Beware What You Think You Want

I was reading this thread on Substack about newsletters people would like to see and one reply stood out. Milan Kazarka, in a thoughtful comment, said they miss not getting what they want and being surprised by new discoveries. "We turned off our TVs and went to Twitter, Reddit, Medium, or YouTube because we were bored by watching content we weren't interested in. But I fear that we went full circle and now only get a narrow selection of content."

So that got me thinking.

Social media echochambers, advertising algorithms, endless curated options, they all were created by and exist to give you what you want. Or at least what you think you want. When a platform helps you 'discover' new things, it is based on what it thinks you like. And that makes sense. Platforms wish to supply what people want so they can keep customers and make more. The problem is this can create a self-fulfilling (and ever tightening) loop similar to complaints leveled at content channels where engagement metrics drive ever more inflammatory stories and '[[!Fake news]]'.

The more we get what we think we want, the narrower our selection of content becomes, the less we're exposed to anything that challenges our worldview. I think that's why human curation (Substack's newsletter boom being a prime example) is still so valued. Exposure to other ways of thinking are how we run into ideas our own wants would not otherwise surface. However, in general we select the curated channels and so begin to run into the same issues, creating a personalised echochamber of a different sort. A curator may recommend things they like but we presumably follow them because we like their content. It's a safe kind of new. A chance to brush the outer atmosphere of our bubble without leaving it.

The difference is obvious when compared to that new show, book, or view introduced by friends, family, or even someone you don't necessarily like. As an anecdotal example, my sister has a different taste in music and enjoys nothing more than discovering obscure tunes. Meanwhile I shamelessly devour the cheesiest of pop as long as it has a peppy tempo. Spotify or Youtube never recommend me the same songs as her. Yet we still talk about music and swap albums. Do we always like the recommendations? No. When we do, are they something we would otherwise never have discovered? Yes. And the more we do, the more aware we become of a wider landscape outside our own listening bubbles (even if we continue to enjoy our own divergent likes). We can still ignore what we don't like, but to do so we had to become aware of those in the first place.

When we are constantly bombarded with recommendations based on what we think we want, we're never made aware of anything outside that.

It seems like what we think we want is a very small subset of what we potentially like or want. More dangerously, the wants we consciously think about can be the least healthy and/or unlikeliest to lead to the fulfillment of deeper needs. Kids don't want to eat their vegetables. I don't always want to go to the gym. Even the teachings of something like Christianity are based on the idea that what you want is not always the best or healthiest option.

Is wanting something, or ignoring what you don't like, bad? No, not necessarily. But it is easy. When was the last time you wanted to have a difficult time, especially while seeking entertainment or information (which we generally are on the internet)? Change is never easy, and we'll never discover anything truly new without being presented with something that changes what we think we know.