To Ignore or Appease The Algorithm?


To Ignore or Appease The Algorithm? 

My song from yesterday (Song A Day number 3,656, the 3rd day of #jamuary) is currently going viral on Twitter:

I’ve occasionally had songs go viral on the internet over the last 10 years of writing a song a day. It’s fun when it happens. It’s almost always tied to a specific cultural moment: Topical songs about presidential debates, Apple products, or rent prices in Brooklyn.

All social networks use algorithms to decide what they’re going to show you. The algorithm tries to show you the posts that it thinks you’ll engage with the most, so you’ll stay on the site for as long as possible, with the ultimate goal of getting you to click on as many ads as possible. 

As someone who makes things for people to watch or listen to on the internet, you have a decision to make: Do you want to make choices that appease these algorithms, or do you want to ignore them?

Personally, I do a bit of both. Simply posting daily is an algorithm appeasing act, but I don’t tag my videos any special way, and most days I’m not writing about key words that are buzzing at that moment. A couple times a month I’ll see some news story go by that I think will make for a good song, as with the above Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing video. This scattershot method — sometimes working with and sometimes ignoring — is not a great way to have your songs/videos recommended or picked up on regular basis by the algorithm. 

Some people find a way to appease the algorithm that fits really well with their overall style and goals. Peter Coffin and Andrew Huang both come to mind. I’ve been following them for many years. It’s been fascinating to watch how they’ve honed their respective styles, and how well it’s been working; their audiences have been growing in a big way. Neither of them changed the core of what they do, but they made conscious decisions to put hard parameters around the types of videos they release: You know that with Peter, you’ll get funny, insightful leftist commentary. And you know that with Andrew you’ll get weird, cool songwriting challenges as well as high energy, personable and interesting insights into making music.

There’s also always the chance that you’ll appease the algorithm without even meaning to. Take the story of indie band Boy Pablo. This video that they posted originally only got a couple of thousand views, just like all their other videos:

It got posted to Reddit and picked up another ~20,000 views, but then something remarkable happened. According to this article from Complex, YouTube’s algorithm noticed that people tended to watch the whole video, and they tended to click through to Boy Pablo’s page once they finished watching. This kind of behavior makes the algorithm happy, and so it started putting the video on people’s YouTube homepage and making it show up in the “Recommended Videos” sidebar. As a result, the video is now at 16 million views and growing, and Boy Pablo has over 1 million monthly streams on Spotify. 

This feels is the modern Internet’s version of being discovered: Right place, right time with the right music…to be scooped up by the algorithm. 

May we all be so lucky. 

This is the fourth post out of 31 blog posts I’m making for #jamuary. I’ve been writing a song a day for 10 years.

You can pre-order my latest album I Used To Love My Body on Bandcamp.

Jonathan MannComment