Earlier this month, I came across the term 'algorithmic anxiety' when I chanced upon it on the interwebs. According to a recent article in The New Yorker, Shagun Jhaver, a scholar of social computing, helped define the phrase in 2018. It's meant to describe an unpleasant, irritating and fundamentally inauthentic feeling associated with navigating anything and everything online. Nevertheless, it got me thinking -- how can algorithms cause online anxiety?
The larger reality of the phenomenon seems to be something like this: From browsing your Facebook feed and Instagram Reels to scrolling through Google's search page results, looking at recommendations on Amazon while buying something online to swiping right on Tinder (or any other recommendation-based app), algorithmic anxiety is slowly but steadily reaching an overwhelmingly inescapable level. That you find yourself to be a passive observer to a lot of content that's bombarded at you all the time, a curation of recommendations based on various factors (including your past online activity).
This feeling of minimal active stimulus resulting in an overwhelming avalanche of content being fed to you, and your constant consumption of such types of automated and algorithmically determined online information, is the root of this new kind of anxiety. You open Instagram and Facebook to no longer look at updates from your friends but see increasingly what these social media platforms want you to see -- in order to keep you hooked on the app for longer durations of time (that's how they make money, with increased user retention). You don't feel in control, you feel at the mercy of big tech platforms deeply entrenched into the very fabric of everything you see and respond to online, trying to manipulate you in ways we don't even fully understand yet.
However, does this really come as a surprise to anyone? That recommendation engines powered by artificial intelligence would get more sophisticated and widespread, giving us more tailored suggestions to stuff we otherwise would never have found ourselves? I acknowledge that it's a problem, but not to the level of an existential threat; where it's causing anxiety and online grief. In fact, I'd go even so far as to say that recommendation engines of any online service you can think of play an essential and irreplaceable role in our online experiences.
If I'm casually browsing the internet, I don't get anxious or tense about every little online advertisement or recommended stuff Google or Amazon is trying to throw on my laptop screen. When I visit Twitter or Facebook, I know it's next to impossible for me to find out and keep up with everything that's happened on the platform since I went to sleep at night. You can't do that for any popular online destination you visit. I’m not really bothered by how information is presented to me as long as it serves one core purpose -- which is the discovery of content.
For example, we all now know that searching for a product on Google, Facebook or Amazon will result in ads of similar products that 'follow you' across different apps and websites. I'd compare it to walking through a flea market or shopping street, with hawkers and store owners deploying all sorts of techniques to get you to buy their wares. Irritating and annoying, sure, but enough to cause anxiety? I'm not so sure. Of course, I'm oversimplifying the situation, and online recommendation engines can feel far more oppressive and inescapable compared to a shopping street that you don't necessarily visit every day.
But without algorithms 'curating' experiences for you in some small way as a starting point for your daily online journey, navigating the vast expanses of the internet would simply be impossible. Yes, it's annoying when Netflix doesn't give me the power to see everything I can watch in its content library, but not knowing what to search for I find its recommendation engine absolutely amazing when it comes to discovering new movies and documentaries similar to my taste. You can draw that parallel to the rest of the internet at large and decide for yourself what you'd want more often than not.
As long as you accept that discovering new content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google, Reddit, Quora, Medium, Pinterest, Netflix and more, is impossible without recommendation-based algorithms, I think that realization itself is enough to set you free, as it's a powerful self-revelation. A lightbulb moment that empowers you more than it would cause you anxiety, I'd imagine. It would even force you to take some time off the internet and spend more time in the real world again. Wouldn't that be something?
This column originally appeared in Digit’s September 2022 print edition under the title of ‘Artificial existentialism’