Big media websites have complex systems to work out what you like to see, and then show you more of it. This is to encourage you to spend more time in their environment so that they can show you more adverts and make more money.
However, one of the things I love most about the internet is the wide variety of information, and I regularly use Wikipedia's wonderful Random page to read articles about topics I've never heard of.
We're constantly told that we're living in little bubbles, echo chambers where all we hear are voices that agree with us. Recently I've found that Quora and especially Youtube are narrowing their suggestions down more and more. Youtube only suggests videos and Tesla, lockpicking and Brexit, and every other Quora answer I see is asking if the moon landings are fake (they're not) or if vaccines really give you autism (nope).
So I tried to delete all my preferences from these websites to see what would happen and get back some of the random joy I love.
First up is Quora. Once you find the page ( quora.com/profile/[your-profile]/following ), it's pretty easy to start unfollowing every topic you've previously clicked, and for good measure, I also unfollowed all the people I used to be interested in, and also deleted all my credentials. I stopped short of deleting actual questions and answers I've posted. I suspect that at least some of these topics were automatically followed because I swear I never followed the Pizza or Teleportation topics.
Did it work? It's now showing a much wider variety of answers, but I have yet to see if it stays that way. I've read Quora answers about exactly what I'm trying to achieve, and most people say that they have to keep pruning it occasionally. My feed now includes questions such as:
- Can a fat cop shoot me in the back if we are both running from a bear and I'm faster?
- What is the closest we have been to nuclear catastrophe?
- What happens if you start pounding your chest in front of a gorilla?
I'm happy again.
Next I tried resetting my Youtube recommendations by deleting my search history. But first I saved a copy of my search history on my computer because it's both hilarious - why was I looking for Drunk polish guys dancing in 2014? - and scary because it contains over 3,000 searches from the last seven years.
Youtube warned me that what I was about to do: "Your video recommendations will be reset, but may still be influenced by activity on other Google products." Turns out it didn't make a bit of difference though, so I unfollowed most of the channels I follow - although I kept a few subscriptions to channels I love. No change, still the same car and padlock videos.
I had to go nuclear and delete my entire watch history for it to reset the recommendations.
There's not so much for me to do here right now, I've been aggressively pruning my Facebook data for years, removing adverts I don't like, unfollowing people whose posts I don't enjoy, that kind of thing.
So first I have to check up on my "interests" - topics that Facebook thinks I like. This is mainly what adverts Facebook shows me, so it's different from the last two websites. Facebook has an entire section of its website dedicated to your information, and it takes ages to clear out. I've emptied this section of interests before (we wrote extensively about it a while back) but somehow Facebook thinks I'm a fan of the US Republican Party again!
Next I delete my search history ( facebook.com/[your facebook ID]/allactivity?privacy_source=activity_log&log_filter=search&category_key=search ), and unfollow pretty much every page that I like - as before with Youtube, there are some I want to keep. This makes an immediate noticable difference - I'm not seeing any adverts on Facebook right now! I'm sure they'll come back though.
Spotify has got into a really tight loop over the last five or six years, and now only suggests the same style and same songs, over and over again. The Spotify community support forums are full of people with the same complaint - but curiously there is no way to delete your music history from Spotify! In one thread, people suggested that the only way to remove your history is to delete your account and start over, which seems a bit drastic.
In total this took a few hours, to find all the settings and go through pruning the information these websites have about me. Apart from Spotify, it seems to be improving the variety of what I experience, but more importantly, I've removed tens of thousands of data points that these companies were holding about me, which is a great bonus.
As a next step, maybe I need to become like Max Hawkins and randomise my entire life? I love the idea of going for Xmas dinner with complete strangers!