Letting the Algorithm Decide: From Bjork to Okilly Dokilly

Unavoidable in modern living, algorithms have penetrated every aspect of our lives. From Amazon to Netflix, they help us decide what to watch, what to listen to, what to buy, who to talk to.

Despite their 1984-esque nature, there is definitely an argument for their usefulness, im sure everyones been recommended a great band or album by Spotify at least once, but at the same time it feels a little bit gross. The point of algorithms is to help you pick things to make your experience more enjoyable, the human element is still important on making the final decision. But what happens if you let the algorithm fully decide?
The reality is that the results would probably be subpar, I doubt it would make a more enjoyable listening experience but it’s an interesting prospect at the least. YouTubes algorithm has been known to suggest obscure tracks from little known artists of the past, with tracks like ‘Plastic Love’ by Mariya Takeuchi reaching eye watering views (or listens) of 20 million+ despite the fact that no one really knew about it. It’s an isolated example sure but you have to wonder how and why that happened. With this thin line of hope I wanted to test out YouTube’s algorithm from a fresh account, no influence from any of my searches or watch history to see what the algorithm will deliver.

I quickly set up a new Gmail address, xxsniperlegend666xx to be specific. What do I reckon will happen?, I hear you ask. Well my hope is that I will be suggested some stuff that is at least interesting but I fear that, with a fresh account with no previous data for the algorithm to feed off, I will instead be met with a series of current top hits. This would definitely be the case if I just chose the first song that appeared on YouTubes homepage so I instead decided to give the algorithm an initial sniff of something, and watch as it tries desperately to hunt out what it thinks I want like a trusty artificial blood hound.

My first choice was the Modern Lovers – Ice Cream Man, I like the song and it’s a pretty safe option, not too obscure, not too mainstream. Let’s see what YouTube throws me next. Okay so the next song is another Jonathan Richman song. And again. And again. And again. Etc. Well that was clearly a dud. This might be the case for everything that I throw it now that I think about it, never the less it’s worth another try.

Second attempt, this time I choose Bjork and pick the first song that appears (its oh so quiet fyi). In theory this should be much easier for the algorithm to feed off, it’s a well-known song and Bjork has a wide network of related artists. Next up is another Bjork song, I figure that’s gonna happen regardless of what artist I pick. After a few more Bjork related tracks, Sugarcubes and beyond, it gets to Kaelan Mikla, an Icelandic synth-punk trio. I’ve never heard of them but they are pretty good! I guess the algorithmic blood hound picked up on the Icelandic thing and really ran with it. The next band up is another synthy-post-punky band, from Croatia this time, called Popsimonova. I’m not that fussed about it but it’s interesting to see where it’s going, from Iceland, to synthyness. The Agnes Circle are next up, looks like YouTube is keeping up with the electronic-synth feel, this is very very Joy Division esque but I think it’s a fairly recent track. An interesting trend here is that the past few tracks have a lot of views, just under a million, but the bands are certainly not huge. My guess is these tracks have been blessed by the algorithm somewhat, maybe not on the scale of some things but it certainly seems like the algorithm has favoured them. Cold Cave up next, very 80s. Not much more to say on that. Dead Vibrations next, this is a bit more grungey and shoegazey. Certainly a fair way away from Bjork that’s for sure. Looks like the algorithm is doing what it should and suggesting things that are similar but slightly different.

For the sake of readability I’m going to skip ahead a few tracks and just mention anything that seems interesting or unusual. After all this process could theoretically go on for an infinite amount of time. At the moment I think its fair to say that the algorithm is doing a decent job! And yes I do say that through gritted teeth as I want nothing more than the algorithm to be useless. I’m not sure what grungey-shoegazey has to do with Bjork but everything seems to flow pretty well, there’s no crazy jumps. Well there wasn’t, but then it starts chucking out doom metal songs. After some duds it gets to everyone’s favourite Ned Flanders metal band Okilly Dokilly. Beautiful! And it seems like Youtube really likes Okilly Dokilly suggesting live sessions, interviews, other tracks all from everyone’s favourite green sweater wearing mustacheod metal band.

What an educational experiment. Kind of. We learnt that Bjork and a Ned Flanders metal band are only about 30 minutes apart according to the algorithm. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or an insult to YouTubes “smart” algorithm but I certainly wouldn’t let YouTube decide on your music at a family gathering. Grandma might be a bit shocked by the doom metal. That being said it wasn’t as soulless as I would have expected. And that’s either a compliment to YouTubes vastly evolving AI, as it becomes more and more human, or a terrifying glimpse into our future where our decisions are ruled by artificial intelligence headed by global corporations with colourful logos.

Anyway let’s check out my Discover Weekly.

artwork by Callum Ritchie @_crill