My Algorithm is Toxic
– Fiction by Branson Rideaux, Art by Peter Max Lawrence –
There were lines of code dissecting his viewing history with relentless care. Over time it collected a library of small eye movements, recorded his travels down the page, even kept a log of other sites he had visited, all to decide on three recommended videos for Chris to start and end his day. Often his preparation for the voyage from bed to that other place required more than three videos. But he only needed to pull down with the tip of his thumb and Youtube would refresh, the algorithm offering a new top three. This relationship stretched years into the past, back before Chris understood the difference between attraction and excitement, disappointment and grief. When he was young, Chris watched music videos ferociously, insisting he only listened to 2000s RnB because it was good music. If Youtube had a survey, he answered it. If there was an ad, Chris watched past the five second wall, trusting the commercial had been selected for his benefit. A few months ago, when he was at his lowest, Youtube convinced him to subscribe to therapy, Nutrisystem, progressive medicine, and some strange goop-like drink that he used once and never again, except those rare moments when he looked in the mirror and judged that he was full of shit.
Those episodes of anxiety were in the past now because Chris only brushed his teeth, washed his hands, or popped pimples he thought he had grown out of while one of his top three played on the bathroom counter. When Chris had trouble sleeping, the videos served as jumping off points for his imagination because his own mind could only provide memories that were stress-inducing or depressing. He began his day like this too, which isn’t to say that Chris started his morning by getting out of bed. No, he had a voice activated alarm set for 8:30, 8:35, 8:37, 9:00, 9:01, and 9:30 – a morning routine that would give anyone else a headache: A klaxon alarm. “Stop!” The zaps of a space-age contraption. “Stop!” The mimicry of a morning radio host obsessed with his airhorn. “Stop.” The klaxon alarm again, everyone out of the submarine. “STOP!” An hour of this and then, “Stop. Alexa set an alarm for 9:37 a.m.” Finally, unable to force more sleep, Chris rolled across the bed and clawed the phone from its charger. Immediately he rolled back to the warm position he previously left, except now he had the world in his hand. This morning, Youtube recommended an excerpt from a podcast with a bald man and a twice-canceled comedian. He could use a controversial laugh, those were often the best kind.
“That’s what they’re trying to get you to believe man, That’s not what women want! Give me a study that actually talks to women, real women, not lab rats?” The comedian said the word women at a low volume and with some hesitation, as if one might suddenly appear and denounce him as an ugly, chauvinistic asshole.
“It’s complete bullshit!” The host roared. “I’ve never met a chick who wanted me to be nice, and I’ve gotten around!” The comedian laughed, not at the host but more as a segue to speak again.
“Exactly! Women want you to be nasty. It’s a physiological reaction. Only boys act like lap dogs. Push and pull, trust me, you’ll see those hormones at work.” The comedian grabbed his hanging mic and brought it close to his face, although he was speaking loudly enough. “And then when they’re really mad you start saying, no baby, no I didn’t mean that, I was just playing! But see, no she wants to prove to you she isn’t that mean thing you called her. No, she’s a nice girl –” Chris finally backed out of the video. If there was a survey, Chris told himself, he would advise caption warnings for this flavor of video. See definition: Gas Lighting. Emotional Manipulation. Repressed Sexuality.
His second and third recommendations were clips from the same podcast with two other men. From just the small thumbnail, Chris could tell that these were loud, angry little dudes. He refreshed, and the algorithm sent a more normal arrangement, basketball highlights. He let a Mavericks game play as he kicked his feet out from under the blanket and touched the cold floor of his apartment, sliding his feet between piles of dirty clothes. In his one bedroom apartment he could let the video play at full volume without worry. He brushed his teeth as he peed into the toilet, and the second quarter played, the Mavericks making even the tough shots. He rinsed his mouth in the third quarter and put grounds in the coffee filter as the clock wound down and the point guard for the Mavericks dribbled slowly down the court, the contest already won. Chris was busy looking for a cleanish fork and didn’t realize his phone had continued to the next video until he heard the familiar voice of the comedian. He was on a stage this time. “And that’s the real problem with modern women! They don’t wanna be sluts and they don’t wanna be virgins and they make that shit your problem! Like, um, I’m sorry, I was trying to get my dick wet, not start a family!” The crowd laughed but Chris simply rolled his eyes, spotting a fork underneath the drying rack. Did people really watch this crap? He asked himself. For some reason the comedian was humping the stool provided by the venue and smacking his mic onto the side of it. He was literally, actually, moaning and Chris couldn’t tell if the moans were meant to be his own or that of the chair who, in this instance, was a metaphor for a woman who had agreed to sleep with him.
Chris had many sisters. He understood the pain of a period, knowing that it was not only cramps but also headaches, irritability, and terrible mood swings. And it never got better until, like his mother, menopause statred. His mother described this as its own hell, like your womanhood was stripping you of everything on its way out, as if you hadn’t done your job right and had a million babies.
The comedian was still giving his set. The stool was on the ground now and the man was inserting his pelvis into the blank space between the four legs. Chris prayed people didn’t really fuck like that. He, certainly, did not fuck like that. Oral sex was the hottest thing to him, although he had been out of practice for a few months. This, he told himself, resulted from a lack of effort; he tended to get too attached anyways, it was healthier to take a break from dating. Chris reminded himself of this while watching a video about the death of Ghengis Khan. Then he watched another about the Byzantine empire. He took in the new historical knowledge with a serious appreciation for the power of the internet.
It was time for work, so Chris searched in yesterday’s jeans for his wireless headphones. He inserted each bulb into his ear and heard the satisfying beep of a made connection. The Byzantine empire had collapsed and the comedian was back again, this time in a semicircle couch with other male comedians. “Alright, fuck, marry, kill: Beyonce, the Black little mermaid, or the new Black Panther.” The men laughed and Chris exited the video before he could be seriously offended. Did it honestly believe he was the type of guy who hated women? Or had the algorithm taken note of his dryspell, piecing it together from the time he spent “incognito”? Obviously, the algorithm had concluded he was an incel.
At work, he spoke to his co-worker Tracy about it. “You ever get weird stuff on your algorithm?” he asked.
“Um, good morning,” Tracy said with a start. “Like on Facebook?” Tracy was eight years his senior, but that was all the more reason to be honest.
“Like mine keeps giving me the worst shit. All of these assholes. Like dudes who are really, I don’t know, ignorant.”
“Really?” Tracy asked. “I’m still getting dog videos.” She laughed, but afterwards she gave Chris a once over with her eyes.
“I don’t watch them, it’s just what it recommends. But I don’t like, exit out right away. You know I’m always curious about that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, like how the other side thinks,” Chris said. It hadn’t sounded defensive in his mind. He thought it was a common confession, like admitting to watching Fox news. “I know I’m not perfect but I’m not that, you know?”
Tracy nodded and turned back to her computer. Throughout the day Chris couldn’t stay focused, although this was nothing new. He tended to reward himself with a video after every couple of emails, but now it was less like an itch and more like a scab he would pick and tear at no matter how nasty it looked. He clicked on videos even when he didn’t want to, even when he knew he was leading his algorithm further astray from who he really was, or thought he was. His boss stopped by as he was bent over, watching a clip from the bald man’s podcast yet again. This time the host was talking to a woman who was clearly not a feminist. “The whole idea of purity is, like, totally gone now. You aren’t getting a clean woman,” she laughed. “You know, like that whole idea is out the window these days. Women are having just as much sex as men, often more because women are the ones deciding on sex. Men can just have sex with whoever they want, but women? Trust me, it’s like open season.” She laughed and took in the wanton eyes of the host.
“Hey Chris, Happy Monday.”
Chris froze like a rabbit being injected with nicotine. “Hi Diana. Sorry, I was just taking a break.”
“No worries, no worries. I get it. Did you see my email? About the new benefits?”
“No, not yet.”
“Alright, well just respond when you can, HR needs everyone to fill it out.”
“Got it.” He turned back to his computer but felt Diana’s eyes over his shoulder. He opened up the email from HR and started reading. He didn’t need to be babysat, he thought to himself. What a bitch. She wasn’t to blame, not really. He knew how restless the HR department became during survey season. Diana finally walked away as he started moving the sliders underneath the question, blue bars growing and shrinking in response to his cursor.
Question 1: On a sliding scale please describe how much you feel a sense of belonging at work?
Question 2: On a sliding scale please describe how supported you feel at work, by your managers, staff, and peers?
Question 3: On a sliding scale please describe, on an average day, how motivated you feel at work?
Question 4: How much do you feel like not a fucking feminist anymore? I mean fuck that! They all want to see men cucked! Completely gone – Chris banged his fist on the table, and reached his other hand up to his ear, tapping twice to pause the video. See definition: Feminist. Kink-Shaming. He stared at his phone like electricity was coursing through it, a bolt of dopamine-filled lighting that had burned him. Disgusted at the vulgarity alone, Chris turned off his phone for the rest of the day, until he found a seat on the Q train and had nothing better to do.
His third recommendation was strange, a Black youtuber sitting in a parked car. Beside him floated a block of text – a bible verse – then a quote from Martin Luther King, and one from Malcolm X.
“As Black men we need to stand up for our women. They are being attacked on all sides – sluts, hoes, hussies. Gotta put a stop to that, first thing. We protect our beautiful Black women like they protect us.” The man said, pushing each syllable and then nodding at his own words. “The media tear Black women apart while you’re on the sidelines. It’s time to stand up for the people we love.”
This last point, Chris thought, was something he could agree with. So he clicked on the profile of the youtuber and let the next video play. A quote from Eldridge Cleaver, We shall have our manhood. We shall have it or the earth will be leveled by our attempts to gain it. The youtuber was livid, as Mr. Cleaver often was. “We’re too angry! Too loud! Gang-banging when we should be caring for our women. Nobody wants to date the Black man, nobody trusts the Black man, the Black man is the least desirable creature on the planet!” Chris had never thought of himself as undesirable. He wasn’t particularly handsome; average, like most men, Chris thought. Besides, his favorite Black Panther was the lesser known Kathleen Cleaver, Eldridge’s ex-wife. She became a lawyer and professor after the movement and raised two children on her own. Someone standing near him on the train looked like her. Except her hair was a long braid, composed of smaller braids, curving down past her left shoulder. But her eyes were sharp, so sharp that he was frightened when she caught him staring, but he recovered and returned a smile, reckless and with teeth. She turned her body away. Chris was left with the quick look of disgust that flashed on her face as she turned. It repeated now, in his head. You’re a total weirdo, he told himself in the woman’s voice. He’d be lucky if she, or any woman, ever looked at him again.
Back at home, Chris called his sister Britney, the one closest in age to him. She knew the real Chris, or at least the Chris of the day before.
“Hey, are you busy?”
“Nah, just driving home. What’s up?”
“Nothing much, really.”
“Is it the breakup?” He breathed in sharply, despite himself. He hadn’t thought of his breakup in at least a month. “It comes in waves,” she continued. He couldn’t deny that. There was a time when the empty space on the bed had turned into a sinkhole. And he frequently imagined she would come into his room some night and, later, she would put her toothbrush back in the cup on the sink. But he had learned to be alone, he thought.
“No, it’s not that. Or not really. I don’t know – I’m not misogynistic right?”
“You’re asking me that? I think if you knew you wouldn’t be–.”
“No, I mean, I know I’m not, right? Like I know in my heart that’s not me, but I’ve just been feeling off. I don’t know, like, like my Youtube keeps recommending me all these videos of like fucking gross guys.”
“And you’re watching it?”
“Like kinda? It’s just noise.”
“But they’re making good points?”
“No, they’re idiots.”
“Well the whole thing is kind of you watching the videos. Right?”
“Yeah, but like, it doesn’t know if I like the video. Doesn’t know how I think. Like about the video… that’s not how the algorithm works.”
“Well now you’re mansplaining,” Britney said with a laugh.
“I shouldn’t have to worry,” Chris said.
“I don’t know, maybe you gave the algorithm the wrong idea. You could watch something else. Youtube has, like, a search function, right?”
So Chris hung up and spent the rest of the night watching history videos, science videos, european news outlets talking about the war. He liked several videos. He subscribed to channels he would normally depend on the algorithm to give. He looked up transgender youtubers, amazed by the breadth of content, and settled on a channel for longform philosophy until he fell asleep. He dreamed he was apologizing in front of a crowd, or trying to. But his throat couldn’t find the words, nor form any sound – dry like a desert. He woke to his alarm and jumped out of bed, his throat raw. But he didn’t think of the water on his night stand, instead he scrambled on the ground for his phone and, finding it, went immediately to Youtube. The first was highlights from last night’s Lakers game, a loss. The second was an expose on Putin’s chances of waging nuclear war. The last was a female comedian, the caption, Why I hate dating apps. Chris tapped, standing while it played.
“I’m on the apps. I’m on all of them. Tinder, Bumble, Christianmingle, Farmersonly. It’s all the same. Men holding up fish. Men shirtless in their bathroom. Men guzzling down beer with their bros! Like does that really work? Like yes, oh my god, I’m just dying for a real man to show me their happy trail and a massive bass!” The crowd laughed and Chris laughed too, this time, without guilt. “I’ve got some advice for men, take a picture with your mother. Really, just show me you have a mom and she doesn’t hate you. That’s all I need to know.” Chris laughed again and let the video play as he brushed his teeth. He even let the next one play, trusting that he had thrown the algorithm off his scent. Thinking this, Chris paused in the mirror. He felt he had gotten away with some type of crime. He spit, disgusted at himself. Back on screen, another comedian was fucking a bar stool. He clicked the power button and left his phone above the sink.
In the kitchen, he washed a pan and fried an egg. The kitchen was full of dishes, not only in the sink, but also on the counter and the stove. Around his apartment he saw the filth that had collected over months. Maybe the algorithm had tracked this too, taking inventory of the wayward utensils, the nickels and quarters deposited on the floor, the clothes that had never been folded and barely been washed. Maybe his algorithm was simply trying to help. It found a target for his discomfort, a place to put his unhappiness, and it worked, hadn’t it? But this assumption was unfair, Chris thought. He was doing better, definitely making strides in the grieving process. If his phone was a mirror, it had bent out of shape. He needed space, he thought, and laughed suddenly at the irony of being on the other side of this conversation. But then he felt a rush of excitement – the possibility of independence, of seeing himself more clearly, or at least who he wanted to be. Not a conclusion of predictable, repeated actions, but the unbounded potential of a life that changes, that is, already, finding a new way forward.
Branson Rideaux is a Chicago-born writer and producer currently living in Jersey City, New Jersey. Branson is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from NYU and holds a BA in African American Studies from Yale University. They are working on a novel and a collection of short stories. Follow them on Twitter @RideauxWriting or their substack @RideauxWriting
Peter Max Lawrence is a filmmaker, artist, and poet. His work has been shown at the de Young Museum, Legion of Honor, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and SOMArts. He has work in the permanent collections of SFMOMA, UC Davis Library and KQED. Raised in Kansas City, Kansas(WyCO), Lawrence currently lives in Southern Colorado in a small cabin after a wildfire destroyed his previous home and 30 year archive. Follow him on Instagram @petermaxlawrence.