You are what you eat, goes the adage, or simply put, what you consume essentially (and literally) makes up what you are. Much like how the agricultural revolution was vital to our cognitive arrival, the upcoming information revolution aims to solve our existential one. Humans, in both the agrarian and informational sense, have overindulged first and then dealt with the costs afterwards. Staying aware of what you consume thus becomes a crucial responsibility.
This raises a few important questions: how did we get here? How do we cut off the noise?
Google and the search engine wars
When the pathways for the information highway were being laid down, the search engine market was popping up with new crafty ways to aggregate the internet. Among those rose Google with its simplistic search box. Now Google has become a verb, which shows its dominance in how people interact with the internet.
The following years saw a growth in internet usage, and people started to create information on the platform. Blogs and forums popped up. Sites like DeviantArt became repositories of digital art. Till now, the information was contained on individual sites with options to subscribe through RSS. Sharing of information mostly happened through emails or other primitive chat platforms. Most importantly, these platforms were minor compared to what the world would see with the coming of social media.
Incoming of social media
The coming of social media fundamentally altered what the internet could be. Before this, there was no reason for an individual to be constantly tethered to a network. Social media allows users to have a presence on the internet and interact with each other. This led to platforms amassing users at a count that was not seen, becoming monoliths of digital human interactions and ushering in an era of content.
A disjointed internet
Most people’s internet consumption revolves around surfing a permutation of media platforms and going through the google search box for a more exploratory or inquisitive use. These are the two primary systems in which people interact with the internet.
There is a two-pronged problem that arises with containerising content like this; first and foremost, these platforms run on proprietary, black-boxed algorithms — all of which are tainted by some kind of bias. This can lead to a situation where the user has no control over their own content and data. Additionally, it is often difficult to access this information outside of the platform, making it appear as if the information is only free if the platform is allowed to own and control it. This not only creates a feeling of unease and distrust within users, but it also severely limits the ability to move content from one platform to another.
Furthermore, the lack of control the user has over their data and content may also lead to a feeling of vulnerability, as any changes made to the user’s content can be done with little to no notification. Ultimately, this can leave users feeling powerless and unable to make informed decisions about the content they are producing and sharing.
The algorithm is based on bias
It’s no secret that the secret sauce enabling platforms like Instagram, Pinterest and Youtube to capture an audience at such mass has been the algorithms they use to push content. The recommendation engines that work behind the scene are not designed to serve your best interest, rather they are set up to hedonistically feed into patterns it sees fit to build an addictive pattern.
Performing vs expressing
The other side of this dubious coin is the effect these systems have on people who depend on them for livelihood. The modern-day content creator always seems to be at the mercy of some code that changes randomly and frequently. Imagine playing a high-stakes game where the rules change, but you are not told what they are.
This has led to an increasing conversation about how art has changed from being expressive to a performance that caters to algorithmic gods.
Those who try and survive by playing the game are also not better off. Creators often are pushed to extreme performances to keep the audience captivated. Turns out that one-upping your efforts every time can have grave real-world consequences, as experienced by Nikocado.
As a part of the whole internet culture, there is a recurring sense of dread and numbness when it comes to interacting with it. The internet as a whole doesn’t have a good user experience, and the systems in place keep it fractured and gate-kept. There are a few efforts you can make to take back control and curate the internet it was meant to be — your way.
Keeping track of various sources can get out of hand pretty quickly. You’ve got your publications, RSS feeds, newsletters, Twitter, Reddit and even links that get shared with you daily.
Traditional RSS aggregators have evolved over time and are a great way to get all your sources in one place. Apps like Feedly and Inoreader have extensions for different websites like youtube and Reddit, and apps like Matter are taking online reading to a whole new level.
It’s refreshing to see products with strong design philosophies and strict feature control, which may indicate our collective exhaustion with the way news is aggregated.
Here’s a glimpse into the kinds of polar content different users observe in their news based on the algorithms they fall prey to — RED FEED BLUE FEED. Keep in mind this report was initiated by WSJ around 7 years ago.
Maintain and purge (when needed)
The algorithms that act as content scouts are highly malleable. How many times have you gone into a rabbit hole of a topic that interested you for maybe a day, only to keep getting recommendations for the same topic? Just like quicksand, the algorithms have a tendency to bind you to what it thinks you like.
It should be a ritual then to purge your favourite platforms from your past sins. Keep it fresh by regularly clearing out your watch history. Maintain your list of subscriptions and sources and regularly remove what doesn’t work. It helps to be a little indifferent about your sources and regularly Marie Kondo-ing your content closets.
While we live in the age of information, it has become an unsaid duty of an individual to process that information into knowledge. The problems of a fractured internet have made it difficult to obtain this information outside the existing pathways — most of which are inefficient and break down for anything apart from basic use. The second issue is the way this information is pushed to users through algorithms- creating a lot of misinformation, blind spots and, at the end of the day, extremism. Our digital diet is still increasing, and it is frightening to realise how little control you have over what you consume, and it is even more horrifying to see the detrimental effects it has started to have on humans.
Humans have never existed in such a dichotomy before this. Thus, exercising an amount of pragmatic control is that much more important, as we shoot into the darkness of infinite information.