I think mostly visually, and thoughts create scenes in the theater of my mind. As my supportive family members, friends, and colleagues asked how I was doing, I saw myself on a cliff, surrounded by an all-knowing fog that passed just beyond the edge. I’m there, on the edge, with my parents and sisters, looking for a way down. There is no sound or urgency to the scene, and I wait for it to swallow me. I look for forms and navigation hints, but it’s so vast and gray and endless.
I wanted to take that fog and put it under a microscope. I started Googling the stages of grief, as well as books and research on loss from an app on my iPhone, scrolling through personal disasters while I waited for coffee or watched Netflix. How will it feel? How will I succeed?
I began, intentionally and unintentionally, consuming people’s experiences of grief and tragedy through Instagram videos, various news feeds, and Twitter responses. It’s as if the Internet has secretly joined forces with my compulsions and started pandering to my worst fantasies; the algorithms were a kind of priest who took confession and communion.
Yet, with every search and click, I was unwittingly creating a sticky web of digital grief. In the end, it will be almost impossible to untangle yourself. My wistful digital life was preserved in amber by pernicious personalized algorithms that cleverly observed my mental preoccupations and offered me even more cancer and loss.
I came out – finally. But why is it so hard to unsubscribe and opt out of content we don’t need, even if it hurts us?
I’m well aware of the power of algorithms—I’ve written about the mental health effects of Instagram filters, the polarizing effect of Big Tech’s obsession with engagement, and the surprising ways advertisers target specific audiences. But in the midst of panic and searching, I first felt that my algorithms were a force for good. (Yes, I call them “my” algorithms because, while I understand that the code is uniform, the output is so intensely personal that they feel May) They seem to have worked with me, helping me find stories of people coping with tragedy, making me feel less alone and more capable.
In reality, I’ve felt the effects of an ad-driven Internet up close and personal, which Ethan Zuckerman, a prominent Internet ethicist and professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, famously called “the Internet’s original sin” in 2014. Atlantic a piece In this story, he explained the advertising model that brings revenue to sites with content best suited to target the right audience at the right time and at the right scale. This, of course, requires “diving into the world of surveillance,” he wrote. This incentive structure is now known as “surveillance capitalism.”
Understanding how to maximize the interaction of each user on the platform is the formula for profit and is the basis for the current economic model of the Internet.