You May Like
On recommendation culture
In his 2019 Harper’s essay “Like This or Die,” critic Christian Lorentzen derisively describes the (as he fashions it, imaginary) audience to which establishment media organs instruct their book critics write:
Alex and Wendy love culture. It’s how they spend their free time. It’s what they talk about at dinner parties. When they go jogging or to the gym, they listen to podcasts on their phones. On Sunday nights they watch their favorite new shows. They go to the movies sometimes, but they were bummed out when MoviePass went south, so now they mostly stream things. They belong to book clubs that meet every couple of weeks. Alex and Wendy work hard at their jobs, but they always have a bit of time to check their feeds at work. What’s in their feeds? Their feeds tell them about culture. Their feeds are a form of comfort. Their feeds explain things to them that they already understand. Their feeds tell them that everyone else is watching, reading, listening to the same things. Their feeds tell them about the people who make their culture, people who aren’t so different from them, just maybe a bit more glistening. Alex and Wendy’s feeds assure them that they aren’t lonely. Their feeds give them permission to like what they already like. Their feeds let them know that their culture is winning.
Alex and Wendy believe in the algorithm. It’s the force that organizes their feeds, arranges their queues, and tells them that if they liked this song, video, or book, they might like that one too. They never have to think about the algorithm, and their feeds offer a kind of protection. Alex hates to waste his time. His time is so precious. It makes Wendy feel sad when she reads a book she doesn’t love. She might have read one of the books her friends loved. If their feeds lead them astray, Alex and Wendy adjust them. There’s only so much time, and when they have kids, there’ll be even less time. Alex and Wendy aren’t snobs. They don’t need to be told what not to like. They’d rather not know about it.
Lorentzen’s is a grim caricature. It is also, in light of the critical and cultural world’s continued, steepened devolution into algorithmania, almost aspirational. His algorithmic bogeyman, if descriptively accurate for the time, feels almost a relic of the pre-COVID era. To write in 2019 about the algorithm was to feel that life was being lived, or at least fully dictated, online; in the year that followed, we all moved online. It’s unclear, dedicated collective efforts to touch grass notwithstanding, that we may ever move out.
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We live now in a post- or at least meta-algorithmic media environment (a cheekier writer might be tempted by “algorithmic realism”). The algorithm is no longer a sly suggestion, a force lurking in the background to render our lives as apparently frictionless, pleasing, and confirmed as possible. Speaking conspiratorially about the algorithm has become passé; worshipping it, like the god it has become, would be unbecoming. Cultural commentary has been forced to give in, settling to analyze its effects on the content it has begun to, in a self-generative flourish, create in its image. In many corners of the internet, the algorithm has been greeted with a sort of tongue-in-cheek nihilism befitting its omnipresence. Ask an avid TikTok user about their algorithm and ask yourself, when listening to their response, how differently they would have responded if you’d asked them to describe their personality.
Still, those cultural workers and would-be creatives not entirely beholden to algorithmic tendencies (at least, those who would like not to be beholden) are being asked to create culture in a landscape that views taste as an endlessly self-referential feedback loop, the history of culture as a wealth of data, and the future of art as speculative fodder. There are still people here, in other words, trying to make sense of a cultural industry that views them as raw matériel. How, in this brave new world, will they assert themselves?
The answer, if my inbox and social media feeds are to be trusted, appears to be the human recommendation economy. In the post-Vibe Shift media environment, recommendations have become the new vanguard of it kids’ mode de rigueur. As Perfectly Imperfect, the online newsletter-cum-hyperaware scene report puts it, “cool people like cool things.” Across the online media ecosystem, recommendation-based interviews have proliferated to the point of a sort of undeniably primacy. Twice a week, Perfectly Imperfect publishes a list of recommendations from a “cool person” – almost exclusively a downtown Somebody, a soon-to-be-somebody1, or grandfathered cultural royalty. These recommendations range from skincare products to organization applications, from books to the benefits of taking a stroll through your city. Embedded, meanwhile, runs a semi-regular “My Internet” column, in which an “very online person” is asked a list of stock questions about their online consumptive habits, recommending their algorithm in a level of exposure that feels almost like looking into their underwear drawer. Legacy media has been here for a minute – at New York Magazine, you can find multiple entries a week in the “What I Can’t Live Without” series, in which capital-C celebrities provide a list of their essentials as if they were being interviewed by Perfectly Imperfect’s advertorial department.
In “Hipster Revival Now!”, which I naturally found by virtue of a recommendation, Tobias Hess began to argue that the rise of Perfectly Imperfect and its ilk might signal a sort of welcome return to hipsterdom in our culture. Hipsters may be unbearably pretentious, Hess offers, but at least they care about curation. And curation, in the age of algorithms, is a breath of fresh air.2 As Hess writes, “Aglorithms don’t curate. They recommend.”
I came across Hess’s post while already writing this one; I came away from it wishing that I agreed with its premise. The contemporary boom of recommendation culture, as much as I may occasionally enjoy it, hardly reads like an act of curation. Our inboxes are inundated with tips, recs, guides, and so on, which inevitably find themselves withering away in a series of infinitely expanding tabs. It is an inherently online endeavor – a tab wasteland, an exponentially recurring loop, five publications recommending five more each. As Tyler Bainbridge, one half of Perfectly Imperfect, said, “You’ll like it if you enjoy finding new rabbit holes.”
To the extent that the human recommendation economy exists as an act of curation, the object of curation appears to be the people doing the recommending. Perfectly Imperfect assures that cool people like cool things, but reading the newsletter long enough gives the impression that its primary focus is in identifying the cool people. In this way, the human recommendation economy apes the sensibilities and logic of algorithmic culture more than it may intend. While here humans are doing the recommending, the nudging, and the rabbit-hole-identifying, it is hard to escape the sense that they are not simply doing the algorithm’s work for it. In the recommendation economy, (micro-)celebrities become their algorithmic equivalent: human mood boards. You can let Spotify tell you how to be a sad girl, or you can let Perfectly Imperfect tell you how to be Dasha Nekrashova (an enterprise that, unsurprisingly, appears to involve a lot of prayer).
But the real way in which this recommendation culture mimics the logic of algorithmic culture is in its transformation of everything — from culture to the world around us, wellness to spirituality — into more fodder for identity-construction. Cool things, in other words, exist to make cool people. In a world that demands we ruthlessly brand ourselves by stitching together an increasingly de-personalized pastiche of cultural references and products, there is something fittingly poetic about the purported creative vanguard being elevated to importance by performing the final ritual of self-branding: recommendation. “Perfectly Imperfect will probably be the most sprawling cultural document of who and what was cool during the time we’re in right now,” shared Bainbridge in a semi-controversial New York Times profile. If he’s right, then we will know the cool people by the cool things they recommended.
Something rings hollow, then, in the new era of recommendation. That the alternative model to a computer shaping our personalities is to have an elect group of scenesters do it in the machine’s stead can feel like a bleak prospect. There is an undeniably intoxicating draw to this economy: through recommendations like these I have found things that are useful, interesting, engaging, and spiritually rewarding. Still, there is room yet to dream of a culture that engages us above and beyond the register of desire to prove yourself as living the right life. May we still yearn, whether like Hess for curation or like Lorentzen for criticism — above all, for a culture that engages and challenges rather than redirects. Algorithms and recommendations sell a fantasy that we may each filter into our own hermetically sealed, perfectly calibrated worlds. Their antidote can only be a culture that is honest about the world we share and takes seriously the question of how to live in it.
There’s a joke that an appearance in Perfectly Imperfect is a fast-track to a GQ profile.