The Algorithm of Life

It is little exaggeration to say that “everyone” is now discussing the imminent disruption to the social order, that in my particularly cosmopolitan slice of the quickly-growing and ever-changing State of Texas, the buzz of yesterday’s cyber conversation has spilled over into the fodder of coffee shops across Austin. Around here, the world is understood through memes, the social hierarchy is dictated silently by follower counts and equally irrelevant metrics, and the election may well be won and lost by the candidate with the best social media strategy (and it wouldn’t be the first time). There is an unspoken digital dictator that controls ‘IRL’ dynamics—aesthetics, esteem among certain social circles, name dropping when visiting cyberfamous hotspots in other hubs of hipness—and today, that quasi-democracy is being usurped and replaced by an oligarchy.

Instagram is implementing an algorithm to replace of its reverse-chronological democracy.

It was only a matter of time before parent company Facebook imparted its monetizing will on the longtime indie-cool photo sharing app. And now that day is upon us, to the chagrin and celebration of those who live life through the filtered images on their phone screens. “All we’re doing,” the company promises through a series of statements and PR campaigns, “is making sure that you don’t miss anything important when you don’t get a chance to check your feed for more than twenty minutes.” And what they really mean is, “All we’re doing is prioritizing the already-popular posts and accounts and giving brands an even bigger opportunity to buy their way to the top of the social ladder.”

This in a world that already suffers from an excess of people buying their ways to the top of the social ladder.

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I have grown exhausted in recent months by the ways in which this vocal minority culture has gained a death grip on things I know and love—first my city, then my sport, and now my friends. I arrived late enough to the smartphone and Instagram party to enjoy it for a little while, though every day I grow fatigued and unfollow more people and replace them with dog accounts (yes, Instagram accounts devoted to nothing but photos of adorable dogs taken by talented owners). Because the only cyber cure for digital despair is puppy pictures.

This seems a decidedly 21st Century problem, and it sort of is, but we’ve always been doomed to watch the things we treasure get changed and sold out in one way or another. Only now, the sellouts are accelerating in accordance with Moore’s Law, to the point that friends I’ve made through sport have abandoned me for people who participate in the sport by way of presenting a curated version of themselves online. Who value style over substance and perfectly posed faux-candid moments over authentic connection and conversation and participation in the thing that ostensibly brought them together. But loving taking pictures of something in order to create a certain image is quite different from loving the thing itself.  As if by presenting things as being a certain way, we can forget the way they really are.

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There are, of course, great counter-arguments to this stark and cynical view of social media. I’ve presented some of them before, notably in my most popular blog post in recent memory, but I’m having an increasingly hard time believing any of those things as I watch these tropes repeat themselves ad nauseum as hashtags and poses become the aspirational property of an elite few and a bunch of uncomfortably bad imitators who never quite get there. The key ingredients of a successful aesthetic do not a successful participation make, but, as Kyle Chayka noted in this scintillating piece on the rise of the modern lifestyle magazine/brand, “The successful lifestyle [magazine] is a mirror that reflects the trends of our times back at us, only a little prettier, more polished, and less complicated.” This conversation has been had a hundred times in a thousand ways, and we always collectively agree that we won’t be fooled (again), but then we continue to be.

How else to explain the skyrocketing housing costs in cities that have become punchlines? The almost palpable sense of judgment surrounding hysterically petty things like cycling attire in allegedly bike-friendly cities like Austin and Portland and San Francisco (coincidentally the same towns being decimated by opportunistic developers who glibly watch housing prices rise at historic rates)? The sense that an ever-increasing number of places were designed more for photo ops than for the long-time residents who actually live, work, pay, and play in the cities that have become notches in the 21st Century Itinerant Belt? These people preach inclusiveness through canned captions and reblogs, but are largely glad that their respective bastions of culture “aren’t like the rest of the state.” What an exhausting existence, to think yourself a brave exceptionalist pioneer who journeyed to this preapproved hipster hotspot to join the collective shunning of the people who were here long before you! What an exhausting existence, to find yourself constantly exasperated when earnest attempts at connection are met with predetermined outcomes based on your digital presence or place of upbringing.

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Yesterday, dozens of accounts in my Instagram feed were urging their followers to “Turn on post notifications” so they wouldn’t get buried under the money-hungry new algorithm being rolled out slowly then all at once. What a desperate and brazen attempt at maintaining this fragile status quo. People engaging in that type of behavior earn an unfollow from me almost as quickly as the ones who have turned a democratic and unifying passion of mine into an aspirational, oligarchical playground for the nauseatingly hip. The joy of doing things for the sake of doing them is increasingly dead, because posting an occasional photo for DIY-encouragement and to share your immediate excitement with your friends is no longer sufficient. That photo has to be composed and focused and filtered just so just as neighborhoods that were once quirky and unique are being methodically turned into homogenously hip, you can’t afford to sit with us playgrounds for the wealthy clingers-on of a culture that was never quite theirs.

These laments are nothing new, but when the only conversation murmuring in the corner of my favorite coffee shop at 8 o’clock this morning centered on the alleged horror of Instagram’s new paradigm, I couldn’t help but feel like I was going a little bit crazy. It struck me as humorous enough that so many people thought this mattered to the point that they were posting photos with diagrams and captions explaining how to subscribe specifically to their posts, but this was one of those conversations that, when brought out of the cyber realm and into reality, was just a bit too absurd to suffer through. And tragically, photography itself now has a complicated sense of guilty indulgence that we must consciously eschew if we hope to continue enjoying taking pictures for taking pictures’ sake.

In a year when wayward sparrows have become major tropes in political campaigns, one in which I’ve watched people shift real-life alliances for the sake of social media cachet as flippantly as playground politics circa 1996, I can’t help but want to scream. It’s tempting to opt out entirely, but opting out often becomes more politicized than making statements like these with your name attached to them on the very internet you’re criticizing. Plus, I’d be denying myself my daily dose of vizsla pictures.

vizsla pups

2 Comments

  1. Bravo John!! Your post today captured what I have been thinking myself . So refreshing to read! I am glad you beautifully scripted a very necessary conversation on the subject matter.

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