I was in school the other day and I was showing the class a video (about how to use a home test kit, as it happens) – using my school account, I’m not an idiot. But although I regularly turn off AutoPlay, of course it had come back on again, and so when the instruction video finished, the YouTube algorithm picked another. And here’s a thing: the thing it picked was a clip of The Analogues singing ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’. This wasn’t exactly embarrassing, but it was irritating, and it also felt like it was a recommendation thrown up by my main account, rather than the school account I was using. So this felt a little like the old horror trope, it’s coming from inside the house. Or that monomyth thing when the monster from the magical world pursues you back into the real world. Monsters from the id. It was a massive invasion of privacy, a mixing of the private and public — and a low stakes, small beans example of what women on the internet have always had to put up with.
But the monsters who pursue women are from the real world, which is the difference. What I’m talking about is the feeling I increasingly have, which is that I’m running scared of the algorithms. I joke with my daughters about them polluting m’ recs when they send me links to stupid memes. But I do it to myself, too. I watch one Lanterne Rouge video after a stage of the Paris-Nice cycling stage race and my YouTube home page looks like an explosion in a lycra warehouse. Or I foolishly click a link to a video from Mars (realising quite quickly that this was an opportunistic posting of old footage by someone unscrupulous enough to misrepresent it in that particular news moment), and now I’ve got planets coming at me like Indiana Jones robbing a grave.
I would like to be mildly interested in things, you know. I’m a little nerdy and a little obsessive, but about a wide range of stuff. I’ll watch a Beatles/Analogue clip. I might watch a bike review or some cycling analysis. Or some cool NASA footage. Someone doing something pizza-related. A bit of Frank Sinatra, or the latest Hiss Golden Messenger video. But Frank Sinatra doesn’t mean also Dean Martin and Perry Como, you know? An interest in The Beatles doesn’t mean I want to see Elton Fucking John or Qufuckingeen. Pizza doesn’t mean I want to see The Most Amazing Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Pizza You Must Watch This The Most Incredible Thing You’ve Ever Seen. The TV YouTube app is even worse, for some reason. Just drops in random shit like Breaking News. Stop trying to make that happen, YouTube. Nobody should be going to your fucking algorithm for news.
Part of the problem is that YouTube is full of bad actors. So much of the content is content-free, dishonest, padded, guff. And I’m sorry, Estate of Tom Petty, but as you pick over his bones and upload all the stuff, I don’t want to see ‘Behind the Scenes’ of anything. As to the people who re-upload stuff from other accounts for the clicks, fuck you very much. I don’t even know where to start with what is wrong with you.
So there’s this podcast I quite like. It’s called We Didn’t Start the Fire and it’s presented by Katie Puckrik and Tom Fordyce. And all they do is take one snippet of lyric from the well-known Billy Joel song and call in an expert to talk about it. It’s an excellent idea and an entertaining listen. I highly recommend it. But here’s the thing. I fucking hate Billy Joel. Right? Nothing whatsoever to recommend him. But I kinda, sorta, just once, want to listen to the song – to remind myself of it. Except I know what would happen if I did. The shitshow that would ensue, whether on YouTube or – even worse – on Apple Music. One thing that absolutely cannot be tainted is my Apple Music (it’s quite bad enough as it is). But for the next 17 years, seeing fucking Billy Joel clips on my YT home page, or on the TV YT app? Christ.
And this is where they have me. We all know that algorithms are controlling our lives. But it’s the fear of how the algorithms would punish me for a mild interest in something that is actually physically restraining me at the moment. Sure, I could do a Private Browsing thing, but do I really believe YouTube/Google is respecting my privacy — when they literally just played an Analogues clip in my school account?
Anyway, all this bothers me. I’ve given up trying to train the algorithm — it’s either not that smart or deliberately ignores you when you tell it you don’t like something and just gives you more of it. So now I’m like that guy at the end of the film who realises he has been dead and in hell all along. Of course I’m being punished. The algorithms are always going to beat me up on the way home from school because I am in hell.