The Media Today

Q&A: Kyle Chayka on his ‘cultural investigations’

March 29, 2023

Kyle Chayka, a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes the “Infinite Scroll” column, thinks we should all spend less time on Twitter—not just because it’s good for us, but because the internet is changing. “We have to be less obsessed with the major public spaces and more engaged with smaller-scale ones,” Chayka said, when I asked him recently how journalists should cover the internet of the 2020s. “I think we’ve passed ‘peak platform.’” As users, “we’re realizing that we want smaller, more private spaces online, we want more direct connections to creators. And so new platforms are emerging to serve that.” He namechecked Substack, Patreon, and Discord.

Chayka, who is thirty-four, started writing Infinite Scroll in 2021 after almost a decade freelancing across digital media. He wrote about the aesthetics of Airbnb, our yearning for “conversation pits,” and, for CJR, about the aftermath of Artforum’s #MeToo scandal. In 2015, he cofounded Study Hall, a freelance community. In 2020, he wrote a book, The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism (Bloomsbury). He is now working on another one, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flatten Culture (Doubleday), which is due out in January 2024.

Chayka’s style of writing can read like tilting a Léger painting ninety degrees, accentuating forms that we’ve always known were there but couldn’t quite see clearly. Compared to other reporting on digital media, which often sticks to the topsoil of internet-trend reporting, Chayka burrows deeper until he hits groundwater, revealing the currents that flow between seemingly disparate topics. This week, I spoke with Chayka about how culture and journalism are mediated by algorithms, why AI-generated art is clichéd, and how he’s adapting to the institutional voice at The New Yorker. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

JB: You’re just finishing up a book on algorithms and culture. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re trying to say and explore with that book?

KC: So the book is called Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. I came up with “filterworld” as a term to describe this media environment where everything we consume is mediated by algorithmic recommendations. We’re constantly being fed things that we’re supposed to like, being judged on past engagements. The thesis is that media and culture has been produced to fit these algorithmic feeds and digital platforms, so digital platforms have shaped what kinds of culture exist now—how journalism finds audiences, how musicians find listeners, how authors find readers. Any creator of content is forced to reckon with the dynamics of algorithmic recommendations. The consequence, in my opinion, is this flattening of culture. Things become more homogenous, less deeply compelling, less challenging, less subtle, and more flat and dull and inoffensive.

You’ve written a lot about how algorithmic digital platforms influence how we socialize, receive news, consume culture, find jobs, perform labor, spend money. Do you think we reckon with this impact on our culture enough?

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I don’t think we reckon with it enough yet. From my reporting, digital platforms and feeds started to get much more mediated by recommendations around 2015, 2016, so it hasn’t actually been that long since we’ve started to experience these super algorithmically curated content feeds. Over the past eight years or so, we’ve come to understand how much it sucks, how bad it feels that they’re everywhere. So I think we’re just beginning to realize that the situation is bad, we’re beginning to feel the long-term effects. But I don’t think we’ve reckoned with, like, what the answer is to that situation, or how we get ourselves out of it.

What about newsrooms—we had the pivot to video around 2014, and then there seemed to be some reluctance to pivot to TikTok when that burst onto the scene a few years ago. How is journalism today shaped by these algorithmic forces?

I think it’s deeply shaped. There was that moment when Dean Baquet [the executive editor of the New York Times from 2014 to 2022], had to say, Twitter is not our assigning editor, we do not write for Twitter. And yet so much journalism and commentary was produced over the 2010s and into the 2020s as a response to what was going viral.

Newsrooms have been chasing algorithmic promotion for quite a while now. Whether that’s covering Twitter discourse, or things that happen on TikTok as if they’re happening in the physical world, or reporting on memes, which has become such a cottage industry in the media. Content has been produced that follows the dynamics of algorithmic feeds. If media companies want to reach audiences where they are—which media companies always want to do—they have to be on TikTok, they have to work through Spotify podcasts recommendations, they have to work through YouTube recommendation dynamics if they want to build an audience there. The priorities and obsessions of many publications have been shaped by this.

Everyone is suddenly talking about AI. The marketing and much of the media coverage suggests that this is going to change everything. But you’ve written about how these systems lack originality, authenticity, insight. How do you see AI influencing culture?

We’re living through a big change. If the early 2010s was the rise of algorithmic feeds, then probably the early 2020s is going to be the rise of generative AI tools. It’s very early to see what the effects are. But my theory, for now, is that algorithmic feeds forced a lot of people to conform to a standard by only recommending certain kinds of content. On Twitter, a prompt tweet—asking people what they have for breakfast—always works well. People repeated those tricks and found a solution to the platform. But AI tools tend to generate that average solution immediately. Because they’re always reaching back to generic archetypes and clichés.

I think the kind of culture that you see AI tools producing is mostly very dull and bad so far. There are ways that artists and writers can use AI in challenging ways. But that requires a critical approach to that technology. Whereas the millions of users who are getting onboarded into AI tools, they’re not using it with that kind of critical sensibility. They’re using it to serve their most immediate impulses—fanfiction generated text or images of Lord of the Rings elves dressed like Star Wars characters. It’s not a particularly inspiring body of culture yet.

In Infinite Scroll, you’ve said that the internet, in its quest to optimize digital experience, “denies texture.” As someone who has covered art and aesthetics, which obviously embrace texture, how do you find covering the internet for the column?

I always feel like I have a lot of ideas floating around and interesting subjects to tackle. But I try to cover the stuff that rewards more thinking. I try to think through, What will have some enduring impact? And, What’s a thought that I can communicate to people that will still be relevant in a week, or a month, or God forbid, a year or ten years? I think all the time about how Walter Benjamin wrote newspaper columns, just about stuff he observed in Berlin, and on the radio and new technologies of the nineteen thirties.

Do you go and read those today as preparation?

Yeah, I do. I’ve got a few anthologies of his work in various forms. He’s always been an inspiring writer to me—particularly this idea that you can write a column about technology, about changing cultural dynamics, in a moment, and, if you capture it well enough, it’ll still be relevant or useful to someone a hundred years later. I don’t know if you can do that about the internet. But I hope I aspire to that.

You’ve said in your writing that you try to relive what it feels like to interact with technology, because, compared to other beats, it’s people looking at their laptops or phones. How do you find a cinematic way of covering that?

That’s a good question. My sensibility comes from art history and art criticism, where you’re not covering a narrative. There’s nothing active happening—it’s not like a true-crime story, there’s not much suspense. But the drama of writing about art comes from describing the thing in front of you in the best way possible. And I find that really useful for the internet, because it offers a lot of visual and multimedia experiences. You can get a lot of drama and interest out of describing those. What does it feel like to be on TikTok? What purpose does it serve for me to listen to this podcast, or watch a YouTube video?

You come at stories in a slightly offbeat way. I’m curious what responses you get from people working in tech or other tech reporters?

A lot of different reactions. Tech and marketing people often appreciate when I frame something in a new way, because they kind of operationalize it. Like, they take my negative insight where I say “direct-to-consumer is ending the millennial aesthetic, blah, blah, blah,” and then they take that insight and monetize it, put it in their pitch deck and use it to frame their next startup.

How does that make you feel?

I feel super ambivalent about that. I mean, I appreciate it because it’s meaningful to them, they find some insight in it. But also I’m like, Guys, can’t you appreciate it as literature? [Laughs.] I’m trying to illuminate an experience, not, like, offer you a business model.

Tech reporting is a very broad space. There are people who do internet reporting a lot better than I do—Taylor Lorenz and Ryan Broderick, who have this granular insight into the internet, or tech reporters in Silicon Valley, like Mike Isaac and Ryan Mac, who are sourced up at Facebook or Google or whatever. I hope I can occupy a position of framing things and contextualizing them and offering the large-scale, more conceptual narrative of what’s happening. It piggybacks off the work of a lot of other people. My favorite response to pieces is, I’m a user of this technology and this has made me better understand my own relationship to it. That’s my goal, to bring up these collective experiences that we’re having and don’t understand yet.

When you were freelancing you said that you liked to “sneak in and blow things up,” by questioning a tech trend in a tech magazine. But now you have one of the most institutional voices, at The New Yorker. How has that transition been as a writer?

The column format gives me a structure to respond to in a way. The institutional voice is hard—it’s certainly a negotiation. The demographic of The New Yorker is not just a twenty-five-year-old TikTok person. [Laughs.] You have to speak to a very broad range of people. I’ve found the need to make my writing approachable, logical, and clear has been super helpful, because it makes me think about what the reader may or may not understand or how they need to be slowly introduced to concepts, rather than just referencing a TikTok meme as if everyone knows what it is. It’s very instructive for my writing.

Something that’s changed in my writing over fifteen years is that I used to think, What essay do I want to write? And now I think, How do I reach the reader where they are? How do I connect with the person at the other end of the screen? It’s good. It’s a little ego death. It’s creative in a different way.

You said a few years ago that writing is like “turning inside out your own obsessions.” Is that still true, and does that method drive or hinder you?

I think it’s a great method, it still works very well for me. What I find is that I have a dawning feeling about something I observe, I start seeing something everywhere. Gradually I can start forming that obsession into a piece of writing that brings other people and readers through that same process of epiphany. Like the vibes essay I wrote for the New Yorker in 2021 was literally just like, Wow so many people are saying “vibes.” Let me dig into this and understand what it’s about. I really enjoyed doing that. And I think it resonated with a lot of people. It’s like cultural investigations.

Other notable stories:

  • The Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian, apologized for the newspaper’s founders’ links to transatlantic slavery and pledged to invest more than twelve million dollars in restitution initiatives, including “projects in the Gullah Geechee region and Jamaica” and expanded “reporting of Black communities in the UK, US, the Caribbean, South America and Africa, with plans to create 12 new Guardian journalism roles and launch new editorial formats to better serve Black audiences,” Aamna Mohdin writes. The apology followed the completion of research that the Scott Trust commissioned in 2020. It found that John Edward Taylor, The Guardian’s founder, and “at least nine of his backers had links to slavery, principally through the textile industry.”
  • Over the weekend, the Texas Tribune reported on the impending closure of the Texas Observer, a long-running progressive investigative magazine. The story was the first that the Observer’s staff had heard of the decision; since then, they’ve urged their board to reconsider and launched a crowdfunding campaign that, at time of writing, had raised over two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Per the Tribune, staffers have also asked that “board members who voted to close the magazine resign, that a staff member be added to the board and that the board bring on ‘nationally known journalists with experience in assisting other journalism nonprofits in times of crisis.’”
  • Last year, prosecutors in Maryland vacated the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, the subject of the hit true-crime podcast Serial, freeing him from prison after more than two decades. Yesterday, an appeals court reinstated the conviction, on the grounds that the brother of the victim in the case was not given a sufficient opportunity to attend the hearing at which the conviction was vacated. The conviction could well be vacated again, and Syed remains at liberty for now, but his lawyer accused the court of “retraumatizing Adnan by returning him to the status of a convicted felon.”
  • Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein profiled Kara Swisher, the tech journalist who has “carved a considerable niche for herself, cutting across television, the web, podcasts, and social media—becoming ‘the queen of all media,’ as veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg puts it.” A former Vox Media colleague of Swisher’s, Klein writes, was less charitable: “She’s always been searching for a way to make her platform even bigger, and she’s done that. But it begins and ends with her. There’s no legacy beyond that.”
  • And Bron Maher, of Press Gazette, watched the right-wing British network GB News for eighteen straight hours to measure how it’s developed since its (widely ridiculed) launch two years ago. One host, Dan Wootton, “used the term ‘MSM’ seven times across his two-hour programme. His guest Amanda Platell used it one further time. That both write for the UK’s biggest-selling newspaper went un-commented upon.”

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Jem Bartholomew is a Reporting Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Jem’s work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, Time, New York magazine, and others. In 2019, he was named Best Newcomer in the State Street press awards.