Image source: Paul Padshewscky

“Pictures of You” is why I hate algorithms

I queued up a Talking Heads station on Pandora today, and right after “Burning Down the House” came the endless — and endlessly dull — “Pictures of You” by the Cure. No problem, right? Don’t like a song? Hit the thumbs-down button. Problem is, I love pretty much every other song by the Cure and wouldn’t want to hear less of “Friday I’m in Love” just because I tell Pandora I can’t stand “Pictures of You”.

Now, I don’t know how Pandora’s algorithm works, if it’s highly sophisticated, really simple, or somewhere in between, but that’s part of the problem. With algorithms generally. In the case of this particular song, how does an algorithm know why I don’t like it? Or how much I don’t like it? Am I just not in the mood today? Does it bring back memories of young love gone bad? Does the mental image of Robert Smith’s face give me nightmares? I have no idea what that thumbs down is going to do to my music stream, so in the end, I don’t tap on it, and I just suffer through eight minutes of the dullest song I’ve ever heard.

If there’s no algorithm to worry about, on the other hand, I can skip the song without worrying about whether I’ll hear “Lovecats” on Pandora ever again. And it’s the same for pretty much every algorithmic feed. How can the algorithm know why I don’t like a certain post or article or whatever? Even here on Medium, where the options kinda tell you what the algorithm is going to do, it doesn’t actually do what you expect a lot of the time. You can tell the Mediumbot over and over again you don’t want to see a certain person in your feed for whatever reason, but until you actually block that person (which is overkill for anyone but a troll), they may still keep showing up on a daily basis.

Yeah, I know. Not all algorithms are created equal. I kinda almost like Facebook’s most of the time, for example, because it does a pretty good job of surfacing stuff by the people I’m closest to. But I’d love to be able to decide whether I want an algorithm’s help or not, and it seems to me that too few algorithms can be turned off or otherwise avoided.

Needless to say, no offense if you don’t recommend this!