Commentary

Don't Limit Your Media Diet

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 11, 2020
We stared at each other across the table: me, feeling my temperature start to rise; he, with that wild-eyed defiance I had come to know all too well.

It was almost certain that the situation would end badly. But I had to try.

“Come on,” I implored. “Just try it. Quiche is delicious.”

“No.” Stubbornness incarnate. “I don’t like it.”

“But you’ve literally never tried it. How can you possibly know whether you like it?”

Every parent I know, at some point, has engaged in some version of this battle. And the reason behind it is simple: We want them to try new foods because they don’t yet know what they like.

A 6-year-old has tried one gazillionth of the food there is to try on the planet. So when -- without having tasted it -- he whines, “I don’t like it!,” it’s a virtual certainty that he actually has no idea whether that’s true.

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Eight years ago, I sat in a room and listened to a proposal to make my city a “smart city,” to track every person and every object and provide a rich pool of data for a near-infinite array of purposes. One example provided: A clothing store could change what’s on display in the window to match who’s walking down the street.

I felt uncomfortable with the idea. If you’re only showing me what you think I want to see, where’s the opportunity for me to discover new things that I don’t yet know I like?

Our city didn’t go ahead with the proposal. But it’s happening anyway: Everywhere around the world, on laptops and tablets and phones, we are being served only what we like, all the time.

Think for a moment about your political affiliation. Now imagine someone who sits on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum to you. Have you ever wondered how anyone could possibly believe what that person believes?

Of course you have. It’s a party trick: Each side is amazed at how stupid the other side is, because your media diet only includes foods you’ve already signed up for. It’s hard to fathom why anyone would eat quiche when you’ve only ever eaten pizza.

And the cycle is intensifying. In a recent blog post called “TikTok and the Sorting Hat,” Eugene Wei explores the phenomenal effectiveness of the TikTok algorithm.

Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which rely on the user forming first a social graph (following, friending, etc) and then building an interest graph on top of it (news feed comprising content shared by your social graph), TikTok goes direct to the interest graph.

TikTok is so good at this that it barely needs to know anything about you or the people to whom you’re connected. “Imagine,” says Wei, “an algorithm so clever it enables its builders to treat another market and culture as a complete black box. What do people in that country like? No, even better, what does each individual person in each of those foreign countries like? You don't have to figure it out. The algorithm will handle that. The algorithm knows.”

But of course, while the algorithm “knows,” it doesn’t understand. It doesn’t care who you are, what the context is, what any of it means. To the degree that it “cares,” it’s only about its prime directive: that you watch. Which means that, unlike your parents -- who want you to try new things -- TikTok is committed, now and forever, to serving you pizza.

Remember this as you’re scrolling addictively through your feeds, as you’re marveling at the way you only ever get served content you love.

There is more yet to discover. More yet to learn. Quiche is still out there -- and you might like it.

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