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.

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.

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.