Week One: Avoiding the Algorithm

It’s been almost a week now where I’ve worked to avoid being fed material via algorithm – let’s see how that went, shall we?

First off, as I’m still dealing with COVID, albeit minor symptoms today, my desire to connect or even spend time online has been a bit limited. For the first couple of days I had it, I didn’t want to listen to music at all. This is unusual for me as there is almost always music playing around me from when I wake to when I go to bed, stopped only for work-related calls. But Sunday and Monday, nothing sounded good. Instead I watched two Michael Palin documentaries – one about his visit to North Korea, the other about his visiting Iraq. Enjoyable escapism for sure but I didn’t really want to do much more than that and sleep.

By Wednesday I was back to work, albeit overconfident – I lasted six hours and then wrote off the whole week. But my media consumption and energy for the computer was back to relatively normal.

It was surprisingly hard, after years of simply saying “Play music” or picking an AI-generated playlist of what I’d listened to lately to decide what I really wanted to hear. Fortunately, I do have a large library of playlists and ‘liked’ albums on YouTube music so eventually I found my way there. My listening consisted of a few albums, some playlists made from old “K-Tel” compilation album track listings, and if all else failed, one massive 333 song playlist I shuffle called “1986-1990 Mixtape Sources” – if I used the song in a mixtape back in those years, into the mix it goes. The end result was a more balanced tag cloud than I’ve done before.

It’s also a bit more indicative, I think, of my mental state. There’s lots less house music – what I was using for long bike ride motivation and lots more quiet stuff in there – which is what I feel like listening to while reading and recovering. I will be curious to see how this goes when I’m fully recovered, exercising and going out in the world again where I sometimes like to have fun music to walk around to.

Social media is another story entirely. I had been using Instagram less and less and completely deleted that one. The feed was never satisfying, filled with ads and yet it could still somehow suck me in.

Facebook has been the interesting one. Without a feed, it has no real draw as a time sink. I go in, post an update or answer a comment, check in on a page or two, and leave. It just holds no interest for me. While the duration has gone down it is interesting to note that according to the data I’ve gathered using Rescuetime, I’m pretty regularly checking it – around 9-10 time/day. The time spent has gone down but the habit is still there. So I’ve just reinstalled Pause. This allows me to choose any number of sites that I want to have a moment or two (1 to 300 seconds – my choice) to think “Am I just doing this automatically or do I actually want to look at this?” and make another choice. I’m not getting much out of Facebook so I think this will help. I’ve also removed Facebook from my other devices. Let’s see how that goes.

This comes up for five seconds before I can click a link to go to Facebook.

I wasn’t one to fall deep down YouTube rabbit holes but it sometimes happened. Now that I have no more homepage or suggested videos, my visits are much more targeted. I go there for a reason. No real need for a reminder before going there so I haven’t added one. Looking back I can see that I rarely strayed from what I went there for – and my peak usage there seems to come when I find a show posted that Sage and I want to watch more than one of. Still, it’s good to have this made even less interesting.

The elephant in the room is Mastodon (see what I did there?). While this doesn’t have an algorithmic feed – what you see is a chronological list of posts from people you follow. While sick, anyway, checking in to see others having normal lives has been quite attractive. You can really see this spike up on Thursday when I felt good enough to be on the computer but still too bad to do much other than lie in bed. I’ve added this to the “Pause list”

One place that I hadn’t even considered for this project originally was Goodreads, Amazon’s social app for tracking/recommending books. I have used it for over ten years, tracking my reading habits, occasionally seeing what other friends are reading and if I’m honest, reading bad reviews of books I also didn’t like. But this, too, is algorithmically delivered and designed with the hope you’ll go to Amazon and buy the books. Now thanks to the Library Extension, it (along with most other bookselling places) automatically also checks to see if the book I’m looking at is available in the library. But what am I getting from this? And more importantly, what data am I giving for it? I’ve scanned books in bookstores for future purchase and now it knows where I go, what I like, how fast I read and what sort of books I read. And being Amazon, it had my data from when I used Alexa. And because we use an iRobot, now it knows how big my house is, how many rooms we have, what neighbourhood we’re in and our purchasing habits. No need to give them more data to try to sell me more. Away went Goodreads.

I moved over to Storygraph. This is not owned by a huge corporation. Yes, it gets some of my data – namely my reading habits and preferences. But it also gives some of that back to me. For example, it classifies books by many moods, pace and so on and then I can use that data to find another book. Or I can also use it to see information about myself that I didn’t otherwise know. Here’s some fun data I picked up this week.

Here, for example, is a graph of the mood of the books I read in 2022. It tracks pretty well to my memory of my own mood. Which caused which? Sad books bringing me down? Happy life making me read happy books? Or maybe just ridiculous correlation.

This has even more detail on mood, genre, etc over time. Here’s the detail on the mood of books I read in 2022:

The full stats for my 2022 can be seen here.

Part of my migration to that site was cleaning my data import from Goodreads – my long “to read” list was even longer thanks to a bunch of duplicates. I went through, deleted those and at the same time “went shopping” at the library. Now there are many books on my e-reader to choose from – one already finished this morning.

The next step is unlearning habits. My most noticeable one is the “I want something?” habit.

When Daegan was 2-3 years old, we were living in a small cottage in a little village in the midwest. Sage would work on web design in her home office and for most of the year I took care of things around the house. So often, Daegan would come to the kitchen hungry and say “I wanna eat some-ting?” and then the challenge would start. He was hungry but didn’t know what he wanted. “Do you want a sandwich?” *he thinks* “No, I wanna eat some-ting?” Sometimes he would even decide on something “Yeah, tofu & dip!” then after he started eating he would come see me in the kitchen. “I wanna eat somet-ting?” Fortunately we figured out ways to work through that one – a combination of “That’s what there is, sorry!” and having a few small containers in the fridge he could just grab with snacks he could choose himself.

Now it’s my own brain doing this. I’m sitting on the couch, “I wanna do some-ting?” my brain says which usually meant, power up the computer or grab the phone and make the social media rounds. Sometimes I’d find something, sometimes not but time would pass and the sense of needing entertainment would go away with it.

Now, though, I think the next step is to do the same thing that I did with little Daegan: “Sorry, that’s what there is.” and “There are ten books in your e-reader and two newspapers sitting outside the door.”

There are two other tools up my sleeve that I’ll be bringing on board this week:

  1. This week I learned about “You Need a Budget” – an app that helps people budget by looking at each dollar they receive as having a job. When the money comes in you decide where it goes: Rent, bills, groceries and also dining out, movies, etc. The point is to proactively decide how to spend your money before you actually spend it. And if you overspend you have to take it from some other budget. Too much spent at the bookstore? OK, that means no pizza this week. In some ways this is like time. It’s time to start budgeting time like that, I think. A weekday has 8 hours of work, chores and cooking, exercise and entertainment. Before the day starts, make the hard decisions of where and when to spend the time – or literally what to spend my life doing. Today I’ll investigate some tools to do this.
  2. Related to this: Plan what I’m going to do before I turn on the computer for anything other than work. Next to my desk is a tablet. I will write my plans for that session (“Check Mastodon, transfer money, gather tax info, watch 20 min of MasterChef India”) and then that’s what I get to do. If I think of other things that aren’t urgent, then that gets written down in the tablet for the next session.

Wish me luck with this – I’ll report back next week.

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