You can probably describe your algorithmic content with a comical level of detail—the unsolicited stuff you’re targeted with each time you go online. Mine includes nail art, vegan-alternative recipes for candy bars, and “get ready with me” videos of women sharing their beauty routines while speaking in therapeutic patois about topics like toxic dating behavior and complex PTSD. While pregnant, I was inundated with doula influencers and pelvic floor therapists. Lately, I’ve gotten a lot of how-tos for papermaking.
We take such targeting for granted, but what are its effects? In his new book Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture (Doubleday, 2024), New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka calls algorithmic recommendations “the technological specter haunting our own era of the early twenty-first century.” They’re the product of “digital mechanisms that absorb piles of user data, push it through a set of equations, and spit out a result deemed most relevant to preset goals.” The most fundamental of these goals is to command our attention, measured by engagement and sold as data to advertisers, so they can in turn sell things to us. “Filterworld” is Chayka’s own word to describe not just algorithms’ processes but how we’ve internalized them, “allowing them to displace our own agency, even as we come to resent their looming presence.”
Chayka, whose first book, The Longing for Less, explored the complex appeal of minimalism, is here concerned with the ways that algorithms cosset our tastes with predictability. He tells the story of Galaxie 500, a 1980s indie band whose catalog is available for streaming on Spotify. In 2018, their drummer noticed that one of their old songs, “Strange,” was getting hundreds of thousands more plays on the platform than any of their others—ironic because the track had been intended as a parody of heavy rock, in contrast to the rest of the group’s music. A “data alchemist” at Spotify who analyzed the anomaly concluded that it had excelled precisely because its genericism made it more appealing to listeners—prompting Spotify to recommend it to a growing number of users.
A defunct rock band bumbling into a royalty check might not seem like a tragedy, but this case neatly illustrates the feedback loops are shaping our culture. Output feeds input—what we already like dictates what we’re given, and cultural production fuels the cycle further by catering to algorithmic demands. This dynamic explains why songs have gotten shorter and more repetitive. In cinema, this development has encouraged the barrage of franchise films and remakes. Chayka even speculates that it’s helped popularize autofiction, a genre that lends itself to the accrual of “content capital”—a term borrowed from the scholar Kate Eichhorn, referring to “one’s ability to produce content not about one’s work but about one’s status as an artist, writer, or performer.”
At the same time, algorithms can drive marketing tactics that create an illusion of abundant diversity— “optionality,” some tech enthusiasts might say—where it is scarce: Chayka details the history of personalized recommendations at Netflix, which pioneered the practice but has been accused of presenting its limited rotation of movies and television shows with different, sometimes misleading, thumbnail images depending on subscribers’ data profiles. User anecdotes suggest that for the same film, a Black subscriber is more likely to see a Black actor on its digital move poster; a white user, a white actor. Here, culture is merely a white-labeled product packaged to flatter one’s delusions of individuality.
“Algorithmic anxiety” is a term used to describe the confusion and insecurity that data-driven platforms often inspire in their users. In exploring this diagnosis, Chayka turns from journalism to memoir with mixed results. He recounts his discombobulation when, in updating its interface in 2021, Spotify scrambled his personal music library and disordered his “specific set of clicks to access the music I like.” The experience felt like “a total disruption of the pieces of art and culture that shaped me.” Elsewhere he compares the broken links of Tumblr to “the remains of once-inhabited metropolises gone silent.”
These occasionally melodramatic passages reflect Chayka’s longing not for pre-Internet life—“I could never be a Luddite”—but for a period that when the Internet was a more chaotic haven for weirdness, “the most culturally radical space within reach” of the Connecticut suburbs where he spent his millennial teenagerhood in the early aughts. These were the days, he writes, when made-up screen names were still the default—an act of self-invention as much as deception—and he was able to develop into “a connoisseur of anime” on Dragonball Z chatrooms. Chayka worries that what gets lost in today’s algorithmic rabbit holes is not just time, but the personal eclecticism produced by intentional sleuthing.
Even more compelling, he illuminates how algorithmic culture affects not only those with excessive spending power and mobility but also those without. He draws on the work of Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist who, in 1989, identified the “space of flows”—virtual arenas of culture cultivated across distances—in contrast to geographic “space of places.” Today’s social media is essentially one giant space of flows, remaking real places in its image. Chayka points out that coffee shops the world over have come to sport uncannily similar aesthetics in accordance with ever-changing trends. He coined the term “AirSpace” to describe this phenomenon in an eponymous 2016 essay that resonated with many readers; among them was a South African woman named Sarita Pillay Gonzalez, who noticed AirSpace aesthetics in much of the new construction cropping up in Cape Town and connected its homogeneity to gentrification and colonialism. The ubiquity of AirSpace allows some, she said, to enjoy “a globally accessible space” that is instantly familiar and indifferent to context.
This point makes me think of Jamaica Kinkaid’s essay “The Ugly Tourist,” first published in 1988. The key difference, Kincaid wrote, between the voyeuristic tourist and the local is opportunity: “most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere . . . They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives . . . and live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.” Her depiction of traditional tourism—aided, as Chayka notes, by apps like Airbnb and Yelp—is an appropriate metaphor for our online behavior, too. Trying to leave the banality of our embodied lives, we travel to the internet, spending so much time and money there that we have little left to invest offline. This makes us both the (digital) native and the tourist, neglecting our material reality in an effort to escape it.
While Chayka repeatedly nods to such effects of today’s Internet, they’re not his emphasis. “Though Filterworld has also changed politics, education, and interpersonal relationships, among many other facets of society, my focus is on culture,” he writes. This containment seems both strategic and admirably measured. At times it also feels conservative—an effort to make Filterworld palatable, much like the bland pop music Chayka shades for its anaesthetizing qualities, and to avoid thornier questions that arise when politics and culture overlap.
This gives the book a whiff of solipsism. As a corrective to algorithmic culture, Chayka urges us to renew our faith in professional stewards—the DJs, the museum curators, the bookstore employees—rather than social media influencers who spit out quotes from books in grid-sized, likeable bites. One defining virtue of great curators is their ability to contextualize culture, often presenting seemingly disparate ideas and objects in evocative conjunction “with utmost sensitivity and humanity.” Chayka admits that credentialed curation is subjective and potentially elitist. Recent institutional censorship of those critical of Israel—such as the artist Samia Halaby and the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen—underscores the point. Chayka hedges against this complication by hastening to add that we shouldn’t rely on the pros exclusively but cultivate our own sensibilities using them as inspiration.
It’s hard to disagree with the suggestion that we should visit more museums and watch less TikTok, but it feels—given the capaciousness of Chayka’s insights—a bit like an oncologist prescribing Tylenol. Chayka surveys legislation aimed at holding big tech companies more accountable for their impact—most of which seems unlikely to pass in the U.S.—but I wish he’d explored other strategies to curb the Internet’s power less directly. Policies that improve our public spaces and our ability to enjoy them, like guaranteed health care and paid vacation, would likely give people more wherewithal to resist the smartphone’s siren song. They also might make us less financially beholden to algorithmic economies.
Still, it’s unfair to fault a book for the ground it doesn’t cover. What Filterworld does wonderfully is deconstruct our current scroll culture with precision to make it less appealing. If Filterworld is not just a technology but a mindset, this alone is an accomplishment. I’d also be remiss not to credit one of Chayka’s many passionate discursions with my discovery of John Coltrane’s extended riff on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” It’s as good as Chayka says, and no one in my Instagram feed is playing it.