I just cancelled my Twitter blue check for $8 a month. The enhanced features were okay, but my account still seemed throttled, they were especially throttling posts with Substack links, my analytics page was totally screwed up, (implying I had neither made new posts in June nor acquired new followers, both of which were false), they had still not activated my creator account after two months, and they still had not re-instated Oscar’s (my dog’s) account* after six months. (They cancelled Oscar because I changed his birthday to July, 7, 2020 — the actual date — and it ran afoul of their prohibition on accounts for minors.)
*Lest you think I’m joking about @theskeezley, it was a real account, and I was able to express important sentiments I imagined him having. For example, I asked “where all the cadelas were at?” “Cadela” is the Portuguese term for female dog.
Seriously, though, I’m fed up with the throttling, which is likely because I’m blocked by a lot of people for expressing heterodox views to an audience once largely comprised of fantasy sports nerds. In other words, I grew a following of educated normies and took a heel turn by saying things anathema to their tribal edicts.
Twitter, being too big and too stupid to determine specifically who is harassing whom, just uses metrics like total blocks per follower to decide whose reach should be curtailed, and so I find my posts reach far fewer people than they did say two years ago.
Of course, I can’t be sure this is true because the algorithm (while open source generally) is opaque as to how it affects me, i.e., I don’t know how many people have blocked me or the impact of that on my reach specifically. I know only that blocks impact reach, I’m blocked by many and my reach *seems* limited relative to my following.
Accordingly, I’m not keen on contributing to, and especially paying for, a service that is working against me. What’s worse is it’s no longer even for ideological reasons — they’re not throttling me because they disagree with what I post (or are even aware of it at all), but because presumably my social credit score on the platform is poor. This is the future, by the way — being denied on account of the social credit algorithm, without explanation or recourse to human intervention.
Luckily I have a small audience at Substack willing to tolerate my attempts at self expression, but while Substack is not preventing subscribers from receiving my posts (yet), they take a cut of all paid subscriptions and do nothing to help me expand my audience, while constantly encouraging me to subscribe to more prominent accounts. They too have an algorithm, it seems, one that appears to help the prominent get more prominent while the obscure remain obscure. I’ve previously dubbed it “haystack” and all the smaller newsletters “needles.”
I write this not to complain — and yet I am complaining, and it feels good! — but to illustrate that these large tech platforms, for better or worse, operate via algorithm, and algorithms are heavy-handed, labor-saving machines that promote what is deemed best on average, what people with your interests prefer on average, what is likely to work on average.
In that way, it’s not much different than other industries like film or fashion or hospitality, trying to get ahead of the new trend. Horror movies are doing well, let’s make more of those! Bellbottoms are back! Design hotels with cheap, funky furniture! It’s simply the way of the world, whether one hires an algorithm or risk-averse middle manager.
There is a solution to this problem, however, and that’s individual curation. You can listen to the top-40 station that plays today’s hits, the classic rock station that plays the hits of yesteryear or you can tune into a show from a DJ who plays a mix of music he likes and wants to share with his particular audience. Maybe the music depends on his mood, the zeitgeist of that afternoon and the gravitational pull of the moon, things that affect an individual human being, including the one in charge of the soundtrack for your commute past an ever-expanding tent-metropolis of misery and despair.
Substack needs human curators, not algorithms. So does Twitter. So does Spotify. But human curators are expensive, they take chances and sometimes are an acquired taste. Big tech doesn’t have the bandwidth or wherewithal to hire quality curators — it would need to curate the curators, so to speak, and that’s contrary to its business model which entails the few building software for the many.
Of course, therein lies an opportunity for someone — become an arbiter of what’s interesting, stimulating, edifying in some way. There are many people who serve this function on various platforms, but they too face the same problem of distribution, reach and throttling via algorithm as the creators, for in a social credit world, the system will not only go after the author, but also the publisher, the distributor and the curator.
I suppose the key to both roles is to have your own site, your own middleman-free peer-to-peer accessible URL that via word of mouth grows its reputation over time. You cherrypick a discerning audience from the social media giants and take it with you. It’s what I’ve done here (and at chrisliss.com, though the functionality of my site is still not up to par 18 months later), and I should probably keep going with the following I have on Twitter, exfiltrating as many as I can.
Of course, I’m a creator, not a curator. I could maybe do that job, but I wouldn’t be the best at it — I’m too narrow in my preferences and tastes. The best DJs can pull from a wider variety of styles, expose you to something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to like. The opportunity is out there, and it’s a service the world badly needs. Human curation is the antidote to bureaucracy by algorithm, just as knowing the right person in the Soviet Union was the antidote to waiting on line for toilet paper. In a world increasingly ruled by machines and people educated to think like them, the human sense of taste and proportion is more necessary than ever.