I subscribe to a podcast: Ezra Klein Show from Vox media and while Vox/Klein are both liberal, he does a lot of great long-form interviews with people to deep dive on some pretty interesting topics. I don’t listen to every episode, although I feel like I should because I always get educated by the ones I least expect. For example? The recent episode: “Why Online Politics Get So Extreme So Fast”
I first saw the title of this episode and thought it was just going to be a conversation I’ve heard a million times about filter bubbles and algorithm-created social experiences that give us false impressions about the range of views in our communities. Eh.
But, instead it was about how YouTube algorithms keeps us intrigued by FEEDING us extreme versions of what we’re searching for. Examples: The journalist/professor being interviewed – Zeynep Tufekc – watched vegetarian videos and eventually YouTube started feeding her Vegan recommendations. She researched running and eventually YouTube started recommending ultramarathon videos. I found this VERY necessary information as I’m raising kids who spend a lot of time on YouTube.
YouTube is a very regulated video source in our house. Wes can watch his favorite shows on Netflix fine but YouTube has to be on a timer and it has to be when someone is home and can monitor what he’s watching. THIS IS WHY. I didn’t realize exactly how the algorithm worked and the dangers associated with it, but I knew that you can fall into these wormholes of videos and click for hours. So we regulate it closely.
Not only does she talk about how these algorithms push you to extremes, but she also compares our own need to set ourselves up for success in the same ways we do by making decisions not to keep junk food in the house or how she doesn’t have a parking pass at the college she teaches at so she “has” to ride her bike. And while you should listen to the whole podcast, THIS is the bit I wanted to talk about.
I love thinking about social media consumption the way I try to think about food. But I also find it interesting that I’ve had such a hard time training myself in moderation for BOTH. Is there a connection between what makes me an emotional eater and what makes me fall so hard into social media time warps? When I’m stressed or upset? French fries and Facebook. Donuts and instagram. Cheese dip and Twitter. I mean, the way I use food and social media is SO SIMILAR that her discussions about comparing social media and the food industry were FASCINATING.
Just like the food industry made money off our obesity epidemic, social media is profiting from our political divide in this country. Therefore, it’s going to be difficult to trust THEM to be part of the solution. So we have to do that ourselves. She discussed how nice it would be if we, as users, could request NOT to be fed the algorithm. That we just see what we choose to see – in the order it was posted, with no algorithm deciding what we “NEED/WANT” to see next. And while that sounds GREAT, it’s not an option so we have to police ourselves when we see bad habits developing.
Just like I don’t buy cheese dip to keep in the house, I also took Facebook off my phone. Just like I don’t buy beer to keep in the fridge in Knoxville, I only look at my Twitter lists instead of relying on the algorithm to feed me tweets. (This is not as easy on my phone, but on my computer I rely on my lists.) We all have to figure out ways to make HEALTHY decisions in terms of social media because – just like the food industry – our health is NOT profitable. Social media survives on outrage but that’s what depletes our mental health so we have to find ways to make good decisions on our own.