Color blocks in multiple colors | The Art of Discovery in an Algorithmic Age

From River, by Max Bittner

The Art of Discovery in an Algorithmic Age

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of conversations happening right now about taste. What is taste? How do you know what your taste is? How do you evolve your sense of taste?

One striking thing about the current conversations on taste is that they’re less about good taste or bad taste than in the past. Instead, they’re centered around the question of personal taste. How does one develop taste that is unique and authentic? Taste with an n of 1.

This fixation on personal taste comes at a moment when algorithm fatigue is starting to crest. As the bots behind our social apps feed us one irresistibly clickable piece of media after another, there is a creeping anxiety. What does it say about me that an algorithm can so easily figure out what I like and feed it to me like soma tablets? What does it say about my taste, my individuality?

The Art of Discovery in an Algorithmic Age

Part of the problem is that algorithms tend to perpetuate similarity. Content creators see what does well and then emulate that, tightening the circle so that everything starts to feel like a copy of a copy of a copy. If we spend a lot of time stuck in the scroll, which these apps have been specifically designed to make us do, we find ourselves consuming the same quantity of media, but the diversity goes way down. We’re bored, and the boredom is a red flag, because as every mother has said at some point or another, “Only boring people are bored.”

Are we boring? Are we copycats? Do we have anything original to share? That’s the fear implicit in the current conversation on taste. We want to have good taste, but more than that, we want to have unique taste, taste that sets us apart from the other hundred thousand people who liked that viral Tiktok video. In a consumer culture, taste — what you buy, read, watch, eat, and consume — is a proxy for how you think. And in a world flattened by algorithms, soon to be even more flattened by AI, different wins.

How Algorithms Flatten Culture

In a conversation Ezra Klein had with author Kyle Chayka on the subject, they talked about how everything we consume now is filtered through data, whether we’re aware of it or not. The movies we become aware of are the ones that get ranked well in Rotten Tomatoes. Every coffee shop looks the same because business owners see what does well on Instagram and Yelp and know that the faintly Scandi default look is most likely to keep their doors open. The books bought by publishers are riffs on formulas that worked in the last release cycle. Algorithms flatten culture, limiting the palette of what’s available to us. The amplitude of variability in the population of tastes shrinks simply because there’s not enough weird stuff to like.

I think this is a critical point that often gets missed in discussions of taste, because it’s hard to develop a unique sense of taste without exploring a broad palette of things. Taste is a constant dialogue between you and the world. To find your authentic sense of taste, you need to cast a wider net.


The weird thing is, the platforms need us to do this too. You may have read Cory Doctorow’s treatise on “enshittification” of online platforms (if not, do that now), where he describes the cycle in which online platforms die:

First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.

Algorithms serve this enshittification cycle, first by trying to hook users, then by feeding them the things that business customers want them to see. Engagement flags, because users don’t want to see all that marketing dressed up as content, and the platform pushes creators to jump through hoops to be favored by the algorithm. This becomes too onerous for most creators, who drop out of the game, leaving those with more money or time. The content gets slicker, the users get less interested, and the platform dies.

Left to their own devices, the algorithms always end up poisoning the well. Platforms are begging for new ideas to draw users back to them, but algorithm has squeezed out originality so fully that it’s simply not possible for weird things to gain traction in these spaces. The new ideas are elsewhere.

Liking what is popular

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with liking what everyone else likes (despite the stigma around being “basic”). Some universally popular things are just good. But there are moments when it becomes unsettling.

Back when I was single and living in Carroll Gardens, there was a restaurant I used to like to go to by myself for lunch on the weekends. There were three counter seats in a sunny window on Smith Street, and I would sit at one with my notebook, eating a grilled fish sandwich with cabbage slaw and hot sauce. One day, I looked up after being lost in thought and saw on each side of me another woman in her 30s, each with a book or a journal, each with a fish sandwich. I hightailed it out of there feeling something like shame.

How Can We Discover New Things?

So how do we fix this? If you talk to most people who had access to a web browser in the early 2000s, they will say that the web was better back then. It’s not a reflexive nostalgic tic. The web was better then, not only because it wasn’t designed to fuel hate and amplify misinformation, but because it was the ideal environment for discovery.

You’d start out on a blog you liked, follow links to other blogs, and soon be five or six layers deep into a microculture you knew nothing about. At each step along the way, you’d gain additional context from a person, and another chance for exposure to something weird and unlikely.

The pre-algorithmic web was ideal for discovery because it was easy to stumble on random things, and because it was easy to follow aesthetic or topical threads to go deeper into an area of interest. For example, I used to love a blog called Birds of Ohio. (I searched for it, but it no longer seems active.) I don’t even remember what exactly it was about — crafts or textiles I think — but occasionally they posted about music. Through them I found this composer who used to make these incredible mixes of wordless music that were perfect for writing. None of this was mediated by a computer program trying to guess what I’d want. I followed an interest, found someone whose aesthetic appealed to me, and followed that aesthetic thread into a totally different arena.


Contrast this with what it’s like to search Pinterest these days. It serves up a bunch of images that other people with the same search ended up pinning, probably factoring in what’s on your pinboards in the process. While some of these suggestions may be appealing, they fall into this weird netherworld. They’re not “curated” — there’s no one’s taste you can delve deeper into. But they’re also not random, so the weird stuff that might lead you somewhere new is conspicuously absent.

True “discovery mode” is not easy in the current state of the web. To find it, we need different tools and different approaches. In particular, here are three ways to increase your chances of discovering something new online.

Follow Aesthetic Threads

My preferred way of using Pinterest these days is by searching for people who interest me, and then scrolling through their pins and pinboards. (This approximates how Pinterest was when it was first created. You had a feed that was composed of all the pins shared by people you followed.) Scrolling user by user allows you to see aesthetic patterns emerge. There might be a story in a collection of images. If you get a charge out of something, likely you’ll be able to find more things like it this way.

Another tool that allows you to follow aesthetic threads is River, which creator Max Bittner calls a visual connection engine. When you start, you just see a large field of images. Click one, and the images reorganize to show you visually similar images. As you scroll, the images start to diverge from your original choice. New themes emerge, and you can follow the visual thread from one idea to another. As you make choices, you start to get a feel for what you like and what you don’t. Control + clicking the images lets you learn more about them.

Increase Context

Spotify has a certain amount of discovery embedded in the platform, and yet I rarely feel that I discover an artist that I become passionate about in this way. On the other hand, Radiooooo is a music player whose interface consists of a world map and a timeline. Click a country and a decade, and discover new (old) music.

The joys of this kind of musical journeying remind me of the old web. When you find something you enjoy, you already know two keys things about it, which can help you find more things you might like. You can click adjacent countries to see if there were similar influences during that period. You can move forward and back in time to see how the music changed.

Context adds trajectory to discovery. It gives you a place to go next.

Introduce Randomness

One of the joys of the old chronological feeds was how random they were. Algorithms stole randomness from us, replacing it with an opaque, data-driven logic. But randomjuxtapositions and ideas drive discovery, taking us places we never would’ve thought to go.

Randomness is hard to reclaim, especially when algorithms drive “results.” It’s not surprising that we see randomness more in passion projects like Radiooooo (which has a shuffle feature) than in more profit-driven platforms.

I think this is why so many people who are considered tastemakers travel obsessively. Changing geographies is one of the few ways we have to limit the influence of the filter bubble, introducing randomness and increasing context at the same time.

Why Discovery Matters Now More Than Ever

It might seem superficial to care so much about taste. But the reality is that the art we see, the food we eat, and the stories we hear shape who we become. Alongside our values, they are a core part of our identity.

Algorithms calcify our taste and shrink our world. In the process, they limit our growth.

In Becoming Supernatural, Dr. Joe Dispenza advises against looking at your calendar first thing in the morning. He says that those appointments were all created by yesterday’s you, and if that’s where you place your attention as soon as you wake up, rather than leaving space for new ideas, you’ll be immediately sucked into living out the old you’s plans.

Algorithms may serve up new things, but they’re fed on old patterns of behavior. They keep us stuck. Taking control of our discovery may be a little more work, but it’s worth it for the richness that we can uncover. Who knows who we might become if we break outside their fences and see what’s on the other side?

February 9th, 2024


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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. CMc on February 10, 2024

    Great suggestions here! As usual, your writing is so insightful.  This made me think back to the days of going to a real brick and mortar library, how fun it was to just roam the stacks and go home with an armful of unrelated, random books that sparked joy and curiosity, and for free!  Now I’m motivated to get myself to a library again, Thank you

  2. Kristin on February 10, 2024

    I’ve been feeling the same way about cultural uniformity. In fact, I stopped using Pinterest because it’s no longer interesting to me. I suggest people go to a physical library and wander around the aisles. It’s amazing the artists and thinkers you discover when you open yourself to the possibilities.

  3. Mary Austin on February 11, 2024

    I appreciate this a lot — it’s a helpful reminder that we can break away from the routines of the internet, and still have the thrill of discovery. Thanks for this.

  4. Lyn Nene on February 11, 2024

    This was stunning and slap to the forehead! I was just thinking today how FB has become one giant advertisement, with a sprinkling of what the people I actually care about is scattered between promotions. I have deleated so many, but they just come back in a different form. You are a true delight, Ingrid! Thank you!

  5. Alex on February 13, 2024

    Love this, and I think is just the beginning of what could be a longer conversation. My husband (age 43) often talks about the ‘good ol days’ of the internet. I miss it too. In the physical world I guess algos have always kind of been there. My mom told me this when I was a kid, and my little mind was blown!  She said nothing we purchase with our money is really our choice; it has been set out for us in allotted amounts by the higher ups who decide what they want us to consume, whether it be shampoo, vitamins, home decor, etc. She told me, it only appears like we have a choice in what we buy and then use, but really, we don’t. 

  6. KYL on April 4, 2024

    This has been an immensely helpful resource. I feel like using the internet for inspiration has never gotten me anywhere, it all felt like such a vacuum. Until now! Thank you!


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