The Digital Death of Collecting
September 24, 2021 2:47 PM   Subscribe

How platforms mess with our tastes. In the era of algorithmic feeds, it’s as if the bookshelves have started changing shape on their own in real time, shuffling some material to the front and downplaying the rest like a sleight-of-hand magician trying to make you pick a specific card — even as they let you believe it’s your own choice. (Substack) (Previous Kyle Chayka posts.)

(Taneleer Tivan could not be reached for comment.)
posted by gusottertrout (30 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Have been having similar conversations with my friends: one of the traditional hallmarks of adulthood was in mastering ones’ environment and the tools one uses consistently. Apps changing their interfaces and/or sorting things to their own design without choice or notice creates a repetitive sense of anger in everyone I’ve had this conversation with, and I believe adds to a raised sense of general anxiety . Adulthood = competency in ones’ personal environment.

I am equally torqued at Audible who has decided to auto-play books after the ones I own end. Again - a decision I cannot turn off. I listen to certain books over and over again to aid certain meditative practices. I do not want what Audible has decided I should also want to listen to. If there was any way I could port all of my books to a different platform, I would it is so unwanted and distasteful.

This is a major pain point in my life right now. I look forward to the discussion.

Edit: re-learning or re-organizing a system I have already devoted far too much time to learn and set up takes important time away from me actually learning something new or addressing some other aspect of my life that needs my time and devotion . Stop doing this.
posted by Silvery Fish at 3:28 PM on September 24, 2021 [43 favorites]

I just got some new shelves and have been thinking about this sort of thing. I finally have enough space to take all my books back out of boxes and put them in whatever idiosyncratic order feels right to me. It's such a pleasure to be able to do this. And a subtle, unrealized pleasure to have to make that decision every time I buy a new book and put it on the shelf - even if it just goes in the space for "I'll put it where it belongs when I have enough books piled up here to spend some time reorganizing the shelves".

For a while I was mostly reading stuff on the Kindle app and all of those books are such a pain to look through; I can scroll through the giant pile of everything I've ever bought on it (that Amazon hasn't retroactively decided they cant sell), I can look at a few collections I made in it, or I can use 'search' if I can remember the name well enough to find it. But natively they just want to be in the order I last accessed them, with fiction and referenced jumbled up awkwardly. And with an interface that keeps on trying to get me to buy the best-sellers that I'd walk right past on my way into a physical bookstore.

A few years back I decided I didn't want to give any more money to Amazon and half-assedly started trying to migrate those files out but dealing with Calibre to do this and put them into iBooks or Libby or whatever felt like Work and it never happened; all those books are in a weird netherworld now. If I want to look at them I have to open up an app that I quit using mostly because I got tired of its home screen always having Trump's angry eyes glaring out from a bookcover that was a best-seller when they added "hey check out some best-sellers" to the home screen, and I really just do not want to go anywhere I might have stupid Donald Trump glaring at me again any time soon.
posted by egypturnash at 4:07 PM on September 24, 2021 [11 favorites]

When you pass off what were essentially personal decisions to some faceless corporation that promises to provide things that it knows you like, then what do you expect? Do you really believe that you are so simple that just a few clicks here and there can be AIed into some comprehensive profile of your evolution and growth as an individual that a machine can know who and what you are? And thus provide you with what you really need and desire at any time when you may need and desire something? This essay expressed a lot of my own feelings regarding how culture is experienced now.

In a recent thread about books I encountered the ongoing ageism that exists on Metafilter. It always revolves around the idea that only old people like physical books and music media. Liking such things implies that you are old. And old does not necessarily imply age, as it is used in a very negative way as if there is now something wrong with you and that’s why you like these things. Owning books and music is not the same thing as owning skateboards and hats.

The things you read and listen to can become part of yourself. And putting these parts of yourself in the hands of an anonymous profit driven organization is putting yourself at risk. And as the author of this article said, it is putting yourself into a very passive situation, just being a consumer. And given the immensity and range of human culture in this world, I’m not about to just sit around and wait for some god damn app to tell me that I might like this…
posted by njohnson23 at 4:21 PM on September 24, 2021 [12 favorites]

I fell asleep last night watching something really nerdy and boring on YouTube and woke up to Dances with Wolves playing of all the damnable things, and that's one of the milder encounters of note with The Algorithm.

I can't count the number of times I've accidentally left autoplay on and woke up to some seriously fucked up alt-right garbage playing and punditing right in my ear and I have to go and delete my browsing history and block a bunch of totally fucked up channels and go salted earth on blocking and un-recommending a bunch of stuff, and even then it takes a while for it to filter out of my recommendations.

As near as I can figure the progression for this is "Oh, you like watching nerdy teardown and repair videos as well as Forgotten Weapons and other history and science channels? You'll probably love Prager U, Jordan Peterson or Joe Rogan!"

I try to remember to turn off Autoplay and just load up a few videos in a temporary cue so I can get bored to sleep properly and then it stops and leaves me alone and doesn't try to brainwash me in my sleep with that dumb shit.

I can't help but notice and observe that it never, ever ends up "accidentally" playing something more liberal or leftist. It never trends towards "Hey, here's some calming nature videos!" or even anything about LGTBQ/GSM issues or channels, or even just plain old science channels like Veritasium, Periodic Table of Videos or even Smarter Every Day.

I also can't help notice that no matter how many times I click "don't recommend this channel" they still show up in the side bar and autoplay recommendations, and I've tested this against some other "blank" accounts I use on YouTube and the alt-right garbage just shows up even sooner than on my main account where I spend way too much time cracking a whip at it to behave and stop recommending that garbage.

If I leave YouTube on autoplay it pretty much always ends up trending deep into modern right wing and alt-right politics or I get woken up by random gunfire and range videos from gun/weapons channels with heavy political commentary. It's never, ever Fran Labs, Codyslab or NilesRed or something I actually like.

It also never, ever recommends anything from the dozens and dozens of electronic and ambient music channels I subscribe to that are the bulk of my subscriptions. It would be so, so nice if I woke up to some ambient music instead of the disturbing shit I've been offered instead.

At this point I would question reality if this actually happened and I woke up to some Biosphere, The Orb, Nils Frahm or Richard H. Kirk playing softly instead of some jackass JAQing off in my ears.

For fuck's sake, I'd rather be woken up by a vintage happy hardcore DJ set at 3 in the morning than most of the disgusting and stupid shit it gets into when left unattended.
posted by loquacious at 4:29 PM on September 24, 2021 [35 favorites]

I mean, old media was also curated by those who profited off it. I was so happy as a teenage when we got a "Modern Rock" station I could listen to in the car (97X!). So I got to discover lots of songs that I never would've hear on the Top 40 or Oldies or Classic Rock stations. But it was still a commercial station trying to play songs that would find a broad audience. Same with record stores: you could find some pretty obscure stuff even in the middle of Ohio. But by this measure of "obscure" it was still bands who had gotten on a label.

I do miss the thrill of the hunt in record shops and used bookstores (to be fair, I could still hunt used books pretty effectively, but I ran out of bookshelf years ago), but it's also nice to have so much so available.
posted by rikschell at 4:40 PM on September 24, 2021 [4 favorites]

I have been engaged in a sporadic boycott against the Youtube algorithm and Youtube in general by downloading mp3s via my public library's subscription to Freegal Music which permits 5 downloads a week. There are "playlists" featured on the landing page for my library's Freegal, which usually consists of random other libraries' themed playlists -- back to school, Hispanic Heritage month, etc. But I'll admit sometimes I am looking for music I first heard on Youtube. I don't always find it (the search function is not the best, who knows how the licensing works, and not all tracks are available for download, some are only for streaming), but they have a pretty wide range of music, from Calle 13 to Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, BTS to Clipse. I encourage you to check it out and see if your local library has access.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:31 PM on September 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

But uh, yeah, back to the actual essay, I love tangible objects to arrange. My car, manufactured in 2013, has a cd player. And I've just gone to town with the used cds. I got CD albums from Daiso (labeled "animal face cd case" - I have the panda and the frog and I swear I didn't just spend 8 minutes looking for an example on the internet) and have stuffed them full of actual cds. It's grand. I realized in the pandemic that I need visual, spatial cues more than textual, time-based ones.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:37 PM on September 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

If there was any way I could port all of my books to a different platform

You may find Open Audible to be of interest. (I have not used it recently but at least in the past it did what it says on the tin.)
posted by Not A Thing at 6:21 PM on September 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

@Not A Thing — thank you for the recommendation. At this point, I’d much rather back up everything and then play it through anything other than Audible. I’ll give this a try.
posted by Silvery Fish at 7:14 PM on September 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Getting aggressively fed more stuff that's like stuff you've already been fed, on the spurious grounds that what you've already been fed is the kind of thing you like, is something that's been happening since Spotify first appeared in 2006.

The loss of autonomy inherent in that system is yet another of the extremely good reasons why for the last ten years I have been acquiring the overwhelming majority of the digital media I consume in standards-compliant formats via BitTorrent, hoarding all of it on storage that I own, and valuing that slight speed bump of inconvenience involved in manually curating what gets transferred onto portable device(s) running clean, frill-free player software when I want to take music with me.

I have no desire whatsoever to outsource management of my taste in music or film to some mindless robot, especially one run by a private corporation that is in no way accountable to me. Also, streaming is the stupidest way to use Internet bandwidth and DRM-encumbered media are the stupidest thing to stream.

I want no part of any of the shitty new streamed-from-silos media landscape. If you want me to pay you for your music, stick it up on Bandcamp so I can get a hassle-free FLAC download of it for a fair price without jumping through stupid, stupid hoops.

Old, neo-Luddite and proud.
posted by flabdablet at 8:49 PM on September 24, 2021 [19 favorites]

I tried to replicate having a physical album collection by buying and downloading albums on Google Play and Amazon, then adding them to a playlist in the Google Play Music app. I had a tablet specifically for holding this collection. I could scroll through the digital albums just like browsing physical ones. But then Google in its wisdom decided to destroy my collection by making the Google Play Music app not exist any more. Who would have thought they would do that? It had seemed like a pretty major app. Now I can't even remember which albums were in the collection, so I just never listen to them any more. It's too much work to redownload the whole collection, considering it's split between two digital music stores, and the full albums are mixed in with hundreds of individual tracks with no way to filter them out.
posted by mokey at 5:21 AM on September 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

as well as Forgotten Weapons

Forgotten Weapons, C&RSenal, and other channels with militaria or guns are for incognito browser windows only.

Which won't help you if you want to fall asleep to something and not wake up to some whiteboy yelling about the race war, but will mostly help keep your main feed clean. I don't know how much google spies on what you do in incognito windows -- it's not nothing, because I do get FW popping up in my main feed occasionally, but that doesn't happen very often.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:46 AM on September 25, 2021

I am the definition of slow adopter, and barely use ebooks or streaming because it always seemed such a hassle. (And it's not just age, plenty of people my age do use them). I guess I felt from the beginning a fear of someone else holding on to that stuff for me. Never trusted it.

Someone mentioned upthread that in the physical media only era, choice was pretty limited. And that reminds me that the promise of the internet was access: music and books and art you could never get to see otherwise. Has that been borne out? I know lots of museums have digitized their collections, there's the Gutenberg project and so on. But can you freely download rare music or movies or are rights policing algorithms in your way? I think it's probably mixed.
posted by emjaybee at 7:22 AM on September 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

The lost art of curating a collection, by me, in 2011.

I have kind of recreated my music collection in Pandora, but I still buy an MP3 download of any album I listen to more than a few times. At home, I listen to MP3s sitting on my PC, Pandora is for convenience when not at my desktop. Yes, I know about Plex, but it's a PITA at times. Streaming is really great for previewing new stuff before deciding if it deserves a place in my collection.
posted by COD at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2021

Do you really believe that you are so simple that just a few clicks here and there can be AIed into some comprehensive profile of your evolution and growth as an individual that a machine can know who and what you are?

They don't even try to know who you "really" are though. If you read the interviews with the tech folks, what they actually do is try to figure out which of a few rabbit holes you are demographically closest to, and funnel you into one of those so you'll spend more time on the site.
posted by subdee at 8:02 AM on September 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

They describe algorithmic recommendation as "tilting the floor" - a few people with the time and attention spans can resist the tilted floor, most people and ESPECIALLY most young children will just roll down the tilted floor and into the rabbit holes waiting at the bottom.
posted by subdee at 8:04 AM on September 25, 2021 [12 favorites]

Who would have thought they would do that?

Me. I would have thought they would do exactly that.

In fact my general expectation is that any tech outfit with any kind of non-standards-based unique selling proposition will do that, probably at the worst possible moment for most of its customers livestock.

The foundational principle of my entire tech life is that vendor lock-in is to be assiduously avoided even at quite considerable convenience cost, especially when the convenience it's going to cost me is convenience I've already been quite contentedly living without for decades. It's a principle that continues to serve me well.
posted by flabdablet at 9:22 AM on September 25, 2021 [6 favorites]

I really, truly, honestly only buy actual physical media (except in the rare case when I'm buying something on Bandcamp where no physical media's been released - but only Bandcamp, no other outlets).

I have been suspicious of things disappearing from streamed services since before Amazon took 1984 off people's devices. I want to OWN what I own.

I am also keenly attuned to right of first sale, and to the right to pass on my media (used books, especially) to others if I don't want them anymore.

It makes curation a pleasure, too, something that serves me rather than a corporation - there is nothing in my collection that I didn't put there, but I can still shuffle things a million ways, and do fun things like play all the songs with "trees" in the title or all the songs that are 4 minutes and 33 seconds long on John Cage's birthday.

For discovering new music and video and books, I read MetaFilter or post on AskMe or go to specific sites (Rotten Tomatoes, NPR Book Concierge) to recommend things I might like.

I actually loved the IDEA of algorithms suggesting things, way back when Firefly was a new idea from MIT. It's a shame they've been corrupted so thoroughly, and made so utterly ineffective, by the major players using them today.

But since they're so terrible, I disable them wherever I have the option, and ignore them when they turn up anyway.
posted by kristi at 2:46 PM on September 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm not a fan of The Algorithm, but as somebody who grew up in the cultural desert that was Pinochet's Chile, having a large part of the world's creative output at my literal fingertips, without having to scour small second hand bookstores or record shops that won't have what I'm looking for anyway or ordering from Amazon and paying more for shipping than the actual book or CD is worth and then waiting patiently a few weeks or more in the hope that they'll arrive and I won't have to go to some government office to pay another 100% in import tax, is well, I'll take it.
I get that many people who live in or near material abundance and gratification develop a fondness for its physical expression and display, but for those of us in the larger part of the world who don't enjoy such blessings, digital works just fine, thank you.
posted by signal at 3:51 PM on September 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

That seems to conflate digital with streaming, signal, where The Algorithm is built into streaming much more than it's built into digital per se. Also it seems to me that streaming is more vulnerable under dictatorships, where sneaking digital stuff maybe isn't?
posted by clew at 5:01 PM on September 25, 2021 [5 favorites]

I quite like listening to full albums that Co trast each other. I would love if spotify's interface was more like a spreadsheet that let me apply filters to every metatag category. It's hard also to organize the music I like.
posted by rebent at 8:50 PM on September 25, 2021

I posted the article because I thought it touched on a few details that don't get mentioned as much around digital "collections", like the physicality of one's owned objects versus digital and how the changes in a site can cause a change in one's relationship to the things you are collecting, as well as the more emphasized algorithm aspect, which is still obviously important.

But my own feelings on it all are complicated, agreeing with much of the article, but, as some have mentioned here, also appreciating some of the advantages digital collections bring, even including some appreciation for things like the youtube algorithm. Since I don't have much in the way of disposable income, my "collecting" is mostly just in searching youtube for stuff to watch or listen to and I've come to find the algorithm they use as workable to get things I'm interested in, no doubt because I'm not interested in anything too specific other than seemingly outside the more common searches. I want to say I've found it a somewhat pleasing challenge to "train" the algorithm to get what I might be interested in, as I do manage to get the kinds of results I hope for, broadly speaking, but it's more that the algorithm has trained me to work with it to avoid the traps I can see that will prevent my successes while not seeing what I'm missing that it doesn't provide.

In a like fashion, even when there is success, seeing how the youtube algorithm affects my other searches or just how info is presented to me on things like google news, reinforces my concerns over its construction, while seeing how other people who are happy enough in their searching respond to the sites reminds me of what is being transferred to machine learning in that pleasure. Looking at youtube comments, even when they are all positive, often feels like browsing a used record store where previous visitors left sticky notes on their impressions of the albums from across the years, with only a "like" button or short back and forth to stand in for conversation.

And in the same way, the very nature of browsing feels like it is altering the way one engages with music or whatever, where it is just immediate impressions that are given importance before one is urged to move on to the next thing and give an opinion about that. That is for those who browse, where there is always so much more to see or hear right on the sidebar, that sticking to one thing for long can feel like a loss of future possibilities. For those who want just one thing, then the algorithm can provide that too in seemingly endless arrays of near duplication. Both of those are machine driven issues that have associated costs and some benefits too, like so much of the rest of the internet driven changes in how we interact with each other and our culture. I don't have a good answer as to how I feel about it all because the change is so widespread and deeply accepted as just the way things are now, that even trying to parse alternatives or what is being lost and gained seems to already be counter to the era in ways that no longer make sense. Something I continually have to struggle with as someone who can't communicate in short single paragraphs, which puts me at odds with the smart phone era.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:26 PM on September 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

I still use iTunes, filled with music I either bought or, uh, acquired, and I like it way better than Spotify.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 9:11 AM on September 26, 2021

Same with iTunes and the music I bought or, uh, acquired.

I’m growing to dread each update to iOS and macOS, though. The original article mentions the alienating effect of streaming services rearranging their interfaces or methods of accessing your “collection” in order to push you toward their own preferences. It won’t be long before Apple finds it intolerable that I’m not subscribed to Apple Music and begins degrading the non-Apple Music experience as a means of encouragement, either through the kind of interface changes this article describes or an increasing amount of passive neglect. After upgrading to iOS 15 a few days ago, I had to re-decline Six Months Free of Apple Music, and I had to do it again after using my Powerbeats Pro headphones with iOS 15. (And yeah, there are other programs for managing digital music, but I like the data in my existing library, so.)
posted by chimpsonfilm at 9:39 AM on September 26, 2021

The non streaming aspect of iTunes / have been degrading quite happily for years now. I am in the process of not so much disentangling from it, but of securing my chaotic collection from it's whims. I think the turning point was when "Remove Download" which happily trashes a lossless file that Match only has a 256k copy of, became the top entry in the right click menu for a track, and easily accidentally selected when the interface decides to take a breather (when did having an external drive spin up, start stopping everything????). At least Time Machine got a work out there.

The cool glass of water has become decidedly murky over the last decade.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 10:20 AM on September 26, 2021

chimpsonfilm: "It won’t be long before Apple finds it intolerable that I’m not subscribed to Apple Music and begins degrading the non-Apple Music experience as a means of encouragement, either through the kind of interface changes this article describes or an increasing amount of passive neglect."

I got a free subscription to Apple TV+, and I am uninterested in using anything other than my browser to watch it. (Don't want to watch it on my phone; haven't upgraded to Catalina on that mostly unused machine, so can't use the app.)

There is no search function in the browser. If I want to watch Ted Lasso, I have to figure out what category it's in today and scroll and click until I find it, or more likely I go to DuckDuckGo and type

ted lasso

to get to the frinking Ted Lasso page. It's unconscionable that the browser interface to the paid service is so ridiculously difficult to use. This is Apple, the original friendly interface enforcers.

The result, of course, is not that I'm driven to give in and use their app; the result is that I'm deeply irritated at Apple, and my opinion of them has plummeted.
posted by kristi at 4:15 PM on September 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

@kristi Something similar happened with the new SLing TV redesign... you can't search for shows specifically, you also can't go to any particular channel and see everything that's offered on demand. It's all based on browsing by category, with the goal of pushing you toward whatever thing Sling TV was paid to promote that week.
posted by subdee at 6:05 PM on September 26, 2021

I am equally torqued at Audible who has decided to auto-play books after the ones I own end. Again - a decision I cannot turn off.

I just moved my Dad into a memory care facility in Canada and my brother and I both live in the US and I'd hoped the Echo Show 10 would be helpful for us to be able to stay in closer touch with remote video chat with their drop in call feature and also have a screen saver showing family photos.

Nope. Cannot get it do what I want without near constant advertisements and "helpful tips" being displayed. It was as if the device was crafted to constantly destabilize and wrong foot its users. Which is already a huge problem for a man with senile dementia

It was a like they gave Microsoft Word's Clippy a body.

My dad already had a earlier echo show that he used before he became completely senile. In the long term care facility he had it unplugged and facing the wall.

What this means is that established routines that people with dementia previously could still deploy won't really exist as the current generation eases into senescence. So you might want to take up an actual physical hobby before you start losing it.
posted by srboisvert at 3:32 AM on September 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

There is no search function in the browser. If I want to watch Ted Lasso, I have to figure out what category it's in today and scroll and click until I find it, or more likely I go to DuckDuckGo and type

This is happening on almost all streaming platforms as they chase PPV referral credits. Apple is egregious as their interface gives you no clues as to whether you are seeing a Pay Per View option or something available on the base subscription. Amazon's Prime Video at least has a prime ribbon on the corner of a video's thumbnail to you let you know if you can stream it. Google TV only lets you know the details of a video and it's price if you scroll onto it. Google search itself has started listing things as available on streaming services that require additional payments by saying "premium subscription" which is really ambiguous.

Its gotten bad enough that there are websites that help you figure out what is streaming where like JustWatch to make up for the horrible searchability and navigation of almost all streaming services.
posted by srboisvert at 3:40 AM on September 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Just stumbled across this relevant reading from the Miami Herald on the resurgence of some physical media: Records, turntables and books making a comeback. Eight-track tapes, probably not | Opinion
posted by youarenothere at 4:58 PM on October 5, 2021

« Older Time for walkies   |   We've come to take your toilet Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments