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Hi there! I'm Phil.

I'm a versatile and curious software engineer, and I make cool web sites.


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TLDR: I’m no longer going to be looking at my Facebook and Instagram pages, though I might still publish to them periodically for self-promotion purposes. Email me at phil@giammattei.co to stay in touch!

TikTok’s Divorce Algorithm

I downloaded TikTok when Cece was a little baby, and enjoyed its simple interface and the genuinely interesting and compelling videos it served me. I saw people hand-making Japanese teapots out of clay, and guys playing mandolin on a barge, and Petey. Nowadays when Cece goes to bed and we’re decompressing from a busy day of work and childcare, Luree and I will often do some idle scrolling, sending each other the best stuff. But last week something happened that made me reconsider how I’m interacting with these apps entirely.

There’s apparently a new show out called Couple’s Counseling, and it began serving me clips from it. Fair enough. On a few of them I checked out the comments to see what other people thought, which must have been interpreted by the algorithm as intense interest in the subject matter, since I don’t usually do that. Then, all of a sudden, I started to get served lots of TikTok videos about divorce.

I’m aware on some level how these algorithms work; in a broad sense, they prioritize engagement and time spent on the app above all else, including the well-being of users. But I’ve never been subjected a more visceral example. Why is an app I use to watch videos of laughing babies meddling in my marriage?

So I deleted my TikTok account. And that act of cathartic digital destruction gave me the momentum to do something that I’ve been putting off for a long time.

The Feeds

TikTok is in the process of being banned in the United States, over concerns that China is using its data harvesting and video recommendation capabilities to surveil and propagandize Americans. Though I think those concerns are wildly overblown, they may well be true! But state actor meddling notwithstanding, Meta Platforms Inc, owner of Facebook, Instagram, and Threads, and based in the good old U. S. of A, is no different in its methods or motivations.

Tech writer Ed Zitron wrote a piece last week that serves as a deep dive into the inner workings of Meta and the repeated, consistent directive to infinitely grow user engagement on the platform by any means necessary. It lines up with my experience, which is that I really don’t enjoy going to those apps anymore. They are infested with ads, video content I didn’t ask for, and lowest-common-denominator posts from total strangers. A lot of it seems like it’s designed to make me mad, mad enough maybe to go to the comments and get into an argument, which would make for great engagement! Increasingly I’m seeing AI-generated images combined with naked pleas for shares or likes (404 has a great piece on the Shrimp Jesus phenomenon, and it’s only getting weirder).

So why be on there at all? Why not just fade away, like so many of my friends already have? I think it’s two things: I remember the experience being much better, and for many people it’s the only way I have to keep in touch. Real updates from people I care about—births, deaths, marriages, vacations, new jobs, kids—are the carrot on a string, and more and more I’m wading through sludge to get to them. It’s hit a breaking point for me, where I feel my attention held hostage by a malign entity and I just can’t do it anymore. Cory Doctorow published an essay about “Enshittification”, the predictable and inevitable process by which platforms entice users with a nice experience, then systematically worsen that experience to extract more revenue for as long as they can. Once you know about it, you start to see it everywhere. The only way to win is to refuse to play.

Until I can think of something better, I’ll be keeping my accounts around to post about self-promotiony type things, mainly all the cool stuff Bad Custer has coming up. But I won’t be sticking around to read reactions, I might even use a third party publishing tool so I don’t have to log into the apps directly. If I miss your notes as a result, I apologize.

Keep In Touch

So I ask you, family and friends and followers, to simply save my email (phil@giammattei.co) and send me a letter if and when you desire. If you don’t have my phone number, I’m happy to provide it. Please send me pictures of your kids and pets and projects, and I will do the same. I’m flabbergasted how completely a handful of platforms captured our social lives, but we did it without them for a long time.

The real ingenuity of social networks was making a social gesture so easy. It costs nothing to slap a thumbs-up on a post, and I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of mistaking a collection of little gestures like that for real interaction. I like the idea that communicating with people you like is a bit harder, but a lot more meaningful.

In addition, I blog on this site and on tigerpajamas.com, and both are subscribable using RSS. If you’re not familiar with RSS, it’s a way to subscribe to blogs you want to follow, and then when you open up your RSS reader you can catch up on everything that’s updated since your last visit. My friend and colleague Jon has created an excellent guide to getting set up with RSS that I strongly recommend reading. It’s a much better way to take in the internet.

If you are feeling truly nerdy, please follow me on Mastodon at @phil@wears.tigerpajamas.com. Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter, but improves upon it in two key ways: there is no algorithm controlling your feed, you simply see the posts of the people you follow, in order, and when you hit the top you’re done. Also, there is no one big company in charge of it. People can and do create their own Mastodon servers to run it themselves, granting complete control of their experience. The Tiger Pajamas Web Site Company owns its own Mastodon server, and no one gets to change the rules on it but us. If that sounds complicated, creating an account at mastodon.social is your best bet.

Reopen the Web

I don’t think I could make this decision without a home base on the web, and I’m very grateful to have a place to put my thoughts that I control completely. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how before Facebook there were a bunch of smaller websites that linked together and people did very well with that system, even if it took a little more knowhow to get set up. In the intervening decades, the tools have gotten much better. If you’re curious about getting a little site set up for yourself, that’s a great thing to email me about! And if you want to get something bigger set up for a business or group, I may know of a company that can help you out with that.

(If your reaction to this post is “God, Phil is being real self-obsessed and navel-gazey here”, my response is “yeah! When you have your own blog you can do that! It rocks!!”)

I’ve already noticed a different speed when not spending all of my time on Facebook (and Twitter, and Reddit, and LinkedIn, and…). It takes a bit for the dopamine receptors to adjust. But I’m left with essays and roundups and links and emails and texts that are all mediated 100% by human beings that I like to hear from, and I gotta say, it’s very nice.

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