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Opinion – navigating algorithmic anxiety has become exhausting

As Instagram faces pressure to stop displaying only what it deems ‘most engaging’, it’s time we assessed the impact of engineered content that influences us in ways we’d otherwise steer clear of.

Fairly recently, I attended an event intended for likeminded people to gather and discuss their interests.

Situated in a remote part of the UK, phone signal was scarce (or so I thought) and I spent the day getting to know strangers by hearing them passionately share insights on topics I knew little about.

You’ll understand my surprise, therefore, when the next day I opened Instagram and was immediately confronted with an advertisement for something I had only learned existed 24 hours prior.

But we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Stopped in our tracks by the jarring realisation that our devices may indeed be listening to us.

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And no matter how many times we ask our apps not to monitor our activity, interacting online in 2022 still means being besieged by system-generated recommendations when all we truly want is to view our feeds the way we ourselves have curated them.

The most prominent example of this being Instagram’s decision over the years to move away from a chronologically ordered home page to instead favour content it deems ‘most engaging’ for users.

Negative pushback appears to finally be coming to a head as creators and scrollers alike put increased pressure on the platform to stop trying to mimic its main competitor and give us back an experience we authentically connect with.

Because, as I’m sure you’re aware, the machine estimations of our desires we must constantly contend with aren’t limited to the products we’re repeatedly pushed by manipulative marketing strategies.

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They also include the vast array of ‘suggested posts’ we’re bombarded with on a regular basis.

Exhausted by a combination of the two, many of us are now navigating what’s being referred to as ‘algorithmic anxiety,’ whereby the concern that technology is more in control of our choices than we are has amounted in a widespread reluctance to buy into it any longer.

Even the undisputedly influential Kardashians – largely considered to be at the core of digital culture due to their collective following of more than 1 billionshare this sentiment, taking to stories last week to vocalise their yearning for the Instagram of the past.

Although their input is the most likely to instigate change, however, Kim and Kylie aren’t the ones struggling to cope with the impact of social-information filtering. Rather those reliant on Instagram to get their names out there.

This is best explained by Jeremy D. Larson, who believes that Spotify’s algorithmic recommendations and automated playlists are draining the joy from listening to music by short-circuiting the process of organic discovery.

‘Even though it has all the music I’ve ever wanted,’ he wrote in an essay for Pitchfork, ‘none of it feels necessarily rewarding, emotional, or personal.’

It’s not difficult to imagine how independent creatives are feeling. Where once Instagram was well-known for aiding business growth, it now deters users and muddies our feeds with unpredictable content.

Not to mention that in order for creators to stand out amid relentless spam, they must resort to maximising SEO in ways that often seem non-transparent and put the rest of us off further.

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It’s already complicated enough trying to determine what we actually enjoy amidst all this algorithmic influence. Who wants to see blatantly promotional material when it’s hard to know if our behaviours are self-determined? The sense of manipulation can be overwhelming.

‘I’ve been on the internet for the last 10 years and I don’t know if I like what I like or what an algorithm wants me to like,’ says 23-year-old student, Valerie Peter.

‘All it really does is simplify my tastes, offering worse versions of things I like that have certain superficial similarities.’

Yet, the gravitational pull of major social networks is hard to overcome, hence why we keep finding ourselves mindlessly tapping away on Instagram despite the unhappiness we’ve expressed towards how it functions.

And forgive me for being cynical, but it isn’t as though we’d be able to escape it anyway given social media is quite literally built on showing us things we might have organically gravitated to ourselves.

‘Algorithms would not have the power they have without the floods of data that we voluntarily produce on sites that exploit our identities and preferences for profit,’ stresses Patricia de Vries, a research professor at Gerrit Rietveld Academie.

‘When we talk about “the algorithm,” we might be conflating recommender systems with online surveillance, monopolization, and the digital platforms’ takeover of all of our leisure time – in other words, with the entire extractive technology industry of the twenty-first century.’

So, until Instagram (and the several others at fault of following its lead) returns to its golden era by ceasing to churn out the algorithm-focused updates none of us asked for, I’d argue we’re right to be exhausted by the silent decisionmaker that offers practically no opportunity to communicate back.