Posted on November 23, 2023 in Technology

Are We Forgetting How To Curate Our Online Experience?

If you’re on TikTok, you may have heard of the Bean Soup fiasco. A woman made a recipe video for an iron-rich bean soup, only to have a comment section full of people asking if they could omit the beans. While this should be a problem with an easy and obvious answer – don’t make a bean soup if you don’t like beans in soup – it demonstrates a larger problem with the direction the internet is headed.


The internet as it exists today defaults to a conveyor belt of advertisements with some entertainment slotted in, unless one goes out of their way to leave the big websites and visit smaller ones. Youtube’s front page algorithm shunting people into extremist circles is well documented; TikTok’s For You page is always studying your actions to make you stay longer and watch more ads. Social media websites like X, Instagram, Facebook, et cetera are much the same, relying on algorithmic interpretations of you as a person to feed you things you’ll stay and look at. Even apps like Spotify have plenty of algorithmically generated playlists to supplement the ones you made manually. If you’re not on premium, every once in a while it’ll put one on for you in the middle of yours and just… not tell you.

While this is convenient and profitable for the websites, it makes it hard for users (especially younger users who don’t remember the times before Google) to stray outside of the box. People are told constantly that websites are spying on them, that Facebook knows their blood type and zodiac sign, that Target can figure out someone is pregnant before they do, all to send them ads and make money. Now that it seems inevitable, it’s almost viewed as a trade instead of an invasion of privacy: this website can show me ads, sure, but it better know what else to show me.

To go back to the bean soup recipe mentioned at the start, users are asking if there’s a substitute for the beans because they were served the video on the content conveyor belt they’ve been using instead of subscription features, so the content must be for them. TikTok shows them videos they like and doesn’t show them things that they dislike. Instead of simply searching for another recipe, or trying substitutions themselves, they ask the content creator to fix the algorithm’s ‘mistake’ and show them something without beans in it, as if it was a choose-your-own-adventure and not a pre-established recipe.

Made for Me

To clarify, the algorithm didn’t make a mistake. TikTok occasionally tosses in videos from other niches to see if the end user will watch them too. If they don’t, they don’t get those videos again. If they do, they get more. This is a good thing, even though it creates friction, because it makes it harder to end up in the horse video corner where the only videos are videos of horses. Unfortunately, the people who want to be in the horse video corner will occasionally be shown a video about welding, or maybe grain silo fires, something tangentially related but not about horses.

The conveyor belts work too well. They make the user too comfortable. The user doesn’t want to subscribe to creators when the ‘For You’ page will conveniently shovel them that creator anyway. They forget where they used to go to find the content that they used to like, and instead rely on that website’s conveyor almost entirely. TikTok defaults to the “For You” page, not the page they themselves curated by following people. So does Youtube, where you have to click into your subscription feed. So does Spotify, where generated playlists and recommended podcasts are shown above yours. Other big websites like X slot in recommended tweets between subscribed ones; Threads, X’s competitor, doesn’t even have a purely chronological feed.

To use the websites, users must accept being shown things they don’t like; at the same time, they expect the high-quality experience that they’d be able to build themselves if the websites weren’t pushing their algorithmic feed as a replacement for it, because the building would take work but the algorithm is already made.

Side Note: You Can’t Use TikTok For Search

TikTok is a perfect storm of misinformation and poor-quality search results sorted by the wrong metrics. The app offers up a ‘popular search’ at the top of the comment section, linking to the most common search their users make after watching a given video. The problem is that the search has the same inflammatory power that headlines do! To clarify, the popular search is user-generated, not made by TikTok or fact-checked in any way. A user may see ‘[x] creator embarrassing Christmas party picture’ and continue scrolling through videos without looking, assuming such a thing must exist if searches for it exist. Or, they see ‘[x] creator is dead’ in the search and panic, assuming this must be because they missed an announcement somewhere.

Even if they do question the search and tap it, they’ll end up scrolling through videos made to exploit the search instead of answer the question. Trying to find out what slang means on TikTok is near impossible, for example. The top videos put the slang or acronym in the tags and description of the video, and then the video itself will be just music or a video of the creator looking around in front of a wall, no definition included. To be fair to those creators, even though it’s annoying, nobody should be using TikTok for research. It’s a social media app. It’s not easy for users to fact-check creators, it’s riddled with people pitching colloidal silver and borax drinks casually, and people often exaggerate or even lie about what credentials they have. TikTok is for fun and shouldn’t be for anything else. If you want to learn about an acronym, visit Google. To suggest searches in this environment may have been what users wanted, but it’s not good.

Unfortunately, the users themselves are not encouraged to search anything off the site because no app or website is designed that way. You’re supposed to stay on the site. The site doesn’t want you to leave. You probably don’t want to leave the site to find your answers, and many other apps and websites try to enable that urge to stay.