The Age of Algorithmic Anxiety

Kyle Chayka:

Late last year, Valerie Peter, a twenty-three-year-old student in Manchester, England, realized that she had an online-shopping problem. It was more about what she was buying than how much. A fashion trend of fuzzy leg warmers had infiltrated Peter’s social-media feeds—her TikTok For You tab, her Instagram Explore page, her Pinterest recommendations. She’d always considered leg warmers “ugly, hideous, ridiculous,” she told me recently, and yet soon enough she “somehow magically ended up with a pair of them,” which she bought online at the push of a button, on an almost subconscious whim. (She wore them only a few times. “They’re in the back of my closet,” she said.) The same thing later happened with Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry, after a cast member on the U.K. reality show “Love Island” wore a necklace from the brand onscreen. Van Cleef’s Art Nouveau-ish flower bracelets made their way onto Peter’s TikTok feed, and she found herself browsing the brand’s products. The bombardment made her question: “Is this me? Is this my style?” she said.

In her confusion, Peter wrote an e-mail seeking advice from Rachel Tashjian, a fashion critic who writes a popular newsletter called “Opulent Tips.” “I’ve been on the internet for the last 10 years and I don’t know if I like what I like or what an algorithm wants me to like,” Peter wrote. She’d come to see social networks’ algorithmic recommendations as a kind of psychic intrusion, surreptitiously reshaping what she’s shown online and, thus, her understanding of her own inclinations and tastes. “I want things I truly like not what is being lowkey marketed to me,” her letter continued.