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Examining the growing movement against the algorithms that control our lives


Have you gotten a recommendation from, say, Netflix or Spotify or Amazon and hated it? Well, you have company. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports on a growing movement against the algorithms that control our online lives.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Tyler Bainbridge is a former Meta engineer who lives in Brooklyn. During the pandemic, he started to get what he calls big tech doom settle over his day-to-day work.

TYLER BAINBRIDGE: When you work at a big company like Facebook, you know, your whole day is like, some product manager is telling you to move a button four pixels to the right because 2% of users click it more. There's no soul behind that.

ALLYN: Increasingly, he felt like there was also no soul behind the way most people use the internet, by scrolling social media, logging onto Spotify, Netflix and YouTube, falling down rabbit holes on TikTok. He realized he felt trapped in online platforms that kept pushing more and more hyperpersonalized recommendations.

BAINBRIDGE: You need more opportunities to exit your algorithm and kind of glimpse into someone else's point of view.

ALLYN: To escape the ever-present algorithms, he recently launched a social media site. The name is a mouthful, pi.fyi. The PI stands for Perfectly Imperfect. That's a buzzy newsletter he launched in the pandemic. Using the social media app feels like a slower, less chaotic and more intimate version of Twitter. You're prompted to answer questions like - what did you read last week? - and a small group of friends chime in. There's no algorithms or popularity contests. Bainbridge says the site is a protest against what he calls algorithmic culture.

BAINBRIDGE: The need to share is universal. My mom can go on the app and recommend shepherd's pie, and it doesn't feel out of place next to a downtown New Yorker talking about a new band that they like.

ALLYN: Bainbridge isn't alone. New Yorker journalist Kyle Chayka recently published the book "Filterworld" that examines how platforms and algorithms are changing culture and society. He says newsletters where one person makes recommendations or websites where people can directly consume and support a musician or artist's work are growing in popularity. And the old is becoming new again, which is just going to a local bookstore or record store and asking for a suggestion.

KYLE CHAYKA: Over the course of the 2010s, we've just been so overexposed to recommendations and manipulated so much by these feeds that we've realized they're not actually delivering what we want.

ALLYN: Of course, algorithm doesn't have to be a dirty word. Without them, it's easy to become paralyzed by choice. What movie to stream, what article to read, what album to play, it's pretty overwhelming.

ANANYA SEN: Algorithms actually, you know, potentially simplify our lives.

ALLYN: Ananya Sen is a professor at Carnegie Mellon who studies algorithms. He says it's easy to grow frustrated that yet again, Netflix is suggesting "When Harry Met Sally..." or YouTube is again pushing a three-year-old "SNL" skit that you're really not interested in watching.

SEN: I think what people might be getting slightly tired of are recommender systems that are trained on your past browsing behavior and give you more of the same.

ALLYN: More of the same, that's what people online are complaining about. And it makes sense because algorithms serve up recommendations based on a vast amount of data the AI has gathered on you. If you like this, well, then you might like this. This is true when we listen to podcasts, read articles, shop online, use social media. It's everywhere. Often the machines push us into narrow boxes or lead us into echo chambers - or worse, they lead to boredom.

CHAYKA: The algorithm, quote-unquote, works one way for everyone.

ALLYN: Again, The New Yorker's Chayka.

CHAYKA: It would be great if I could tell my Spotify algorithm to surprise me more or give me more weird stuff or longer music or whatever, but right now we just don't have that option at all.

ALLYN: Chayka says if you want weirder music, you're better off staying away from Spotify. He says find a DJ who plays a genre of music you like and listen to one of their sets online. It's a human, not a machine, so you might just be surprised.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUANTIC'S "TIME IS THE ENEMY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.