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I hate bursting your bladder, but …


Darya foroohar

/ The Chicago Maroon

I finally gave in last spring. After months of nagging friends, the boredom caused by COVID-19, and the irritation of not understanding this dizzyingly complicated hand dance, everyone seemed to know how to do it and downloaded TikTok. Now for instructions on how to cook dandelion, Dr. Doofenshmirtz cosplays and ukulele tutorials – I don’t own a ukulele – devour hours and hours of my life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. This may sound like Stockholm Syndrome to the uninitiated, but the algorithm that drives its own For You Page (FYP) – a limitless stream of video content that identifies and adjusts the user’s preferences over time – is troubling for its own Accuracy known. It’s just scary enough to make you think, “What’s going on in the Black Mirror?”

TikTok’s strength lies in the unique connectedness it fosters, engaging millions of people in inside jokes, and building a community around common interests. Just ask UChicago’s own @annumreport, @azulathecheezit, and @thekatamusic (love your stuff, people!). And yet, TikTok and similarly tailored media also share, creating deeply homogeneous “bubbles” that users can inhabit. My FYP has little in common even with those of my closest friends. Instead, each of our pages provides us with personalized jokes, music and news carefully tailored to our unique tastes, far removed from the take-it-or-leave-it stance of the newspapers and cable networks that dominates most of the American media Decades. This total personalization was once unique to TikTok, but Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube have since stumbled in the ring, tailoring feeds and recommendations to individual users. Endless queues of highly customized content are a reality that will remain – and with it the impact on our own campus community as we gradually emerge from a technology-dependent quarantine. For all of its advantages, algorithmically tailored social media can undermine the value of UChicago awards for interpersonal and intellectual engagement.

I would bet much of the student body can find real identity and interest-centered community on social media, especially during the physical isolation that has characterized the past year and a half. I know my own understanding of the outside world, from the meaningful (reports of the Black Lives Matter 2020 protests and mask distribution efforts) to the trivial (how to work up a sweat while spicing up Dalgona coffee and that inexplicable trend towards white freckles tried) shaped by the information that has come through the higher powers that preside over my FYP. It was a great way to find faces that look like mine, voices that make me nod, and humor that rarely makes me laugh – all at the push of a button.

The transition into the hectic world of college life is all the more shocking. The step back – or new, both in the first and second year – on campus was enthusiastic, everyone was happy about the return to normality and the administration met us halfway with an excessively long orientation for class 2025 with sparkling eyes in the first year I am excited to soak up everything college has to offer, especially the great people and ideas I have come to know through my home, classes and clubs. And yet, sometimes, when I’m half-immersed in a conversation about the injustice of Professor So-and-So’s heartless halftime turn, a tiny corner of my brain whines for a more effortless distraction. Media that are exactly my taste blunt my interactions with others, sharpen my ears when they are out of tune, and rob the people around me of their hues. I may be less eager to have an interest that I do not share and even less receptive to an opinion that seems to contradict what I know.

At the risk of treading a well-trodden path, it is worth noting that highly individualized messages are an obstacle to the tradition of intellectual engagement in our community. University President Paul Alivisatos recently reaffirmed the Chicago Principles at his recent inauguration ceremony and described the university’s longstanding commitment to the variety of perspectives and backgrounds that attract students outside their intellectual comfort zones. Filtered content counteracts this commitment in many ways. We see this in those who get their news from sources like TikTok – where information is reduced into easily digestible 60-second sound bits tailored to our beliefs – or even those who are solely looking for a specific release where the political Source tilt acts as a filter.

Affirmation bias is already well documented in our tendency to actively select news sources that affirm rather than question our beliefs, at the risk of obscuring a more complete picture of the problem at hand. With this principle already driving our decisions, you can imagine how much the effect is amplified if we allow our brains to marinate in content that has been specially curated to block out anything that might displease us. This isn’t an upset guesswork of a Luddite: a study by the Wall Street Journal found that bots programmed with a general interest in politics end up collecting feeds of electoral conspiracies and QAnon content, along with other radical views on both sides of the political spectrum.

Attention-grabbing prefers uncompromising extremes that increasingly build and reinforce myopic worldviews. After all, an algorithm for optimizing engagement has nothing to do with our media literacy and contradicts the obligation of the Chicago Principles to bring perspectives into conversation and look for challenging ideas instead of passively filtering our worldview.

Likewise, an algorithm that directs you only into identity-based communities and interests based on factors such as age, location, gender, or ethnicity can conflict with the university’s approach to engagement. “Echo Chamber” is a devaluation traditionally reserved for ideological communities, but I would argue that it applies to culture as well. For example, there’s a reason UChicago – almost unique among its competitors – purposely does not allow a roommate choice to be specified beyond the essential. The school wants us to learn to get in touch with people we would not otherwise choose. TikTok puts content in your lap based on knowing your identity, leaving a feed with people who look like you, listen to music you like, and so on.

The college experience reverses this. You have a housemate from Taiwan with these amazing posters that you don’t know but would like to ask about. You complimented the girl on her voice a few doors down and she will be happy to translate the Hindi melody for you at lunch. A big boy in your sosc mentions he trains for 3 miles and you’ve never thought about why anyone would run for fun, but maybe it’s time to lace up those sneakers.

Algorithms will evaluate demographics before spitting out a stream of pinpoint content, but there can be unprecedented joy engaging with media and hobbies that don’t naturally get in our way. There is value in being able to bridge gaps of different identities, beliefs, and backgrounds, and this skill cannot be learned without settling into spaces for which we are initially unprepared.

Forgive the grandiosity; Of course, an app won’t turn us into mindless zombies or incapable of human interaction, but we should recognize that this new form of highly personalized content interaction is changing the way we interact with our community. We should make up for the difference by leaving the filter and consciously entering new rooms.

For example, the university recently announced that it would give all students, faculty, and staff free access to the online editions of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Given the center-right, center-left, and left-handed biases of these sources, respectively, it’s a free chance to look at publications that we wouldn’t initially be drawn to – and as a bonus, the apps are pretty classy.

Likewise, my challenge for me was to enter new areas of the media, such as finding criminally under-budgeted indie films, to give a new filmmaker a little love, to try ringing church bells (a greatly underrated RSO) and mixing some of my uncle’s favorite jazz tracks into my incredibly simple Spotify playlists. Granted, these steps may look different for those with more exciting locations on Friday nights, but the potential for variety and adaptability is contained in the “What can I do to move into a new room?” Question. In response, we can round off this fall semester, our return to normal in UChicago, by curating our experiences with the community ourselves.

Cherie Fernandes is a freshman in college.


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