Allison and the Algorithm

Submitted into Contest #150 in response to: Write a story where an algorithm plays an important role.... view prompt

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American Creative Nonfiction Teens & Young Adult

With the swift flick of my calloused finger gliding across the screen, I push away one half-watched video and pull the next into view. Hours pass, bringing fun facts— Did you know that Australia is wider than the moon?— and convoluted jokes that would take far too much explaining. I watch my “mutuals,” (accounts that I follow that follow me as well) dancing and acting to the voices of others. I don’t know what most of them even sound like, yet according to the algorithm, we are friends.

I don’t know how I ended up with twenty-three thousand followers on this app. Nobody who knows me in real life would describe me as a social butterfly; nobody would have ever guessed I would thrive on social media— or rather, that my account would thrive. I don’t know how I feel about it.

I downloaded the app as a joke. Previously, I went as far as to poke fun at the people around me who used this app. I had a superiority complex amongst my colleagues. I thought, for whatever reason, that I was better than the rest. One day, after losing a bet with a friend, I downloaded the app.

At first, I idled as a viewer, scrolling through a handful of videos at a time, unsure of how to interact. After stalking the prey of social interaction, picking apart the linguistics of comment sections, noticing how the algorithm wove the intricate web of my explore page— after studying for hours on end, I decided to make my first post: an awkwardly-angled video of an original song.

Unfortunately, that video did not gain traction. In fact, most of my followers don’t know that I am a musician at all. For about a year, I tried posting videos of my art, my poetry, and my music, but nothing seemed to catch the algorithm’s eye. Out of desperation and boredom, I finally started using the app as a way to simply pass the time; I began using viral sounds, mouthing to the words of an actor in a show I’ve never seen, adding captions to make things personal but still vague enough to be relatable.

I cracked the code by treating it like I do real social interactions: analyze, mirror, and add some personality. By weaving my life into trends, I have found a way to push myself into the algorithm. I slid my foot into the door. Sometimes, I am able to sneak bigger parts of myself through the cracks; I can piggyback advertisements for my creative endeavors in the replies of my popular videos. I began to form a community of sorts, like-minded creatives slowly swimming upstream. Alone in my ring-lit room, I felt a sense of belonging and a glimmer of hope.

The troll is a terrible thing, a wicked phenomenon where anonymity meets spite. It is quite easy to have a video removed for community guidelines violations; I am a woman with a large chest who talks about emotionally-charged topics. My existence on this app has been perpetually targeted by grim, faceless accounts that spam my videos with senseless reports until the robotic system that files through the pixels determines my fate. I have been blocked from posting, commenting, and cast with other various temporary restrictions. The worst punishment is the shadow ban, where the algorithm does not warn you that you are being punished; it simply stops pushing your content to new eyes. In severe cases, not even your followers see your videos. The algorithm puts you in timeout— a viewless void. Dance alone and talk to yourself until it decides you can join the world again.

Monetization was the worst thing that ever happened to my account. For starters, the algorithm loves to bleed you dry for your content, but it hates to pay you for it. After you join the program that allows you to monetize your content, the algorithm does not want to push it to new eyes because that would mean that the app would have to pay you for those views. My superiority complex struck again, and I thought that I could be better than those who complained about the lower views once joining the program. I thought that I could beat the algorithm. (Nobody can beat the algorithm.)

Unsurprisingly, it proved more difficult to get views. My follower count idled at twenty-one thousand for months. I did my best to follow the trends, going so far as to actually take notes and dedicate a journal to my efforts. What is the next big thing? Who do I want to see this? Eventually, I had a video making a comment about how I didn’t want my sister to take her full shirt off to breastfeed in front of my boyfriend— with no warning. This sparked controversy, and controversy brings comments, and comments push content in the algorithm.

The troll is a terrible thing. Due to the nature of the content, after sixty-four thousand, five-hundred views, the video was taken down. My first semi-viral video since joining the monetization program was taken down. Now, trolls were not just an annoyance to block and ignore. Now, trolls have the power to take money from my pocket, money I danced and mouthed and studied to earn. Now, the pressure of being a content creator has become too much to handle.

The worst thing that you can do in the eyes of the algorithm is take a break. I took my calloused finger, held down the app, and dragged it to the glowing X in the corner of my screen. I knew that I would eventually return, but I did not plan how long I would be gone. The impulse to delete the app hit me like a gut-punch, a soulful cry from my mental health, begging to be a priority. I deleted all of my social media except for an app for support groups, and I downloaded a few self-help apps. I journaled, and I vented, and I realized how my self-worth had become dependent on the dopamine rush of virality, how I let trolls dictate my self-image. I lost touch with the world around me.

Twenty-three thousand people have about forty-six thousand eyes. The best part about a month-long social media break is that I no longer felt the pressure of approximately forty-six thousand eyes. The only eyes that should matter to me are my own. I used so many filters that I had forgotten what my face looked like. Looking in the mirror, I re-introduced myself to my own skin— my bumpy, red, pale, textured skin. I see my plain brown eyes, unfiltered and not piercing hazel or dreamy blue. I have a handful of scattered freckles, but they are not placed in an aesthetically pleasing spray across my cheeks. I see my plain face in the mirror, and I am stunned into silence when I think: I think I’m beautiful.

After a month of mindfully living in my own skin, I cautiously returned to the app. I left the monetization program immediately, and I went back to mirroring popular content. My videos scarcely make it into a handful of thousands of views nowadays, but I don’t worry about that anymore. I notice the followers who regularly comment and interact; I appreciate them, and I let them know. I interact with my mutuals, and I have even texted some of them personally. The app added a function where you can post videos that only your mutuals can see; through this, I have better gotten to know the people I follow. I hear their voices. I see them. They see me.

It feels good to be seen.

June 15, 2022 19:42

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