The Tyranny of the Algorithm—Why Every Coffee Shop Looks the Same: Podcast

In the 2010s, Yelp became a popular app for finding and reviewing local businesses, with cafes being sorted by star ratings. The author, a western, twentysomething millennial, often searched for “hipster coffee shops” to find cafes that had the requisite qualities such as ample daylight, industrial-size wood tables, bright interiors, and wifi. These cafes were known for their unique aesthetics and menus, but they were not forced to do so by a corporate parent. Instead, they drifted toward the same end point, creating a sense of sameness that was too shocking and new to be boring.

The 21st-century generic cafes were remarkable in the specificity of their matching details and the sense that each had emerged organically from its location. They were proud local efforts that were often described as “authentic,” an adjective that the author was also guilty of overusing. When traveling, the author always wanted to find somewhere “authentic” to have a drink or eat a meal.

The author concluded that these places were authentically connected to the new network of digital geography created by social networks, particularly the 2010s internet of algorithmic feeds. In 2016, the author wrote an essay titled Welcome to AirSpace, describing the strangely frictionless geography created by digital platforms, where people could move between places without straying beyond the boundaries of an app or leaving the bubble of the generic aesthetic.

The author’s theory was that all physical places interconnected by apps had a way of resembling one another. The growth of Instagram gave international cafe owners and baristas a way to follow one another in real time and gradually consume the same kinds of content. On the customer side, Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Maps drove people like the author towards cafes that conformed with what they wanted to see by putting them at the top of searches or highlighting them on a map.

To court the large demographic of customers moulded by the internet, more cafes adopted the aesthetics that already dominated on the platforms. Adapting to the norm wasn’t just following trends but making a business decision that consumers rewarded. When a cafe was visually pleasing enough, customers felt encouraged to post it on their own Instagram, providing free social media advertising and attracting new customers. Thus, the cycle of aesthetic optimisation and homogenisation continued.

AirSpace, a term coined in 2016, refers to the aesthetic trend of turning physical space into a product, often found in cafes, co-working spaces, startup offices, hotels, and restaurants. This style was particularly identifiable in cafes but could be found in co-working spaces, startup offices, hotels, and restaurants. As years passed, it became clear that AirSpace was less of a specific style than a condition that existed in us. The visual style of the mid-2010s decayed, with white subway tiles becoming too cliched and replaced by brightly colored or more textured ceramic tiles. The financial crisis-era, rough-hewn style of high Brooklyn lumberjack gave way to careful, Scandinavian-ish mid-century modernism, with spindly-legged chairs and wood joinery. In the late 2010s, the dominant aesthetic grew colder and more minimal, with cement countertops and harsh geometric boxes replacing chairs. Acoutrements such as lights made from rusty plumbing fixtures were left behind in favor of houseplants (succulents especially) and highly textured fibre art, evoking west coast bohemia more than hardscrabble New York City.

The association with Brooklyn gradually faded out, and the generic style was less associated with a place than with digital platforms such as Instagram and TikTok. The millennial aesthetic was also embraced by startup companies such as Casper and coworking space chains WeWork and The Wing. Molly Fischer labelled it “the millennial aesthetic” in a 2020 essay, and it was also embraced by startup companies such as Casper and the coworking space chains WeWork and The Wing.

The elements of style turned out to be less important than the fundamental homogeneity, which became more and more entrenched. The signs changed, evolving one step at a time over the years, but the sameness stayed the same. Homogeneity in a diverse world is uncanny, and there could be disappointment with finding the expected aesthetic in yet another place or a sense of intrusion, that the influence of digital platforms was extending somewhere that it had not previously.

The idea of the world being flat was popularized by Thomas Friedman in his 2005 book, The World Is Flat. This concept suggested that the world was more interconnected and felt smaller than ever before, with people, goods, and ideas flowing across physical space faster and more easily than ever. However, this idea was ambivalent, as it could affect personal relationships and the environment.

Friedman also discussed various “flatteners” that were knitting the planet closer together, particularly digital technology. The fiber networks of the internet created a more seamless global commercial network and helped break down global regionalism. The nascent internet exerted a pressure to share, connecting individuals on a microscopic level in the same way that countries and corporations were being connected. Social networks, such as YouTube and Instagram, only came to the fore in the years after Friedman’s book but accelerated these trends.

Globalisation has led to a more mundane and pervasive flattening of individual experiences. In the US, users use the same devices, access many of the same social networks, and connect to the same streaming services as internet users in India, Brazil, or South Africa. Friedman’s prediction of increased international competition has resulted in only a few overall winners, which profit hugely from their monopolization of the internationalised digital space.

Cultural theorists like Manuel Castells and Marc Augé have already described how globalisation breeds sameness and monotony, and charted the declining importance of physical geography. In 1992, French philosopher Marc Augé wrote Non-Places, which studied the sensory experiences of highways, airports, and hotels, giving a distinct, paradoxical sense of comfort to the modern nomad.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argued that globalisation takes place only in capital and data, with politics, culture, and travel becoming globalized. Users voluntarily pump their own information through this system, turning themselves into flowing commodities. This homogenisation is not just a phenomenon of our moment; it is a consequence of changes that happened long before algorithmic social media feeds and is just as likely to intensify in the future.

In the early 2010s, a new phenomenon emerged called an “Instagram wall,” which was partly an outgrowth of the street-art movement of the 00s. Instagram walls were spots designed for people to stop and take photos in front of, specifically to post on Instagram. Some were just bright-coloured graphic patterns that provided a perfect backdrop for a photo, while others created a scene that the photo subject became a part of, akin to painted-cartoon wooden props with cutouts for people to poke their faces through and pretend to be a farmer or a football player.

The peak of this phenomenon might have been a brunch-focused restaurant called Carthage Must Be Destroyed, which opened in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bushwick in 2017. The interior was bare, exposed brick and plumbing, communal wood tables, but it had a single, aggressive design gimmick: everything was painted pale pink. The space was optimised for consumption as a digital image. At the time, “millennial pink” had been made ubiquitous by the internet, sometimes known as “Tumblr pink,” associated with the early multimedia social network where it took root. It could be found on Nike sneakers, Glossier makeup products, Away suitcases, Apple’s “rose gold” devices released in 2015, and Apple’s “rose gold” devices released in 2015.

By the end of the decade, these installations had become exhaustingly ubiquitous. So-called “Instagram museums” arose, making photo-taking the whole point of the experience. The Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened in San Francisco in 2017, offered dessert-themed immersive installations, and the Color Factory, also from 2017, surreal monochromatic rooms for dramatic portraits. Each failed as compelling visual art because they required the presence of the subject and the taking of a photograph to make sense – outside of digital platforms they were incomplete; the production of the content was all that mattered.

Instagram walls or experiences attracted visitors to a locale and kept them engaged by giving them an activity to perform with their phones, like a restaurant providing colouring books for kids. It was a concession to our new addictions – you can’t just go somewhere; you must document your experience of it. As visitors posted those photos online and tagged the business or location, the photos became a kind of decentralized online billboard, a form of free advertising and digital word of mouth. The Instagram walls perpetuated themselves, with more posts the more promotion algorithms would pick up on the place and display it to more potential customers.

Though the walls have become cliche, the way they work has been dispersed into every aspect of spaces and places, which began to optimize for what we call “Instagrammability.” A restaurant might include a living plant wall embedded with a neon sign of its name, easily visible from every table and thus an ideal target for documentation and sharing. A particular dish might be so elaborately visual that it functions more as an image than as food.

Over the past decade, Instagram became “the lens in which we view the global speciality cafe world,” and businesses had to cultivate a parallel existence on the internet. This means having plenty of tagged photos on Instagram and positive user reviews on the business’s listing on Yelp or Google Maps.

Social media platforms have become increasingly influenced by algorithmic patterns, making it difficult for businesses to stay visible and reach a larger audience. Companies like Beans & Dots, a coffee company in Bucharest, Romania, struggle to keep up with these algorithmic patterns, as they may not post often enough or follow shifts such as Instagram promoting videos more than still images. This can lead to a lack of visibility and a disheartening experience for businesses.

Anca Ungureanu, the owner and founder of Beans & Dots, expressed frustration with the algorithm, feeling that it was taking away her ability to access her audience through the feed. When her cafe started selling coffee online, Facebook and Instagram seemed to throttle its reach unless it bought advertising and boosted the social media company’s own profits. This felt like algorithmic blackmail: pay our toll or we won’t promote you. The tools that had served the cafe to grow and access new customers were suddenly being turned against it.

Jillian May, cofounder of Hallesches Haus in Berlin, a cafe and boutique general store that opened in 2014, also complained about the effect of algorithmic recommendations on their user-generated content. She observed “follower inflation,” where high follower numbers correlate less and less to actual engagement over time, as the platform’s priorities change or the same content tricks stop working. This can be a financial problem for businesses, as the follower footprint is how they make money, whether it’s a cafe attracting visitors or an influencer selling sponsored content.

Pursuing Instagrammability can be a trap, as the fast growth that comes with adopting a recognisable template gives way to the daily grind of keeping up posts and figuring out the latest twists of the algorithm. Digital platforms take away agency from business owners, pressuring them to follow in lockstep rather than pursue their own creative whims. There’s also a risk in hewing too closely to trends, as algorithmic audiences won’t engage with stale tropes.

The other strategy is to remain consistent, not worrying about trends or engagement and simply sticking to what you know best – staying authentic to a personal ethos or brand identity in the deepest sense. Coffee shops are physical filtering algorithms, sorting people based on their preferences, quietly attracting a particular crowd and repelling others by their design and menu choices. Community formation might be more important in the long run than attaining perfect latte art and collecting Instagram followers.

Listen in @ The Guardian

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