Rob On Stuff

Boxed In

I am feeling terribly boxed in by most of the stores or services I tend to use regularly. It’s quite the frustrating thing.

I have never had much luck with algorithm’s trying to sort out what I’d like or what I’d want to watch/play/listen to/read – more often than not, the more a service moves towards this sort of thing, the less useful it becomes.

And more to the point, the more work *I* have to do in order to find anything.

I have no idea, nor care, if this makes me a minority according to someone’s data or not. All I know is that stores and services are effectively making themselves more of a chore for me to rummage around and I’m less happy using them.

I used to get a giggle out of Last.FM and Audioscrobbling, their suggestions were often so obscenely far away from anything I’d want to listen to that it became a sort of entertainment to see what suggestions it would throw my way. Paul McCartney again? Oh me, oh my.

The thing about Last.FM and Audioscrobbling that differs though is that Last.FM was a passive service. I listen to music, I enjoyed the brief period where so many other folks were scrobbling too and we would chat about music we liked. The algorithmic suggestions were no obstacle to me. The service, as This Is My Jam would also do later, was something to spark off discussion and yeah, parade my awful music taste to the entire world.

I’m not there to buy music, right? That’s important.

Stores and subscription services though? They’re just a pain.

Netflix makes browsing for anything take a torturous amount of time. I’m sure it makes for some lovely engagement figures but it reminds me of the worst video rental stores. Just idly staring at box after box after box hoping that at some point soon, you’ll find something, anything you like. Blockbuster Syndrome, if you will.

I mention this partially for a reason. For my sins, I did time in a video store – many, many years ago. I would chat to the customers, I would know who went for the straight to video just give me any old crap to fill an afternoon up stuff, who would go for the quality horror, who would go for the two pound fifty and a duck budget ones.

I would know that if it was a Monday, there would be people in early in the afternoon and that they’d be getting a new release to watch before the kids came home and stuff like that. This stuff, despite the beliefs of the tech sector is not stuff you can replace easily with an algorithm because it’s a constant two way process, it would take an algorithm six months to get even close to what I (or any other good counter assistant, really) could nail in a week. And crucially, I would never be boxing customers in and making just looking round the shop difficult.

I worked record stores as well. As much as it would leave me exhausted, I would love the Christmas shifts. Anyone working in retail knows these are brutal, seemingly unending and there’s never enough time or staff available versus the amount of people who’ll be wanting to buy gifts. I loved it because I would hop around the shop grabbing things for befuddled parents, chatting briefly to people about what they were buying (and trying to suss out those who just wanted to keep their head down and go without any of this so that I wouldn’t be in their face). Again, it doesn’t take long to get an idea for suggestions in these situations and it requires so little effort on behalf of the customer.

Were I on the other side of the counter… well, I am definitely one of those folk who sort of just wants to buy stuff and go most of the time but still, knowing that a good counter assistant is there and will be able to guide me towards what I’m after is nice. It’s reassuring. Because sometimes I just don’t know.

The best counter assistants in a store are there when you need them and nowhere to be seen when you don’t.

Aside from lacking humans and any humanity, these systems folk are setting up now online – they sort of claim to be algorithmically powered but really, they expect me to do the work to make the algorithm even vaguely useful and look, if I wanted to work in someone’s store, I’d get a job there. I get that no-one wants to fess up that their systems are actually built on free labour but you know, they are.

The fundamental problem I have with what most of them show me is it’s like someone standing in front of you going “this one?”, showing you something you have absolutely no interest in, rinsing and repeating 30 times. I find it quite emotionally exhausting to have to deal with this stuff. No-one asks me my opinion on some grapes before I can get near the apples in a grocers, yeah?

I have incredibly eclectic tastes in the arts – I also have incredibly precise tastes. Like, just because I like one movie with Hugh Grant in doesn’t mean I want to bother with everything else he sticks his head up in. I might like one, and only one, Beatles song. And maybe I only really like one game from Ubisoft or something. I literally could not give a monkeys about the rest and never want to see them in my life at anything more than a passing glance.

Yet, in order to train an algorithm, in order to try and get to the stuff I want, stores have settled on a system that requires me to engage with stuff I don’t want, wade through stuff I don’t want and to do all this just to see stuff they think I might want to see, which invariably means if I’m lucky, 1 in 300 things I look at might take my fancy but by the time I get to the 2nd one that might take my fancy I just want it all to go away.

And this is how I end up responding to these stores and services.

I cannot be bothered with Netflix most of the time because it takes me as long to find anything as it often does to watch anything.

I am sick of the sight of the same twenty games Google Play seems to desperately want to throw my way.

Amazon’s book recommendations are, look, I’ve got clumsy hands and often click the wrong thing – just because I was nodding off and clumsily boffed my way onto the thirteenth Vernon Coleman book on sale that day, it doesn’t mean I want to see another thirteen of them. Ever.

Steam is now borderline useless to me for finding things. As a result of the sheer amount of work it takes to look for anything most of the time, I just don’t bother now. I have gone (even before my health went for a bit of a wander on its own path) from buying a ruck of games to maybe bothering once or twice a month at a push. Life’s too short to be working in online stores for the privilege of maybe finding something to spend money on.

The only service that’s even got close to tolerable (despite its increasingly nonsensical and oblique interface quirks) is Spotify and that only works really well because I can speed through songs to find something pleasing to my ears and settle on something that intrigues me with so little effort.

Like I say, maybe it turns out that I am a statistical anomaly or something, just some old person who doesn’t get it. It doesn’t matter much to me really, the end result is the same regardless.

More and more online stores and services are choosing to make themselves entirely useless to me. Are expecting me to put man hours into making them slightly less than useless.

And you know, I don’t want to have an opinion on every single piece of media ever. I just don’t. I’m going to die someday, I don’t want to have to teach a machine that I have no interest in seventeen Police Academy films, one by one, or something.

I want to find the things I’ll be passionate about and every system folks seem to be building into their stores now is just making that more and more difficult.

On the bright side, it saves me a fucking fortune. So there is that.

By RobF

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