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The case against algorithmic feeds
“The early advocates of universal literacy and a free press […] failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.” — Aldous Huxley
In 2020, Meta Platforms Incorporated (née, Facebook) spent many millions of dollars funding a study, who’s conclusion appears to demonstrate that (wait for it) users will spend less time scrolling chronologically-sorted feeds as compared to their algorithmically generated equals. Turns out, when you give users a chronological feed, they get “bored” with it faster and are more likely to switch away.
Shocking, I know. Meta considers this “bad”. Speaking with WIRED magazine, Professor Michael Wagner (who helped oversee the study), cheerfully described the phenomenon this way:
“If Facebook takes away your Snickers, you can still go to TikTok and eat Doritos. If you want to eat junk food, you're going to find more junk food, not some broccoli.”
Does professor Wagner subscribe to Stay Grounded? I’ve frequently described certain kinds of apps as “junk food” and healthy digital habits as “broccoli”. But really, I almost hope he doesn’t, because it means I’m not making the points I want to make.
Mr. Wagner’s got it all backwards- nobody wants to “eat junk food”. Nobody is sitting around going “hm it is my desire to harm my body with empty calories”. What people want is pizza, doughnuts, soda, etc. and (assuming they’ve even been educated on healthy eating habits) they are willing to make the short-term trade against their long-term health because the lizard part of our brains that evolved to crave fat, salt, and sugar is very very hard to override. If someone invented a healthy pizza with half the calories, a bunch more fiber and vitamins, and it tasted (and cost) exactly the same as our current “junk food” pizza I think people would just go nuts for it. It’s not “junk food” people want.
What we want is to satisfy the feeling of hunger.
What we need is nutritious, filling food.
What we crave is calorie-dense foods.
What “junk food” provides is the thing we crave, with none of the nutrition or satiety we need to be healthy.
Junk food “skips the line” so to speak, by appealing to our craving (calories) directly, and bypassing the reason that the craving evolved (sustenance). It’s kinda like when Homer Simpson “solves” his car’s engine problem by taping over the warning light:
Check engine lights trigger a low-level anxiety. The idea is that drivers will seek to alleviate the feeling by y’know, fixing the engine. By hiding the warning, Homer “solves” his anxiety directly, bypassing the problem that caused it and going straight to the bad feeling. It’s like how McDonald’s solves food cravings without addressing the need for nutrition.
Homer may believe that what he desires is tape, but his real desire is for the uncomfortable feeling to go away. Now that the joke is thoroughly ruined, you may see where I’m going with this…
1. “Limbic Capitalism” and the New Digital Robber Barons
I recently came across the phrase “limbic capitalism”, from the book “The Age of Addiction” by David T. Courtwright. It’s a good, if anxiety-inducing read. The short definition of “limbic capitalism” is that it refers to industries who’s business models are based around satisfying cravings, not underlying needs. Not actually providing customers with anything beyond what the kids these days call “dopamine squirts”.
Before the digital era there were essentially two major industries that could be described as limbicly-capitalist: gambling and tobacco. However, today we have dozens. Addictive pharmaceuticals, and hyper-engineered junk food are two that have kinda always been around but recently taken a turn for the worse, and many businesses that are entirely digital, like much of the gaming industry and yes, algorithmically-sorted “social” media.
“For you”, “home”, “popular”, etc. These are often friendly-sounding ways of saying “not what you signed up for”. Everyone knows that “following” someone on “social” media these days is no indication you’ll actually see their content come up during scrolling, but you will see a bunch of stuff you didn’t ask to see that is statistically more likely to hold your attention longer than the stuff you specifically wanted.
Companies insert content into “your” feeds not because it’s meaningful, informative, or enriching, but because it’s hard to resist. Remember: the only thing they care about is you spending more time on their app.
Algorithmic feeds aren’t for you, they’re for them.
2. Meta Knows Best
I find it almost offensive that a lot of the coverage about Meta’s study on chronological sorting have headlines like WIRED’s here:
This is how it reads to me (maybe I’m being a little unfair):
Y’know a study I’d really like to see? One measuring the percentage of tech journalists suffering social media addictions as compared to the general populace. These articles feel like they’re written by junkies sometimes.
3. Letting Big Tech Stock Our Mental Refrigerators
Here’s a Stay Grounded™ approved weight loss tip: don’t buy a ton of junk food and keep it within arms length of you at all times. IT DOES NOT HELP. We should all try to think of our digital feeds the same way we think of our fridge and pantry at home. Don’t stock them with what we crave, stock them with what’s good for us.
When we scroll feeds, we are consuming content. There’s nothing wrong with content, not inherently. Content, like food, exists on a scale between nutritious and satiating to snacks and junk. Reading a well-written article, or even watching a thoughtful online video will leave us feeling enriched and satisfied. Reading the news (real news) should make us feel informed, not overwhelmed.
Algorithmically generated feeds create a feedback loop: since they don’t provide much mental “nutrition”, they leave us anxious and un-grounded. That makes it harder to focus on identifying what we need, which means we crave a fast and simple solution to the anxiety, which the feed conveniently provides. Kinda like how smoking cigarettes solves the problem of nicotine cravings.
Information defines our reality. Scrolling algorithmically-sorted feeds (especially those with ads and inserted content) is ultimately surrendering control over our own sense of reality to for-profit big tech companies. When we have control over our information feeds, we can more effectively ignore our lizard-brain proclivities and even enjoy an occasional “junk food” meme scroll without getting burned out.
3. The Benefits of Boredom.
Boredom, like hunger, is uncomfortable. When we’re bored, our brains crave stimuli. Brains evolved in a place where information, like calories, was rare; so we crave all kinds, good or bad, true or false. Let’s compare this to the food metaphor above. When we find ourselves alone with no stimuli:
What we want is to ease feelings of boredom.
What we need is trustworthy news, and meaningful social connection.
What we crave is stimuli (of any kind).
What algorithmic feeds provide is the thing we crave, with none of the “nutrition” we need.
In order to feel grounded mentally, we need both reliable information about our environment, and safe social connections. We need them just as much as we need food. If we’re going to start somewhere, taking control of our digital feeds and stocking them with the best sources of both will go a long way. But there are benefits to (occasionally) going without, too.
When we don’t have food, our bodies burn fat for energy, but only after exhausting all other options (like making you super hangry). Anyone who’s tried fasting for a period of time can attest that after a short while, the urgent feeling of hunger kinda moves to the background. It doesn’t go away exactly, but getting food now feels less pressing over time, not more. We probably evolved this way because it’s hard to think straight when you’re hungry, and if there’s no food immediately accessible, the people who could think clearest were better able to figure out the whole “no food” problem.
Our brains have their own built-in boredom-fixer, too. “Creativity” is the means by which our brains ease boredom when no easier stimuli exists. Creativity is good for us. It helps us solve problems and plan for the future. But creativity can’t be triggered directly. If it could, painters wouldn’t need studios and writers wouldn’t need long walks. The road to creativity passes through boredom.
Epilogue: You Know What really Sucks?
I think when people exasperate: “the internet sucks,” they aren’t really referring to Wikipedia or Weather.com. What it almost always boils down to is: “someone was awful on a platform that incentivizes awfulness”. When you see someone being an asshole on the internet, ask yourself: how did you encounter them in the first place? Were you seeking it out? Or did it just show up?
My theory is that despite all the stories about how “anonymous accounts” and “not being face to face” inspire people to be meaner to one another online, I suspect the truth is that the internet has only incrementally more assholes than the real world. We just don’t encounter as many in the real world because the real world isn’t trying to artificially increase superficial engagement by constantly experimenting with new ways to upset us.
Thankfully, like the cupboards in our kitchen, there exist content feeds that we do have full control over. RSS readers are great (and free) and newer decentralized social networks like Mastodon and Lemmy give users full control over what they see (and don’t). You could fill up these feeds with “junk food”, but that would be your choice, not something imposed upon you. Most people wouldn’t choose to fill their cupboard with junk, but unfortunately with most “social” apps, taking personal responsibility isn’t even an option.
If you went to the grocery store to buy healthy food, and the store only sold broccoli packaged with potato chips, you would be forgiven for being a little upset. It’s hard enough to eat healthy as it is! So do your brain and body a favor, don’t accept a “bargain” like this in your information diet either.
If you’re considering investing your time an app with an algorithmically-sorted feed, do so cautiously. Remember: it’s not really “for you”.
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You could reasonably consider alcohol to fit into this category too, but (for non-alcoholics at least) there is a tangible social benefit to drinking, so in the context of this discussion I don’t think it fully applies.