition technology and criminal justice.

Even scrolling through your Facebook News Feed or typing a query into Google are heavily stage-managed acts, with behind-the-scenes algorithms selectively filtering information in ways we won’t even know about — and don’t have much of a say in, either. In his 2011 TED Talk, author Eli Pariser pointed out the dangers of living in a “filter bubble,” a term that captures the reality of our digital experience. Facebook and Google, using the macro- and micro-data you automatically share the moment you go online, determine exactly what you see, often quietly removing news sources and search results, respectively, that don’t present you with information that isn’t “relevant” to the avatar that algorithms have made you out to be. Spooky, right? With more than six hours of the average person’s day spent online, is there room left for spontaneous discovery?

How to Make Learning and Shopping Serendipitous Again

We may spend a significant portion of our lives online, but there’s a lot you can do to “pop” the filter bubble and add serendipity back into your life. Here are some tips:

  • Check your ad settings. Google secretly compiles a ton of info about you, and you can see some of what it pulls by heading to your Google account dashboard, hitting the “Data & personalization” section on the left-hand menu, and clicking “Go to ad settings” from the Ad settings panel. You’ll see rows and rows of age, location, and activity information that Google has put together based on apps/websites you’ve visited, and can actually turn off the ones you don’t want.
  • Go incognito. This won’t make you 100% untrackable, but it’ll definitely cut back on the amount of information that’s stored on your browsing patterns.
  • Step out of digital experiences. Immerse yourself in the freedom, discovery, and tactile pleasure of reading a *physical* newspaper or going to your local bookstore or library and browsing the shelves. Support brick-and-mortar stores, especially small businesses, in your neighborhood instead of adding to cart on Amazon Prime.
  • Agitate your algorithms. Be strategic about how you “like” certain things online and read widely from news sources or publications that you wouldn’t normally gravitate to so you can draw in a diverse selection of targeted suggestions.
  • Do your research. Instead of relying on targeted ads or personalized recommendations, do your own research on queer-owned brands and brands led by people of color. Sign up for newsletters from writers and thinkers you trust to share a handpicked selection of the best brands and content to explore.

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