How to beat the algorithm

... without letting it beat you

Can you beat the algorithm?

No doubt, obscene sums of energy have been devoted to the task. Some, you might say, have even succeeded. But after you’ve driven clicks, maximized engagement, and topped all the search results, have you really “beat” the algorithm? Did the algorithm lose? If anything, you’ve “struck a deal” — finding the optimal balance between what you want and what the algorithm wants. It’s a negotiation.

Now, I don’t want this to devolve into some algo-bash. Nor do I want to condemn the pursuit of “beating” the algorithm. At a time when algorithms roughly equal the internet, and the internet roughly equals business, art, and life… can you blame anyone for trying?

At this point, the “algorithm” just feels like gravity. You can study it. You can build around it. You can apply math to leverage it. You can even harness it for recreation. Its mysterious force—what we’re all studying, leveraging, and harnessing—coordinates the movements of all that lies within orbit: artists, brands, subcultures, and memes. Gravity acts on all masses equally, after all!

As hard as I push against that gravity with this newsletter, I still feel it tugging and pulling… But from a different angle. My “algorithmic anxiety” now stems as much from my role as a viewer as it does from my role as a creator. To an obsessive collector and remixer of web videos, abundance is a cursed blessing:

Is this the best possible clip for this idea? Surely, I could find something better, right? Does it not exist, or can I simply not find it?

And even when I find exactly what I need, gravity still wins the day:

Did I truly “find” this? Or am I just seeing it because a bunch of code put it in front of me?

My ego attributes the discovery to my rigorous search or my impeccable taste. But statistically, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is to thank for 7 in 10 videos I see.

Perhaps I’m like the drunkard searching for his keys under the streetlight simply because “that’s where the light is.” I march down the brightly-lit timeline ahead of me, led in one hand by my digital avatar—a composite of my past behavior; a forecast of my future desire…

So I’ll ask another way:

Can I beat my algorithm?

Maybe not, but I can stop it from beating me. If I can’t defeat gravity, I’ll just flee from its reach. The further I go, the weaker it’ll get. So I rocket through my filter bubble’s cozy atmosphere, beyond the orbit of my algorithmic feed. Eventually, I achieve escape velocity.

Thrusting me along is my Search Engine Un-optimization instrument of choice… aka Search by upload date: a forgotten remnant of the nearly-extinct chronological feed. Oriented only by temporal proximity, I probe the fleeting abyss. Let a day pass, and a search yields completely different results. Out here, I can actually witness what I’ve been told down on Earth—that space expands in all directions at once. It’s mostly empty, but somehow still… abundant?

One particular genre, I find, does exceptionally well out here. It’s the kind of content an algorithm would never showcase. It doesn’t have a mass audience, almost by definition. It’s the kind of thing you’d only find, simply because you looked for it—a rarity these days! By now, you must be wondering: well, what the hell is it?

How-to videos. Yes, tutorials. How to drive a stick shift. How to hit a baseball. How to mix a manhattan. How to feed your frog. How to fix your lawnmower. You don’t stumble upon one of these videos by accident, or because YouTube thinks you’ll love it. You’re watching for one reason, and one reason only: your lawnmower is broken, and your grass keeps on growing.

So like a faraway astronaut with my telescope pointed back at Earth, I fix upon a most peculiar array of subjects: humans sharing their expertise with the world. It’s a motley crew, to say the least. Young and old; wielding snowblowers, leafblowers, and nerf guns; some appear video-savvy, others clearly are not. But one quality seems to be universal: their passion—for gadgets, guns, blunts, and beers… and nobody’s stopping them from spreading their wisdom.

Searching by upload date also produced a curious byproduct. Most of the clips—having been uploaded in the thick of the global quarantine—had a look and feel that was, above all else, domestic. And maybe it would’ve been anyways, had Covid been over by now. Regardless, it seems to be a natural set and setting for the tutorial genre: humans in their homes. What a better way to beat these ~strange and unusual times~ than to share something you know (or pretend to know) via the great interwebs.

The cynic would say they’re doing it for the subscribers, the clout, or to “beat the algorithm.” But I see an earnest human instinct—sharing learnings with the tribe. Not a grab for eyeballs; simply a message in a bottle for whoever happens to look.

Now, I can’t promise they’re authorities in their respective fields—whether it's welding, bubble blowing, or bong cleaning. But with a whopping median view count of 82, at least you can be sure your eyes lay upon on something few others have… and that’s worth something, isn’t it? So, after cutting down 16 hours of rambling, out-of-context YouTube content, I present to you…


Straight to your inbox.

No algorithm necessary.

      2020 by VU JA DE