Algorithmic conveyor belts

Algorithms Hijacked My Generation really hit me. It explains a lot of things happening in the world that I can sense, but not put together into a system, into the single term of algorithmic conveyor belt:

I remember first hearing conversations about mental health in the mid-2010s when I was 12 or 13. The first YouTube stars started opening up, tentatively, about their anxiety and depression. Celebrities confessed to struggling. Mental health communities formed on Tumblr. I learned about anorexia, self-harm, and disorders like ADHD. It all felt important to talk about.

But things quickly began to change. Some of us got hitched to the algorithm. Platforms like YouTube began to reward cheap, clickbait posts to boost ad revenue, meaning that users were being served more and more sensational content. Slowly we went from watching influencers talk about anxiety to live-streaming their panic attacks, describing deeply personal traumas along to pop songs, and even capturing split-personality switches on camera. TikTok came out and suddenly everyone seemed to be sharing their symptoms of mental illness. Next, they started telling us we might be mentally ill! We began to see TikToks telling us we have anxiety, autism, ADHD, and traumatic stress disorders. Companies caught on. Soon we were served customized ads, micro-targeted ads, solutions to our specific struggles. Videos with vaguer and vaguer symptoms. Distracted a lot? You might have ADHD. Have ADHD? You need Ritalin. Pay for this virtual therapy app; get medication delivered to your door; buy some ADHD merch!

And that’s how we’ve come full circle, with too much therapy making people unwell.

This is also an important point:

So, I believe we have some personal agency. But I also believe that a 12-year-old’s mind is no match for a giant corporation using the most advanced AI to manipulate her behavior. Gen Z were the guinea pigs in this uncontrolled global social experiment. We were the first to have our vulnerabilities and insecurities fed into a machine that magnified and refracted them back at us, all the time, before we had any sense of who we were. We didn’t just grow up with algorithms. They raised us. They rearranged our faces. Shaped our identities. Convinced us we were sick.

Both personal agency and determinism can coexist. But it’s such a waste that we squander so much of our agency on social media and the second order effects thereof.

My kryptonite is Reddit. I can stay off of it with sheer will power, tricks like deleting the app from my phone. And it works. Sometimes.

And it doesn’t take much before I notice that I’m a bit more on edge, slightly rougher around the edges, and convinced I need to take my hobbies to extreme lengths — at least I’m down to only hobby subs.

That’s a massive amount of energy, and not everyone is going to win that battle each time. And once you’re down the rabbit hole, it can be long time until you come back.