What you want and what you need

When I’m at home with my ten-year-old son we sometimes watch a movie. He’s now old enough to watch most 15-rated films, particularly those from the 80s, when 15s were apparently more innocent. So I look through the choices on Hulu, Netflix, HBO and iTunes and try to find him something that he’ll like but isn’t just a load of old kiddie crap.

And it’s hard work. This is because he likes what he already knows: cartoons, space, pirates, dinosaurs, CGI etc. So when I try to broaden his horizons I come up against cynical resistance. But there are of course many, many films he doesn’t like the look of but will enjoy immensely if he gave them a chance. (Only last week it took half an hour of diplomatic-level persuasion to get him to try The Matrix, which he loved.)

As frustrating as this can be, it’s also frustratingly familiar: whether we’re ten or eighty, we all tend to consume that which falls within our comfort zone. As adults we have tried many kinds of food, books, music, holidays, clothes etc. and we now know what we like, so we attempt to experience more of those things, ignoring the rest.

This also seems to be the basis of the algorithms that quietly shape our online worlds. Whether from Google, Pandora, Facebook or whoever serves up your news, the overriding principle seems to be ‘here’s more of what you already like’, and that makes sense makes sense; after all, if you were a Brexiteer you’d hardly want to be fed a steady diet of Remain articles. And if you happened to enjoy Neil Young it’s unlikely you’d want a musical stream solely devoted to Whigfield. A regular at Heston Blumenthal? You’re unlikely to be interested in McDonald’s discounts.


Where do you draw the line? Just like my son, people benefit from being exposed to influences beyond their usual menu. Sticking only to the familiar leads to a small and dreary life. And how did you find that comfort zone in the first place? By trying things you didn’t know you were going to like.

Social media appears to be creating an ever-shrinking feedback loop where you think your news is the news and the opinions of your friends the opinions of everyone. Where are those who disagree with you? Where is the music that doesn’t quite fit with your playlist? Where are the restaurants that might not hit the bullseye first time but could grow on you? Hiding in someone else’s algorithm, I’m afraid.

Yes, I understand that you have developed a ‘taste’ over the years, a set of experiences you’re more likely to enjoy, but you also need the other stuff. You need to see what else is out there, just in case it’s waiting to become your new favourite.

Do the current algorithms take that into account? Not in my experience. It’s becoming harder and harder to look through the other windows because they’re becoming increasingly invisible. And where will that end? Smaller and smaller bubbles and more and more separation from each other.

Ironically that’s neither what I want nor what I need.