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Algorithms & Popular Culture

When we were young, we’d find out what music was popular by tuning into Top of the Pops on a Friday evening, or listening to the chart show on the radio. Nowadays, many people listen solely to streaming services — such as Spotify — who use algorithms to recommend songs we’ll like based on our listening history. As such, our notion of what is and isn’t popular with the masses is greatly affected.


Similar to the Echo Chamber Effect, if you and those you follow consistently listen to the same style of artist and songs, then you could expect that’s what everyone listens to. But that isn’t necessarily the case...

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Consider the last time you watched the Top of the Pops special over Christmas. Like me, you may have sat wondering who the hell half of these “artists” are and what are these god-awful songs? You find yourself mimicking your grandparents from years gone by, uttering “music was much better in myday” under your breath as the next scantily-clad performer takes to the stage to make incomprehensible noises over a drum machine beat.

We’re so insulated in our little algorithm-built bubbles that we’re rarely subjected to music, films, books and opinions that differ in taste to our own. But is that a good thing? To answer that question, we must first understand what makes a good algorithm in the first place.

Good algorithms need to perform quickly, without error and with logical, comprehensible results. That’s the whole point of an algorithm, after all, to automate a once manual process — whether that be aiding discovery of new music by learning your preferences or recommending certain products that would complement your previous purchases. 

But what about other every day algorithms that we can’t see so clearly?

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would focus on their need to “prioritise posts that spark conversations and meaningful interactions between people. To do this, we will predict which posts you might want to interact with your friends about, and show these posts higher in feed.” Again, it sounds like a helpful approach, but what if our tastes and needs change? And how does it contribute to the afore-mentioned Echo Chamber Effect? Conversations become more and more one-sided as we’re only subjected to opinions that match our own. 

Healthy debate is essential in our society, and by ignoring — or removing — opposition altogether we are edging towards a dangerous tipping point where free speech is, at best, vilified or, at worst, eradicated entirely. We owe it to ourselves — and each other — to form opinions based on the big picture; taking the time to consider all the facts, not just small, hand-picked snippets that suit our own agendas.

It’s perhaps not hard to see how Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have risen to such prominent roles in public office, when you consider the lies that have been allowed to circulate during election campaigns, in no small part thanks to social media.

So, what about the likes of Spotify, Netflix and Amazon? Surely their algorithms can’t bring about such dire consequences?

From a political perspective, no — for the most part anyway! But their algorithms have consequences none the less. They limit our horizons. 

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Take Spotify. Somedays we may be feeling especially adventurous and dare to press play on the “New Music Friday” link. But all it takes is one song that doesn’t agree with our eardrums, and we quickly revert to our “Uniquely yours — On Repeat” playlist. It’s not hard to evade being “down with the kids” when you spend your afternoons lamenting how much better music was in the 70s and 80s. Yes, a whole world of streaming possibilities exists on the Spotify platform, but they make it so easy to stay in familiar territory. I can’t be the only one who thought “Spotify really gets me” when I first downloaded the app way back in 2009. Little did I realise it’s because we’re not as unique as we like to think we are… 


Netflix’s algorithms, in particular, save us a considerable amount of time. After all, spending hours scrolling through their seemingly endless catalogue of weird and wonderful shows is not an enjoyable way to spend an evening. But are their algorithms restricting us in the process?

The simple answer would be “no”.


After all, we have the same titles available to us as anyone else in the country with a subscription. Their “trends” charts also aid discovery of shows that ordinarily you wouldn’t have given a second glance to (Tiger King, anybody?). Being a part of the conversation — whether with your family, friends or around the watercooler (when offices open again!) — is a big draw for these types of shows, and we will often step outside of our comfort zone to see what all the fuss is about.

But what do we do straight afterwards? Slip right back into that comfort zone and binge from within our safe bubble of familiarity, unwittingly trapping ourselves in the process. 

An interview with Kartik Hosanager — a professor and author of “A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms Are Shaping Our Lives and How We Can Stay in Control” — at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania stated:

"When we buy something on Amazon or watch something on Netflix, we think it’s our own choice. Well, it turns out that algorithms influence one-third of our decisions on Amazon and more than 80% on Netflix. What’s more, algorithms have their own biases. They can even go rogue."

It’s well-known that products languishing on page two, three or below on the search result pages of Amazon rarely see the light of day. The nearer products are to the top of page one, the higher the chances of customers purchasing them. Often, Amazon’s “recommendations” for similar products are eerily like “sponsored products related to this item”. Are we becoming blind to which elements are advertising and which are algorithms? More importantly, do we care?

On that note, I’m off to listen to some BTS, read Pinch of Nom and watch Love Is Blind… After all, millions of people can’t be wrong — can they?


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