I’m Taking this Algorithm Personally

Why does it think I only want sex tips for single girls?

Photo by Giulia May on Unsplash

I know we aren’t supposed to talk about Medium. It’s like Fight Club or Vegas, or Uncle Bob’s “year off” spent “resting.” But I’m increasingly distressed that the Medium algorithm seems to think I’m a single gal desperate for blow job tips.

I originally joined Medium way back in 2018, to follow one of my favorite writers Meghan Daum. I would log in every two weeks or so to see what she had written, and that was that. Then, on a lark I started writing myself, and by extension started reading more, and was thrilled to find people like Kim Duke who writes about food the way I want to read about food, or Kay Bolden who wrote about cooking the way I want to read about cooking, like she did here. I also love reading personal stories about love and loss, like Sarah Marie Wiebe did here.

So it’s a little shocking to wake up every morning to Medium’s daily recommendations, which so far has included pieces about people dumping their boyfriend because they have a small penis, how to give a blowjob, awkward threesomes, and anal bleaching gone awry. There’s also a steady stream of articles about men as if they are another species altogether. Some of these articles are even written by men, with titles like Why We Lie to Women All the Time, and How to Avoid Us, Terrible Human Beings. That’s not verbatim. But it’s close.

At first, I thought it was me. I’m generally a fan of an algorithm — when Instragram throws a targeted ad in my feed, I more often than not think Thank you, yes, I was in fact looking for slippers with an embroidered dog on them. Or, How did you know I was looking for a powdered SPF that comes in a little brush I can put in my purse? Thank you!

In fact, I often joke that the Instagram algorithm is my best friend — it knows me so well, and is, well kind. It never sends me ads about weight loss, even though my liking/searching history would tell you I need to lose a few. It knows that I love cooking, horses, dogs, secluded cabins and Farrow and Ball paint.

So although I know the notion of privacy has been completely destroyed in America — we all gave that up when we started following Oprah and her notion that full-throated confessions to an audience of a gajillion people was the path to healing — I don’t really care, because algorithms have always been a friend to me, no matter how much they send data into some corporate mothership that will one day use it to overtake us all. It’s fine. It’s just too convenient for me to care. In fact, my runner up best friend is the Amazon algorithm who knows that I am always trying to find the right flavor dog food for Mitzi, a lab/shepherd mix who is my actual best friend. (I am no longer talking to the Facebook algorithm, which is a long breakup story I’ll tell one day).

So on balance, algorithms are good, thoughtful. That is, until I discovered the Medium algorithm. According to Medium, I’m a) desperately single b) hate men but c) also completely sex starved and looking for tips to satisfy the men I apparently hate because they are lying cheats who will never learn. I am apparently interested in absolutely nothing else, even though I’ve written and read about food, depression, work tips, and some humor pieces. Is it because my best performing piece is about online dating? If so, come on. That piece was a joke, Medium! I’m sorry! Will I have to spend the rest of my reading life paying for it?

Medium algorithm, if you’re listening: I am technically single, but in a loving relationship with a very nice guy who breaks down Amazon boxes. (Score). My blow jobs are already amazing. (Wait. if I wrote a blow job guide, would it get curated?). I don’t think men are lying cheats any more than women are lying cheats. I love to cook, read personal histories, and I desperately want to find someone who will talk about The Walking Dead with me.

I started writing this piece about two weeks ago, and then thought, you know what? I’m not being fair. I’m going to take a break from writing this and give the Medium algorithm a chance to know me. I’m going to immediately dismiss stories on my daily feed that assumed I was desperate to give a lying narcissist the best blow job of his life, and I am going to read to the very very end of stories from writers I like.

On the one hand, this experiment had a great outcome. The Medium algorithm did lead me to writers like, Nicholas E. Barron who wrote this amazing piece about a childhood memory. It also led me to Sarah Lofgren who is making me laugh and laugh. And I also found the inimitable Ellie Guzman who wrote a story about a break up that sounded a whole lot like mine, which maybe someday I’ll write about too. And I’ll even give the Medium algorithm bonus points for sending me that last story, because it was from 2017.

And yet. This morning I woke up to my “Daily Read” which had a story from a guy I’m not following in a publication I’m also not following that had something to do with men lying about the fact that they really want to screw porn stars. I’m not really sure, because I scanned it fast lest the Medium algorithm thought I wanted to read it. The other story in my daily recommendations was by a woman I’m also not following in a publication I’m also not following about whether it’s cool to be a low maintenance girlfriend. Again, skimmed that one in case the algorithm was paying attention.

Look, there is nothing wrong if someone is interested in sex tips or still believes men are lying creatures from another planet, and yet wants to figure out how to land one and keep him happy. By extension, there is nothing wrong if someone wants to read about any of those things. But for me the fact that the algorithm thinks I want to read any of that is, simply put, insulting. Because it frames me as a one-dimensional caricature of a woman yoked to a familiar trope: gotta find a man and keep him happy. Even though he is a lying narcissistic cheat.

But Adeline, you’re thinking, it’s a computer program. Don’t be insulted by a computer program! Yes, I agree! But didn’t a human being have to create the program in the first place? I mean, they did, right? I really don’t know. Remember, I’m a dumb single girl obsessed with sex and my lying boyfriend who wants to screw a porn star.

I tried to figure this out. And by that I mean, I spent about 20 minutes googling how how algorithms work. And this is what I found out: something something data points something something data points weighted differently something something smart learning. I came away with this: the algorithm takes data from the user, and then uses it to determine what the user wants to see. This feels very straightforward on Instagram. There, I like any photo from Farrow and Ball and I therefore see a lot of posts featuring Farrow and Ball paint. Simple. Elegant.

But not here. I have two working theories. First theory: data points are weighted differently. So for instance, every time I click on a sex tips article, even by accident, that data point is weighted more heavily by a factor of 1029192939129399394949 than all the times I clicked on a thoughtful personal history. Second theory: data points are out the window, the algorithm isn’t paying attention to anything I read, and bases all its recommendations on what it knows about me: female and single.

Is there a human Oz behind all this? A man behind the curtain who created the algorithm and maybe still tweaks it? If so, is he a drunk frat guy? Brett Kavanaugh, is this your side hustle?

Maybe I should just go quietly into the night, and accept that the ghost in the machine is just as much a victim of stereotypes as us folks in the meat world. I really don’t know, but I have little time to think about it further. I gotta go read about how to keep my boyfriend happy before he leaves me for a porn star.