Rutgers professor Shagun Jhaver coined the term “algorithmic anxiety” while researching Airbnb hosts in 2018.
He observed the obsessive lengths that hosts were taking to try to boost the rankings of their properties — while not quite sure how the Airbnb algorithm worked or what would make a difference. Shagun described many of these attempts as “folk theories”, like logging on to Airbnb repeatedly throughout the day or inaccurately marking listings as “child safe”.
New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka recently argued we’re living in an “Age of Algorithmic Anxiety”, whether on the receiving end of algorithms at Spotify, Netflix and Amazon, or trying to reach an audience on platforms with constantly changing algorithms as gatekeepers.
For marketers and creators, keeping pace with the algorithms has become an endless arms race. No sooner are LinkedIn polls shown to drive engagement than everyone’s feeds are suddenly filled with LinkedIn polls. This leads to LinkedIn eventually down-ranking LinkedIn polls. And on and on it goes.
The TikTok-ification of Instagram is the most recent tail wagging the dog, as everyone tries to shift gears to keep up with what will drive engagement there.
As Lex Olson at JumpFly put it:
“Due to increased algorithm shifts starting in 2019, creators have been expressing frustrations with Instagram, feeling as though they are working for Instagram rather than for themselves. Instagram’s recent updates have created an almost unachievable standard for creators, requiring them to consistently produce quality content at a faster rate than ever before.”
What can get lost in this constant one-upmanship and gamification is the actual audience. If we’re not careful, we end up creating solely for the algorithms, not the people on the other end.
I started sharing my cartoons through a weekly email newsletter in 2002 (this October will mark 20 years). The humble email newsletter is old school, but it’s still the most valuable communication channel I use. The reach of my cartoons may be technically larger in other channels, but algorithms are fickle. Continuity trumps virality.
In an “age of algorithmic anxiety”, it’s my foundation.
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: