You may not be familiar with the algorithm, but the algorithm's sure familiar with you.
Instagram’s Search Page sets the actual search bar at the very top, but it’s overshadowed by the social media site’s suggested images and reels. The creators are ones you’re not already following; your friends follow them, or Instagram has served up the mix based on your gender, age, location, and interests.
The TikTok FYP (For Your Page) begins with the standard, most popular, trending videos. Some of the most followed accounts include @khaby.lame’s reactions and Charli D'Amelio’s dances.
Once TikTok takes into account what you search, what you interact with, and even how long you stay to watch a video, they start pulling in more niche content. And that’s how you can end up on anything from BookTok to FormerLDSMembersTok.
The algorithms aren’t perfect; I’m not currently interested in children, but being a 30-year-old woman with pregnant friends, I’m served pregnancy and new mom content constantly. For me, this is just inaccurate. For some, like those who have spent months looking at baby content only to lose the child, it can be downright painful.
I spent one day looking at bulldogs, and soon enough every single video eventually became bulldog-related – even if I refused to interact with it or scrolled away quickly.
The content we consume is selected for us, based on our previous interests, even if our life expands beyond that.
In Amanda Mull’s piece for The Atlantic, she posits that The Devil Wears Prada icon, Miranda Priestly, is the last of her kind; a celebrated curator.
In Priestly’s most famous speech, she details how Andy’s non-fashionable cerulean sweater is not a statement against fashion, but in fact an emblem of everything Priestly works so hard for.
“When you take creative decisions out of the hands of actual humans, some funny stuff starts to happen. For most of the 20th century, designing clothes for mass consumption was still dependent in large part on the ideas and creative instincts of individuals…the process relied on human taste and judgment.”
Today? Trends come and go so quickly that major curators can’t keep up. When Chinese fast fashion manufacturer Shein can pump out 7,000 new items a month, they can capitalize on any little trend anywhere; Priestly becomes obsolete because her timeline is too long.
In a July op-ed for The New York Times, Ross Douthat, author of The Decadent Society, sees this glut of information across industries, including the music industry. “The new music market is actually shrinking,” says Ted Gioia, author of Music: A Subversive History. “The largest investments in music are the acquisition of old publishing catalogs, while almost nothing is spent developing new artists.”
'80's nostalgia vehicle, Stranger Things' use of Kate Bush's 1985 single, Running Up That Hill launched it to number 1 on Spotify and the global charts. Even if you didn't watch the show, the song became inescapable for the first half of the summer.
When the cyclical algorithm keeps recommending old content - fashion trends from 20 years ago, beats from 50 years ago - why create anything new? It won’t be seen.
Big data isn’t inevitable. It draws from everything that already exists, and everything is created by humans — highly flawed creatures. In the face of algorithm suggestions, we may start to go off the path altogether – sick of the new trends that look like the old trends, the new shows that feel like the old ones, the new music that sounds like the old stuff.
Humans always have and always will create no matter if TikTok's or Instagram’s algorithm finds it is irrelevant.