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Filterworld: how algorithms flattened culture
Chayka K., Doubleday, New York, NY, 2024. 304 pp. Type: Book (9780385548281)
Date Reviewed: Jun 21 2024

Kyle Chayka describes “Filterworld” as “the vast, interlocking, and yet diffuse network of algorithms that influences our lives today.” This book is a personal memoir and sociological/anthropological exploration of Filterworld and how Filterworld persists in changing everyday life. There is only a short discussion about how the algorithms work on a nuts-and-bolts technical level, just enough to inform the reader of what the algorithms are counting.

The effects of these networks of algorithms constitute a big enough story on their own. The algorithms are designed to provide as much individualized treatment of users as technically possible by the corporations using them to maximize profits by marketing on a micro level. If a vendor can present sales opportunities individualized to the user, then more sales can be made, and clients can be charged according to views of the advertisement and according to sales originating from the advertisement. In contrast, general media (including newspapers, magazines, TV shows, and radio programs) broadcast advertising with much less targeting. With a more general customer base, it can be expected that most people will have no interest in the product or service. Microtargeting through algorithms, however, is a way of reducing losses and costs of advertising to those who may never be customers.

This book is divided into six numbered chapters and both an introduction and a conclusion that stand separately. All eight units are required reading. The introduction gives an overview of what Filterworld is, its general features, and its effect of flattening culture. The first numbered chapter describes what an algorithm is, with specific focus on algorithmic decision making, recommendation algorithms and their presence in social media, and the anxiety that pervades the community of content providers as they try to meet the algorithms’ standards of success. The second chapter is on the disruption of personal taste--how the algorithms’ dynamics lead to the homogenization of tastes and the resulting superficiality and sameness of content. That which is the most popular becomes the standard; the content providers succeed, and everything else falls by the wayside. Netflix and Spotify are used as examples. Global effects are treated in the third chapter using the sameness of coffee shops, tourism recommendations, and success in AirBnB rentals to illustrate the flatness and homogeneity of expectations on every continent.

The fourth chapter is on the phenomenon of “influencers.” Influencers are more than salespersons. They enter as providers of content, and they are often part of the content themselves. That is how they start out and become influencers. Then, because they are well known, they can market sponsors’ products and services. Essentially, they are celebrities who are famous for being well known. Yet to remain influencers they must continue to provide the same kind of content as always. Their continued evaluation in the marketplace means that there is no opportunity for any reflective creativity. Just keep on doing what is expected to get you where you are today. The Red Queen must run as fast as she can to stay in place.

The fifth chapter turns to the problem of taming Filterworld by regulation. The author begins this chapter with the story of Molly Russell, whose depression and suicide can be blamed on the reinforcing feeds provided by algorithms on social media. The issues here encompass the monopolistic structure of social media and the lack of transparency on how the algorithms work. Chayka reviews the approaches of the European Union (EU) and the US, and the problems and limitations in their respective societies. The sixth chapter contrasts the automated behavior of algorithmic promotion and human curation of content. He begins the chapter with his decision to temporarily withdraw from social media and live very deliberately. He describes several cases in which human curation of content can be successful in a business sense and can enrich the user’s experience and knowledge. Human curation requires much more work, both from the curator and from the user who must affirmatively engage with the content.

Since I am not a consumer of social media (no Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Spotify, or Netflix in my life), most of what Chayka describes was completely new to me. No one can escape algorithmic recommendations, even if the only likely places of contact are with news feeds. What I might see on a Yahoo or Google news feed will differ from what my wife sees. We each get what the algorithm believes we may be interested in. His presentation includes personal experiences (and frustrations), the results of his personal research, and reports from his friends and acquaintances. The material is all very serious, but written with the grace of a friend talking about his experiences over coffee.

More reviews about this item: Amazon, Amazon, The New York Times

Reviewer:  Anthony J. Duben Review #: CR147781
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