Algorithmic recommendations create “curiosity ruts”

Replied to What Worked in 2022: 4 Insights From A Rebuilding Year by Tara McMullinTara McMullin (

One of his strategic priorities for this year was breaking out of what he calls curiosity ruts. Algorithms typically carve out curiosity ruts—that’s what happens when a platform learns your preferences and gives you what you want to see. In the process, we forget to look for information or ideas that aren’t automagically fed to us.

“What are the tools and systems that you can put into place to find information that you wouldn’t have found? The ideas, perspectives, people, etc., that you wouldn’t have found if you had just been left to your own curiosity ruts?” — Sean McMullin

Create information systems of serendipity — follow sources that are likely to introduce you to the unexpected.

Computers don’t have, can’t have, taste. That’s why there will always be a place for curators like Jason Kottke and tastemakers who create playlists of new musicians. An algorithm can be pretty good at recommending more stuff like we already like, but to make a sizable jump in what we’re listening to or reading, we turn to people we trust to have good taste (similar to our own 😉). Interesting people probably read and watch interesting things.

I’ve always treated social media this way, following people who boost others and share interesting things they’ve encountered. I don’t know how the algorithm worked on top of that, but one of the things I appreciated about Twitter was finding someone new to follow or hearing about a new project or learning something random about history or science or a field totally outside my realm of knowledge, every time I logged on. I saw someone talking about Twitter / this aspect of social media as a delivery system of delight: for me, this is the dopamine hit. As much as it sometimes annoyed me to see posts that “people you follow liked” it was probably a decent way to inject some freshness into people’s feeds in addition to RTs and QTs (they just overdid it IMO).

Over the past ~ six+ weeks since Twitter went to shit, I started following a handful of folks who migrated to Mastodon using the Activity Pub connection from — and through them have found some other interesting people to follow. For my interests, authors, artists and academics are my key to discovery.

Art and Design Culture Society

Article pairing: the monotony of modern culture

Why Culture Sucks by John Ganz

There’s something very slight and unsatisfying about recent film, television, art, architecture, design, fashion, cuisine—you name it… It often feels like we’re being fed the cultural equivalent of Soylent, a kind of nutrient-rich goo that we’re supposed to believe does the same thing as food.

In place of art, we have “content,” which in its very conception makes cultural products totally interchangeable, just stuff to fill up space.

See also: The Homogeneity of Millenial Design

20th century modernist avant-garde movements implicitly understood the experience of world-loss and their projects were often about reinvesting the lifeworld with an aesthetic character. They built world-views as much as artworks, trying to come up with new entire styles of architecture, design, novels, poetry, painting, and sculpture.

(Emphasis mine)


Pop Culture has Become an Oligopoly by Adam Mastroianni

In every corner of pop culture––movies, TV, music, books, and video games––a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all.

See also: Where did the long tail go? by Ted Gioia

As options multiply, choosing gets harder. You can’t possibly evaluate everything, so you start relying on cues like “this movie has Tom Hanks in it” or “I liked Red Dead Redemption, so I’ll probably like Red Dead Redemption II,” which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar.

Another way to think about it: more opportunities means higher opportunity costs, which could lead to lower risk tolerance.

A couple years back I had an art project that sold shirts, and posted for some advice in a t-shirt forum. The other sellers wished me luck selling original designs: the only thing people wanted to buy, in their experience, were IP that they liked. (I suspect that’s partly true, but also that discoverability is a problem. If you just want a cool t-shirt, it’s a lot of searching and browsing to find something totally new that you like versus looking for a Star Wars shirt.)

Movies, TV, music, books, and video games should expand our consciousness, jumpstart our imaginations, and introduce us to new worlds and stories and feelings. They should alienate us sometimes, or make us mad, or make us think. But they can’t do any of that if they only feed us sequels and spinoffs…

We haven’t fully reckoned with what the cultural oligopoly might be doing to us.

See also: Book industry insights from Penguin Random House merger trial

It’s like anti-entropy: culture converges when profit is the sole motivator, and efficiency is nirvana. Why take risks when the formula works?

Learning Writing

SFF writing critique method

Liked The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing by an author (

In 2016, Neil Gaiman tweeted: “If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.”

The tweet got significant pushback, with replies calling it “crushing”, “hurtful”, and “cruel”, including from other professionals. Eight hours later, Gaiman clarified: “Obviously you don’t actually need to go to Clarion/Clarion West to be a writer.”

Both [Matthew Salesses and Felicia Rose Chavez] illustrated ways this type of critique can wreck writers who come from a cultural background not shared by others in the workshop…And both argued that the traditional workshop in which the author is enforced to silence will…suppress minority voices…

When I worked at the writing center in college, it was a one on one coaching experience, but I feel like it sounds more empowering than the Milford method, if you get a decent coach — the student would read their own work aloud, then the tutor would identify patterns of challenges (basically always the thesis statement 😉) and ask questions to help them refine what they were trying to say. Back and forth discussion was an important component — we wouldn’t write a new thesis for them, but coach them through refining iterations to find what worked for their essay. I only tutored for fiction a couple times but I think it was still a useful way to help the author figure out what was or wasn’t working towards what they wanted to achieve. I’m more into guiding the author into finding their own path than saying there’s a right or wrong way to fix their story. It also sounds less judgmental of the author’s voice and taste, since it doesn’t usually comment on those (I might point it out if I noticed the tone felt too casual if they were writing something that typically uses a more formal style — but we were trained in using nonviolent communication, using language like “I noticed” and framing observations in a nonjudgmental way) — which might be more protective of an author’s unique style and approach. I think one of the most important things to consider when editing writing is protecting the author’s voice and style, while helping them communicate their point better.

One repeated caution is the phenomenon that some participants stop writing entirely afterward—sometimes for a year or two or five, sometimes forever.

The one time I had a couple formal critiques, through Norwescon, I was basically shell-shocked by getting feedback and having no opportunity to explain anything they’d misunderstood from reading fifteen pages of a five hundred page story. It shook my confidence a lot, especially getting basically zero positive feedback (whereas coaching always made a point to call out what the writer is already doing well and made use of compliment sandwiches because crushing someone with everything they’ve done wrong is not conducive psychologically). I didn’t quit writing altogether, but I did abandon the book I was writing, and lost the confidence to give other writers feedback because I was in doubt of my own capabilities and my ability to discern issues and provide useful feedback.

Though innovative, that development happened against a backdrop of harsh social conservatism and New Criticism, with one of its leading crusaders even opining that it was dead wrong to consider writing a creative field—writing, he felt, should instead be synonymous with the field of criticism…In such a political landscape, it is no surprise such a strictly-regimented peer critique method was so appealing: a “learn by doing” class in which the instructor does not need to figure out how to become a teacher of writing, only a critic.

Is literary criticism inherently judgmental, a levying of the reader’s taste against the author’s?

As we look back at this uneasy history, it helps crystallize why a method like Milford would fail more often for writers of color or other minority students in the workshop. The Iowa method purposely eschewed teaching; instead it used the power of cold interaction with a group of critics to mold writers into a “1930s America” majority opinion of good literature.

In Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses points out that writing workshops are often culturally homogenous along several axes. Thus, when a mostly-white, mostly-American workshop makes statements on what “the reader” will understand or enjoy, that hypothetical “reader” is far from a generic representation, but instead reflects the backgrounds of the participants.

This doesn’t sound like an ideal approach to promote diversity of style or story that come out of different backgrounds, whether cultural heritage or lived experience or neurodiversity. We know too that authors of color have been gatekept out of traditional publishing in SFF for many years, this feels like another way to drum authors out of genre. It is good to see people rethinking whether this is the best way to level up writers in the SFF community.


New music

Bookmarked Bring that beat back: why are people in their 30s giving up on music? (

There may be more hurdles to committing to cultural discovery but people don’t become fundamentally less curious because they get older. Most people don’t stop discovering new books, films, podcasts or TV. Yet music seems to be something that more commonly slips away – or is even perceived as something you’re supposed to grow out of. Music is a key part of youthful identity formation: once your idea of yourself becomes fixed, perhaps by distinct markers like marriage and kids, the need for it slips away.

This author might be onto something about music being harder to discover and stay in the loop on as you get older — but is also conflating live music with new music. How much is staying in tune with new music dependant on going to shows? Because I will freely admit I have very little interest in ever being in a mosh pit again 🙄 or sitting out in the hot sun for 12 hours a day at a Festival 😑 sounds like hell. I am still interested in listening to new music, just via other avenues.

I have been finding that a fair bit of new-to-me music that streaming services recommend to me isn’t new, but 5-10 years old, more in line with a lot of my favorites, or new music by artists I already know. Am I hoovering up more of the same style that I already like? How much does new music really resonate? Am I having a harder time with finding new music because Tidal’s algorithm doesn’t grok me yet, or am I growing weary of the unfamiliar? (Is this all in my head given my current year new music playlist has 150 new tracks?)

And, does it really matter what I listen to if I’m just listening for enjoyment? What is the intrinsic value of listening to different music beyond finding more that I’ll enjoy? I describe myself as a neophile, liking new things and trying things just because they’re new, and wonder sometimes how much of that is desire for more music versus my philosophy of pushing myself to explore new things and “collector’s mindset” of adding more songs to my new music playlist. I think I like to challenge myself with new music, but also have very particular tastes (a singing voice I dislike can kill a song for me).

How much is my taste expanding and changing over time? I recently tried listening to some college era playlists and, er, my tastes have definitely evolved since 2007 😉 (Either that or hearing music on different speakers is enough to make it sound different enough from my memory to lose the nostalgia, an audio uncanny valley of memory. I tried to put on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid yesterday, which I was into in 2005, and I dunno if it was fifteen more years of listening taste, a bad remaster, or different speakers, but I ejected out of that without making it through a whole song 😂) I suspect taste shifts and grows a bit at a time but when you look at a span of years it becomes more apparent.


Taster’s Sours

Watched Taste Expert Answers Questions From Twitter | Tech Support | WIRED from YouTube

Beth Kimmerle is an author and taste expert, and she’s here to answer the internet’s burning questions about all things food, tongues and taste. What does Co…

Tasters classify three kinds of sour:

  • Acetic sour, from vinegar
  • Lactic sour, from dairy
  • Citric sour (?), from citric acid
Art and Design Society


Liked Notes on “Taste” — (

I also believe taste is something we can and should try to cultivate. Not because taste itself is a virtue, per se, but because I’ve found a taste-filled life to be a richer one. To pursue it is to appreciate ourselves, each other, and the stuff we’re surrounded by a whole lot more.

I feel like there are two types of taste: generic societally approved “good taste” and a person’s unique, cultivated sense of personal taste. For example, I find “tasteful” home design to often be boring. Give me tacky instead. Instead of immaculate marble-clad minimalist interiors, show me cluttered maximalist ones filled with personality. Art too, give me the lowbrow, the outsider works following their own taste rather than the elite’s.

But I do put tasteful above thoughtless — it is usually aesthetically inoffensive at the least, whereas a hodgepodge can be straight up ugly. Anything done with intentionality reflects some form of taste.

Though taste may appear effortless, you can’t have taste by mistake. It requires intention, focus, and care. Taste is a commitment to a state of attention.

Taste requires originality. It invokes an aspirational authenticity.

Moreover, it requires care: to believe it worthwhile to hold, and spend the time to develop, taste about something.

I would say that taste is the sensibility, and snobbery is one way to express the sensibility.

Snobbery is where “societal good taste” brings in class judgments: aesthetic preferences associated with what the upper class can afford, often claimed without evidence to be morally superior as well. Think white bread versus whole wheat, kale versus salad, fresh versus frozen.  This is where I am working on catching my own biases, especially around food. This kind of taste is performative and self-righteous.


Cool Science

TIL: sour taste came first

  • Almost (?) all vertebrates can taste sour, despite not having much value in cueing nutritional or safety info, meaning it developed in the common ancestor – probably in the early fishlike creatures so they could detect the acidity of water
  • Humans are an oddity in not being able to generate vitamin C – which is probably why we like eating sour foods
  • Herbivorous pandas have lost the ability to taste umami and carnivorous cats have lost the taste for sweetness

Eons is a neat show.