by Kerry Zagarella
I have already publicly confessed that I follow way too many social media reels, stories, posts and all the other rabbit holes that come my way. A group of babies conversing in baby babble complete with hand gestures and perfect inflections gets me every time; the obsession seems harmless. If I am getting tracked or defined by my love of baby humans practicing their beginning language skills or a gaggle of toddlers hugging each other repeatedly to make sure everyone gets hugged…so be it. What automated recommendations will come my way because of these adorable babies? Perhaps a variety of suggestions to put down my phone and get a life! Maybe. I don’t think I need to worry about the tracking of that particular personality footprint; but then again, how would I know?
We know our interests and consumer histories are being tracked by our phones. We are not even amazed anymore when our seemingly unengaged phone picks up on a friendly conversation about car rentals or miracle vitamins and later bombards us with these choices that it “overheard” while quietly scheming on a table nearby. Of course we all know that the internet is a vehicle for cradle to grave advertising. We are always viewed as consumers and receive tailor made posts based on our past internet click history. So, as always, buyers beware.
In the past few years social media sites, businesses and political movements have an increased interest in the effects of automated recommendations. ‘Researchers have found evidence that recommendation algorithms used by YouTube and Amazon can amplify conspiracy theories and pseudoscience’ (Wired March 2019). Many believe automated recommendations contribute to the widespread radicalization of citizens, as does Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for the New Yorker. Tolentiono shared the importance of ending automated recommendations on the February 2023 Daily Show episode, Breaking the Emotional Cycle of Social Media with Sarah Silverman. Jia suggests, “We are capable of generating pressure on lawmakers to end automated recommendations…they are the reason a mom of two in Cleveland is looking up smoothie recipes for her 2 year old and ends up believing that Wayfair is shipping orphans in their things.” So, as always, you can’t believe everything you read.
And of course, the impact of this technology is threatening and global. An article featured on the news feed of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs reports evidence that ‘the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin backed troll farm, was believed to have engaged in operations to interfere with the U.S. political and electoral process by creating fake American personas and disseminating false information during the 2016 elections.’ (Columbia SIPS March 2022)
It is overwhelming and hard to understand what an individual can do to fight this massive corporate driven machine. But on further introspection, can we figure out how we are influenced by the “influencers”? Those babbling babies are innocent enough. They are probably not trolling for information; to me, they just spread joy. But, I don’t “search” for joy on the internet. I typically click on items that are meant to improve my health and well being.
I have chronic insomnia due to two neurological movement disorders, so I often click on insomnia remedies. The results on my feed of my pursuit to find out more information or stay current with the latest sleep research is a constant barrage of assumptions and diagnoses. My feed is full of suggestions that perhaps I’m depressed or that there is a deeper hidden more menacing reason for my insomnia. I am also told that 2 weeks of interrupted sleep can lay the foundation for future brain malfunctions. Two weeks of interrupted sleep makes it impossible to function. I am well past 2 weeks, my week count is whatever 20 years of insomnia equals. I am still here.
As I age, I click on many sites that promote homemade remedies for moisturizing your skin, getting rid of wrinkles, getting rid of crimping, joint pain, weight gain, belly fat, supportive shoe suggestion that are cute, going gray gracefully and zillions of other “self help” searches. Innocent enough, it should actually be considered an act of empowerment to seek out home remedies and solutions. The algorithm should define me as a go-getter, a survivor, an independent woman who is seeking alternative solutions, a creative person. But what comes back to me in my feed is automated recommendations for a sad, overweight, aging, lonely, bored shell of a person. I just realized this; certainly I am late to the party. If I only search what I am “trying to fix” about myself, that will define what I see. I search worry and get it back twofold! I am not as worried as the algorithm defines, yet viewing this feed that contains all kinds of ailments I might consider IS depressing. So, I have to switch it up. I have the power to change my feed by searching for things I don’t worry about at all, or things I know about like, the positive power of laughter, friends, exercise, mother nature and of course a gaggle of toddlers in a hug fest.
We are in charge. We are in charge. We are in charge. We are in charge.
If I say it often enough, maybe my phone will believe me.