On the other hand, it seems to encourage rabbitholes. If I click on an article by someone who writes prolifically on the same general group of subjects, the recommendations will send me on a random walk through their works; if I click on an article by someone who primarily interacts with some group of people, I will see mostly the articles from that group.

This is great if you want to encourage relevance. Sometimes, though, I wish I had a recommendation system that would direct me, specifically, to the opposite: give me what your algorithm would consider the worst possible match. While something like reading roulette will sometimes give me pleasantly bad matches just by including completely random articles (for instance, I once ended up reading an evangelical christian Trump voter’s article about abortion), it’s hard to get a sense for where your overton window lies on the whole spectrum of users just from random entries. Recommending the absolute worst matches might cause some interesting churn, as people are systematically introduced to ideas that any other recommendation system would actively hide from them.

Systems that exist to serve this niche of people who want to get outside their bubble don’t tend to take full advantage of the network. Something like Rando Carlassian (a bot that tweets news stories randomly from an evenly sized pool sourced from right-wing and left-wing sources) still is limited to fairly conventional sources and can’t take into account anything about the mind of an individual user, so as a result it misrepresents the world such that it presents something like Breitbart as being as far right as people go and Jacobin as being the extreme on the left. The reality is that all ideas have a political dimension and politics are weird and divisive in a fractiline and fortean manner: flat-earthers, hollow-earthers, accelerationists, and people who legitimately believe that the moon is a hologram all exist and sometimes have an out-sized effect on the mainstream because our universe often resembles a kind of absurdist prank gods play on each other. Even mainstream political ideas are unbearably weird if you look at them from an outsider’s perspective.

A systematic search for pathologically poor recommendations would allow us to immerse ourselves in an outsider perspective tailor-made to detourn our own ideas.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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