Under the Influence of Algorithms
Author: Helayna Raffaele
When I think about a dystopia, I think about sameness. Not the natural kind — in that we as humans innately share a lot of qualities with one another — I’m talking about a forced uniformity. Like the Big Brother to our Winston Smith, social media algorithms feed into this coercion of sameness.
Hypothetically speaking, algorithms are no more than an equation. Our media trends act as variables to yield an endless timeline of our likes and interests. This mathematical nature of the algorithm is neither inherently good nor bad — but the way it categorizes our existence into a refined archetype is extremely problematic.
Assuming that we, as media consumers, can be typified into general categories is harmful for two reasons: (a) it assumes that people actually exist as a sort of archetype and (b) it reduces our understanding of the world to that archetypal perspective. Human beings are not monolithic; our interests and opinions waver quicker than ripples over a still body of water. Algorithms that assume the opposite consequently distort our understanding of self and the world as a whole. The way this manifests tends to vary from platform to platform.
Instagram’s algorithm is a master of monoliths and its unique feed chronology is largely to blame. I remember a few years back when the platform announced they’d be changing their feed; it perplexed the majority of us, because who even asked for this? Rather than showing posts in order of when they’re posted, the Instagram feed prioritizes what it “[thinks] you care about most.” This means only the accounts you actively interact with will appear at the top of your feed. Once you’re through all those, your timeline quickly turns into the explore page by suggesting accounts you might like.
In theory, this is a perfectly fine algorithm that serves its purpose of showing you exactly what you like — but as put by Tony Bradley, “therein lies the problem.” “If our social media accounts only show us the perspectives, experiences, and opinions we like and agree with,” says Bradley, “we lose the opportunity to learn about or understand different perspectives, experiences, and opinions.”
This idea is quite vague, I admit, but allow me to illustrate. I find my Instagram algorithm to be extremely fashion-focused. This makes sense, given that fashion accounts dominate my following list. But if my perception of the world was reduced to my Instagram algorithm, it would hold the bodies around me to the standard of models endorsed by said fashion accounts. The cries for diversity within the fashion community are endless. And while runways have undoubtedly begun to diversify, they do so at a snail’s pace.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2020 couture collection was one of the last times I found my algorithm filled with a wide range of bodies. Even so, the majority of models were thin, white, and able-bodied. Not everybody looks the same, nor should they — but if our feeds constantly tell us otherwise, we will inevitably begin to believe them. This association with Instagram and influential beauty standards is nothing new. A video essay by youtuber Khadija Mbowe explains how the phenomenon of “Instagram face” has established unrealistic beauty standards both on and off the platform. If you didn’t picture it already, the aesthetic of Instagram face is categorized by “young, poreless skin; high plump cheekbones; long lashes; cat-like eyes; a small neat nose; and, of course, really luscious lips.”
Instagram didn’t create this concept itself. However, the platform’s algorithm has deeply romanticized a standard of beauty which already existed. Instagram face has been described as idealizing a “rootless exoticism,” or in other words, racial ambiguity. Minor cosmetic surgeries such as lip fillers are a common measure taken to achieve this look. While cosmetic surgery is not inherently negative, we shouldn’t feel obliged to all look the same. We are born and bred, not printed and copied. We exist in various forms and there’s no need to change that.
Like Instagram face, the bodies represented within my fashion algorithm are a limited representation of reality. Some people naturally have an Instagram face and model bodies, some people don’t. Our bodies shouldn’t all have to look the same in order to be valid; their mere existence is their own validity. What we do with our bodies should be up to our own personal discretion. Being surrounded by a diversity of body types will allow us to better understand this, both consciously and subconsciously.
Let me start by acknowledging that TikTok didn’t come up with names for its categorical algorithms, but they do project specific stereotypes. There’s been a not-so-subtle war between “Straight” versus “Gay” TikTok since the beginning of quarantine. “Straight” or “Normie” TikTok is viewed as the boring and mundane side of the platform’s algorithm. Here, you’ll find no scarcity of dance videos and oddly sexual POVs. Alternatively (pun intended), “Gay” or “Alt” TikTok is the opposing side of the algorithm. It is all things shamelessly queer and counter-culture — like coming out videos, social commentary, and dark humor. This association between queerness and counter-culture can be viewed as a contemporary manifestation of 1980s Queercore: “a punk rock movement formed by members of the LGBTQ community as a rejection of society’s expectations of ‘normal.’” With a mantra like “Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses,” the movement clearly established a proud community of queerness by denouncing societal norms. When “normal” society rejects all things queer, it seems both fair and empowering for queerness to, in turn, reject all things “normal.”
The counter-culture of Alt TikTok has undoubtedly created a safe community for many to express and explore their identities freely — but it also has its limits. The stark contrast between the Straight and Gay TikTok binary creates an immense pressure for people to pick a side. If you’re queer, you are expected to be on Alt TikTok; if you’re straight, you are expected to stay in your Normie lane. Once in your designated algorithm, you’re likely to conform to its community standards based on influence alone. The reason many of our parents were constantly wary of who we called our friends is because we naturally reflect our surroundings; this is also true of TikTok. Like our parents, we must remain wary of what we are being influenced by.
Ironically, the Gay algorithm creates it’s own standard of normalcy through its desire to be anti-normal. There lies an innate pressure within this algorithm to be artistic, quirky, and practically bursting with jokes about straight people. In one particular trend, Gay TikTok users used Una Smoole’s “If I were a straight” audio to imagine how they would look if they were heterosexual. Many of the quick clips had common themes: removing very bold or otherwise colourful makeup, and changing their fashion style from thrifted chic to skinny jeans and sportswear. I enjoyed this trend as much as the rest and the overall humor of Alt TikTok rarely disappoints — but it can affect how we perceive queerness.
Not everyone’s expression of queerness is necessarily the same. While it does adopt aspects of counter-culture — including many forms of artistry — it can also exist in those who appear as simple Normie Tiktokers. TikTok user chrisoffish illustrates this idea in his interpretation of the “If I were a straight” trend. His video showed no transformation between his actual queer and figurative straight self. Instead, he states: “I would look exactly the same. Because my personal aesthetic doesnt define me OR my sexuality. You dont have to be a fashionista to be a valid member of the community.” An individual shouldn’t have to abandon the seemingly normal aspects of their identity in order to be accepted within queer communities. Moreover, queerness doesn’t always need to exist on an alternative plane. We can also normalize being queer in its various forms rather than forcibly detesting ideas of normalcy.
As emphasized by Dan Yon’s study on human culture, we are elusive beings by nature. So while the archetypes of Straight and Gay TikTok certainly reflect the identities of some, they erase many others. If our understanding of queer culture were reduced to representations through TikTok, we may demonize those who appear “Straight” or “Normie.” Queer people are, above all, people — not an alternative entity.
Amidst the endless stream of social commentaries and video essays, Youtube’s algorithm has been known to spread extremist ideologies. Chief product officer Neal Mohan attributes this to the platform’s open model: providing a space for all opinions. But if extremist opinions are being recommended to people on an endless loop, they’re going to enforce these ideologies within their daily lives. This is notably the case with channels promoting white supremacy and violent right-wing extremism. Mohan seems to acknowledge the gravity of this issue, claiming “there’s more work to be done” within the platform.
All flaws considered, I still view one aspect of Youtube’s algorithm as a sort of exception to the negative algorithm paradigm. It’s extremist birthing recommendation system is certainly harmful, but presents many loopholes. One of my personal favourite Youtubers, D’Angelo Wallace, describes this best: “I feel like there’s always been a disconnect between what actually gets put as the face of Youtube and what people actually enjoy watching… you can tell by the views on the trending page, they’re not always that good.” The trending page seems arbitrary at best. One would suppose that a trending page would allow users to explore videos beyond their personal algorithm, to see what others are enjoying — yet it doesn’t necessarily garner more views or subscribers for a channel. Rather, what does this best is the platform’s “community post” feature.
A community post is similar to a tweet or Facebook post. The written posts, sometimes in the form of a survey or multiple choice, allow channels to interact more directly with their audiences. As with videos, audiences can like or comment on a community post. But because their debut was so ill-received, Youtube continued to promote this feature in the algorithm to quite literally make them relevant. Viewing one channel’s video causes their community posts, as well as those from similar channels, to periodically appear in your recommendations. Though in some cases, community posts are also shown at complete random.
While this may have been a pure coincidence, I believe this actually makes Youtube’s algorithm a bit superior to those of its fellow platforms. Why? Because it’s infinitely closer to reality than a perfectly tailored algorithm. Community posts sear through your feed like someone cutting you off mid-sentence. Sometimes they’re extremely out of place. Sometimes they unexpectedly enlighten you. That unpredictability of the community post is a breath of fresh air amidst endless algorithms of sameness. I wouldn’t quite call it a utopian algorithm, but it’s as good as it’s gonna get, so I’ll take it.
Don’t get me wrong, algorithms are wonderful for a myriad of reasons; they connect us with likeminded people, create widely accessible communities, and frankly, show us a lot of what we want to see. But this can have a harmful impact on our worldview. If you live your life only consuming what appears pleasurable, what appeals to your interests and sensibilities, then your perception of reality is going to be adversely affected. The world does not exist for the sole purpose of our pleasure and enjoyment. So long as we remain conscious of the ways algorithms feed into our biases, we can keep them from tarnishing our sense of reality.