No one waits for Cyber Monday to launch the internet’s biggest holiday shopping surge anymore.
We start shopping on Black Friday and don’t stop until our Santa’s bags of holiday goodies are full. But when the online shopping is done, do you ever look back at the choices you made and wonder how many were yours and how many were made by online algorithms? Do you ever look when the online choices are not about holiday gifts?
I have and I’m starting to hate these algorithms.
There is, as I see it, a fundamental flaw in the technology designed to serve up things we might like. They are based entirely on past choices and activities and leave zero room for improvisation and unpredictability.
Just because I once liked roller blades doesn’t mean I still do and has little relation to my future mobility choices. And my interest in books written by comedians does not mean that’s all I want to read.
And this isn’t limited to online retailers. Netflix steers me toward superhero content because that’s what I have watched in the past (and, yes, will watch in the future).
Sure, these algorithms know me, they know me so, so well. But they also see me as a sort of static being, my tastes are my tastes. Except I’m not a robot. I change all the time and sometimes to my surprise.
For years, I would eat quiche from the store and thought it was just meh. Then my wife made it from scratch. Now I’m a quiche person. No algorithm could have predicted that.
Choose this, not that
Even when services promise choice and variety, they eventually try to herd you into a more mundane existence.
When I bought my wife a Birchbox subscription a few years ago, she was entertained by the endless variety of odd beauty samples that showed up in her mailbox each month. But Birchbox’s site wants to use any action she takes on the samples to narrow her choices. It assumes that since she said she liked this, but took no action on that, that she wants more of this and less of that.
Eventually, every Birchbox will be filled with the same kinds of products.
I admit, it’s easier to just let the algorithm search and choose your next handbag, movie, shirt, hat, video game, car, house, friend or mate. Some would even argue that these are the smart choices, not the lazy ones.
All these lists of algorithm-driven, cherry-picked “choices,” though, make me nervous that I’m missing the magic of serendipity. My previous decisions potentially shielding me from the undiscovered country, from things I didn’t know I would like until I tried them.
Increasingly, when I see “selected for you” I ignore it and start my own randomness hunt. On Amazon, this means letting myself be swayed by book cover art and then won over by the description.
When I want to watch something new on Netflix, I ignore the suggestions and scan through, well, everything. I’ll admit, sometimes this doesn’t go so well, but at least I’m making my own choices.
More than just shopping
Isn’t funny that most of us can recognize that Facebook has us each trapped in our own confirmation bubble, but don’t see the same when we accept choices made for us on countless retail and subscriptions sites?
Even Twitter, which is more of an open platform has a similar problem. If you select a celebrity or actor in your favorite TV series to follow, it immediately serves up all the other actors from the same show. This is not a problem, but if you stick with these suggestions, you’ll end up with a certain kind of rather specific feed.
If we continue to follow the choices made for us on social, services, subscription and retail sites, we will all soon be living a very vanilla life. Our friends will be the same kinds of people, our social feeds will offer just one point of view and our gift-giving will surprise no one.
It is time to stand up and say, “You don’t know me. You don’t know the full person I am or the one aspire to be. You don’t know my future any more than I do. The choices you’ve made for me are just that, choices. I choose none and instead choose to make my own. I want to be my own person, whatever that person may be.”
These algorithms are not going away. They will keep watching and promise to get smarter and smarter. They will be inescapable.
But I do have a suggestion for the programmers: build in at least 25 percent X factor. Let the algorithms embrace our habits and tastes and strive to expand our horizons by introducing us to things that match none of our attributes or previous actions.
Doing this will make all our holiday shopping (maybe even our lives) a little more interesting and, perhaps, bring back a little balance to the universe