Algorithms are destroying our communities and what can we, or I, do about it?

There needs to be a better way to Internet

Maybe it’s because 2020 gave me many opportunities to think through the implications of which technology companies I’m quite beholden too, or maybe it’s because 2020 brought to light so many of the unhealthy business practices so many technology companies are embroiled in, but I’ve been trying to make big changes in my lifestyle in response to either, or both - because I believe that tech company algorithms are destroying marriages, friendships, families, and communities. I believe our privacy is important.

Social Media

I find so much connection and joy in the social elements of the web today, be it Facebook or Instagram, Twitter or YouTube, but I’m increasingly aware that anything more than a passing view into any of these portals is unhealthy for my soul, and an increasingly unhealthy place to “spend my data.”

I feel less and less comfortable with having my friendships, interests, politics, faith, and philosophy influenced by algorithms.

There’s a real tension here because I enjoy publishing and broadcasting stories - my own, my family’s, my friend’s, and the stories in my greater circle of life - plus I love listening to and reading your stories.

There’s just an inherently unhealthy aspect to a non-human deciding what you should hear about from your community.

Podcasting

I have a 25 year love story with the audio storytelling medium. It was 1996 when Paul McDermott, Mikey Robbins, and the Sandman were on Triple J for Breakfast and I feel in love with the idea of telling stories and entertainment purely through audio - no pictures, no words, no video.

As we skipped into a new millennium Dave Winer invented really simple syndication, RSS, and Adam Curry and Cameron Reilly started making podcasts, I witnessed the democratisation of audio away from broadcast radio despite forming and then walking away from a career in the artform.

Today as I witness Spotify and Amazon work hard at putting podcasts behind data-collecting, algorithm-driven, firewalls I honestly feel sad for the loss of the open industry of podcasting. I’m not saying all podcasts should be free. I personally pay for a number of podcasts, I’m just saying we should be able to access them without sacrificing personal freedoms, liberties, and without sharing excesses of personal data like what podcasts I listen to, which ones I listen all the way through, and the ideas algorithms can derive from that data.

Our entertainment and our information should be democratically available and curated by people, not by algorithms.

News, information, and articles

If you search on Google today for “The first podcast” you’ll see Google News articles for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s first podcast episode.

Our news and information, our thought-pieces and studies, our stories and anecdotes deserve better than being submitted to an algorithmic in the hopes that the mathematics decide they’re worth being read.

Communication

I don’t like the idea of the algorithms feeding me news, information, funny videos, and podcasts, to also be reading my messages and communications between people I love.

Photos

I have so much love for the art of photography. I would love you to enjoy my photos, and even more so I’d love to enjoy your viewport to the world. Maybe some of mine can hang on your wall as art, and vice-versa.

But I don’t want Facebook, Google, and Amazon to degrade that experience, and worse, abuse it for their own data-gathering needs about where we all were, and what we did.

Hardware

I don’t use Google Android phones because I don’t trust Google to run an operating system I could trust, and I use Apple computers because of the opposite, I enjoy knowing that my data is mostly processed locally - not in a data-overlord’s cloud. It’s an expensive choice, but until I know any better, I’m using Apple computers and mobile phones.

Entertainment

So many TVs today are selling our viewing data to advertising companies, and purely because Amazon and Google’s names sre in the product title, the Chromecast and Fire sticks are products I don’t trust.

The fix?

I’m leaning back into the open web, reading blogs on people’s own websites like mine where you’re reading this to hear my friend’s and family’s stories, listening to open podcasts that are available to whoever would like to listen to them, articles and news organisations. I’m communicating via phone call, iMessage, and email - not via comment fields and discussion boards, or if I am commenting and replying to posts I want to do it on a social network whose business model is clear and open, like Micro.Blog. Instead of waiting for entertainment, information, news, and articles to be recommended by an algorithm, I would like to see it in my RSS reader, or even better, see you link to it from your blog, and if I want you to read it, I can link to it from mine. I’m taking my photos back from Google and Facebook and sinking them deep into Apple Photos because I feel like I can trust them to be stored safely and enjoyed beautifully there.

I’m not insisting that my choices are the only and best, but with what I know today, and with the resources I have, and what I’d like to do and enjoy, I think these are pretty good choices.

Why should we care?

I’m writing all this so I might encourage you to come with me. I love the idea of us not talking over Facebook Messenger, and finding out about your pregnancy via an Instagram Story. I relish the idea of you listening to a podcast and thinking I might enjoy it so you share it with me. I dream of a day where local news and information is broadcast and published without fear of it not performing well in the news feed or without generating enough advertising revenue.

I hope for a day where the internet and our relationships live harmoniously - not in fear of each other.

We might never get there, but we can try.

Josh Withers @joshua