Tom Critchlow

Blood In the Feed

The uneasy experience of predatory algorithms

June 6, 2019

Have you had the feeling of being prey inside an algorithmic system?

That system shock that comes from realizing that you’re no longer the user but the prey.

Maybe this is common behaviour - but I recently clicked an Instagram ad (yes, I have a new watch - it’s very on brand for my blog).

I don’t click ads often, in fact I can’t remember the last time I did.

But ever since clicking the watch ad my feed is populated exclusively by watch ads. So many watch ads. There’s an uneasy feeling of the algorithmic sharks circling in the water, they smell blood. A weakness in the user.

There’s blood in the feed and the algorithms can smell it.

I took screenshots of all the ones I rememberd to.

We talk about machine learning algorithms as being evolutionary - i.e being derived from nature. But if there’s one thing that nature’s good at it’s predators and prey.

Of course, I’m certain at least some of these watches I’m being advertised barely exist - as per the magnificent investigation by Jenny Odell in her research report There’s no such thing as a free watch.

The opposite of blood in the feed is… algorithmic whiplash? A sense of dislocation that comes from the algorithms trying to guess whether you’re interested in credit card learning or a UFC fight. This sense of unreal disbelief - how can you get things so wrong?

Thanks to Tobias for the AMP-story embed tip https://twitter.com/WillmannTobias

Update #1: “Chum links” - Chum is shark bait thrown into the water. A chum link is a link that triggers a high intent signal of a specific kind to the algorithms triggering blood in the feed. Example - click this link and watch the enamel pin ads roll into your feed: https://studiocult.co/ - disclaimer I found that link via an ad so have no idea if the pins are real

Update #2: I just remembered this wonderful ethnographic study of Glossier’s ads from my friends at Part and Sum: Modern mystery shopping with Glossier. Brands are increasingly going to have to research the lived experience of their own ads as their ad-tech systems become more and more advanced.

Update #3: “Life has become a mundane cyberpunk novel: on the run from algorithms.” - Yes! Cyberdeck 2019


This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.