Living With Algorithms

The internet has become pretty boring, if I’m being perfectly honest. Like most things that have been around for a while, you get to the point where if you’ve seen one thing, you’ve seen them all. Part of this is our natural tendency to become desensitized to things over time, but there is another aspect to how it all works that makes this phenomenon even worse. No matter how creative you might be, this thing makes it incredibly difficult to do anything innovative or new because the odds are if you aren’t adhering to it you won’t get noticed anyway. Of course, I’m talking about the almighty search algorithm.

There have always been gateways to content, so the internet isn’t really anything new in this regard. For most of history it was simply that getting anything published was nearly impossible because the technology for mass distribution wasn’t there. When we finally did learn how to spread information on a mass scale, it was up to the people who were able to print documents to decide what was worth putting to paper. In the last century, it was producers and book publishers who decided which ideas the public had access to. If your quality was good, your chances of success were fairly high because it was the work that determined your ability to get recognized.

This just isn’t the case anymore. With the ability for anyone to put anything out into the void that is the internet, there is just too much content out there for any one idea to rise up out of the murk solely on the merit of what it is. It is directly because of this that search algorithms were born, so that we simple humans can sift through nearly infinite information to find exactly what we’re looking for. As the programming has become more streamlined and intelligent, we don’t even really have to actively search for things anymore; the system does it for us.

While this is a blessing in many ways, it does have some unintended consequences that may not be worth the convenience. If you know anything about publishing content on the web, you are aware of the concept of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which is a set of principles that website developers follow to increase the chances of their content being recognized and displayed by the various algorithms being used by the major search engine providers. These rules govern how websites are ranked and judged, completely devoid of anything except the crunching of numbers.

This makes sense from a technical standpoint. With so much content out there, we definitely need a way of going through it all in a way that is much faster than what any human could ever do. Some sort of system is required to make it all work. The problem is that this is ruinous from a creativity standpoint because it forces those who do things like writing or making videos to conform to a single set of variables to get the best chance of their product reaching the intended audience. While it is certainly true that vast amounts of content will result in a certain amount repetition, it is this unavoidable conformity to the rules of the algorithm that causes the majority of so many videos feeling like the same old thing over and over.

As someone who doesn’t know enough about programming to even begin to tackle this problem, all I can do is complain about it with no solution. That’s not my favorite way of doing things; I was always taught to bring up a problem along with a proposed solution. The problem is that if people much smarter than I am can’t figure out a better way, what can I really add that would be meaningful? I’m sure there is a solution out there to the problem, but it likely won’t be figured out by those of us on the content side.

What makes all of this sad is that creators are at their best when they can simply focus on making good content rather than having to pigeon-hole their ideas into a single format. Quality will always suffer when it is forced into the assembly line process, and the algorithm has certainly converted what was once a free place to share ideas into a meat grinder of content. If you want to have any chance of getting noticed, you had better check all the boxes. It’s creativity by checklist, and how can we avoid boredom with that?

Like many things, technology has given us great things that has changed our lives, but sometimes the thing we come up with end up hurting us more in the end. While it’s great to have access to unlimited amounts of information, perhaps we should consider the idea that it’s all just an illusion. A lake might spread across the horizon, but if it’s only two feet deep then it isn’t much fun to swim in. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to have our cake and eat it too, being able to focus solely on content creation that is uniquely us while still getting the benefits of advanced search techniques, but until then we will simply have to live with the same old boring internet.

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