In a tv, film, book, or music rut? Here’s how to escape the algorithm with tools that diversify your media diet.
In 2021, for some reason, it seems worth worrying less about traditional resolutions and instead going for non-resolutions that can help us find more pleasure in everyday life. One of the easiest ways to do that is spending more time with art that resonates, exposes you to new ideas, or just makes your day a little better. My culture consumption was a mixed bag last year: I read more than ever but didn’t find much new music beyond releases from artists I already loved, and overall, I didn’t really go out of my way to explore a wide range of genres or older material. This year, I’m hoping to seek out more of a sense of discovery in what I’m reading, listening to, or looking at, which means escaping the increasingly uninspiring feedback loop provided by my Netflix, Goodreads, and Spotify algorithms. Here are a few ways to be more intentional (in a fun way!) about diversifying your media diet this year.
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You know what they say: know thyself in order to, uh, know thyself’s blind spots. The most helpful place to start thinking about what you want this year is to look back at everything you read, listened to, or watched in the last year or two. Beyond just what you liked and didn’t like, what are the genres or other categories you lean on (that are probably influencing your algorithm as we speak)? Your Spotify Wrapped or Apple Replay can provide more genre-specific insights, and if you log books you want to read or are currently reading in Goodreads, try running your data through the Storygraph app. It breaks down your reading habits into more specific categories like the tone and length of the books you gravitate toward. Chances are you have patterns: maybe you read a lot more fiction or nonfiction, avoid a very large subset of music or movie genres out of habit, or tend to keep your reading lists and playlists packed with new releases and not a lot of room to explore older work. It also helps to do an emotional check-in about, say, when you went through a reading dry spell versus when you were most excited to jump back into a book. You may start to get a clearer idea of what you want to explore in the next year, and, just as importantly, what leaves you feeling uninspired and in a rut.
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Make Yourself a Syllabus
Now, looking forward, there are no right answers. Maybe you’re hoping to read 50 smarter books this year with a heavy emphasis on regenerative agriculture, or maybe you’re just trying to find some comfort and escapism where you can. No matter what, it’s worthwhile (and fun, I promise!) to give yourself a little guidance. Discovering new work is just another form of self-directed learning, which basically boils down to identifying your goals and putting a little more backend effort into researching and choosing your materials. If you’re hoping to read more nonfiction or learn more about a particular intimidating subject, it may help to look at literal syllabi from college courses — you can often find them by poking through university websites or postings on faculty pages.
The Open Syllabus project also aggregates syllabi from around the world and lists the readings most commonly assigned by topic and field. But making a syllabus for yourself doesn’t need to be that literal. It can be a general plan to make sure you get some variety in your reading list; lots of people, for example, like to alternate fiction and nonfiction books, or contemporary and classic books. It can be an assignment to yourself to listen to a genre of music you’ve never given a shot, once a month. Or it can be a small step you take to help you choose more intentionally: if you feel you want to diversify your reading list, for example, you could make a list of books by authors of color you’ve been wanting to read, so you have it on hand every time you’ve finished your last book. On the most basic level, if you just can’t find the enthusiasm to read at all, your only assignment is to give yourself permission to read books that sound genuinely fun to you. That’s usually all it takes to get back on a roll.
Find “Just Trust Me” Sources
No judgment zone: until a couple years ago, I’d never really listened to the Beatles beyond their most popular songs. They seemed fine! I just couldn’t be bothered to figure out why everyone loved them so much. But once, during a particularly boring stretch of a road trip, I told my boyfriend he could try and convince me that the Beatles were good. For a few hours, he played select songs from all of their albums while we talked about all the band drama going on during each era. It was surprisingly delightful, probably because it tapped into the joy I used to feel when my friends made me mix CDs, or raved about their favorite movies at parties (remember those?).
There’s just something about a trusted confidant telling you the extremely specific reasons something rules, and getting to experience it for the first time with their enthusiasm. Recruiting friends to join you on a collaborative playlist can bring back that feeling without the need for a disc drive, and you’re also welcome to treat culture critics like friends. Molly Young’s Read Like the Wind newsletter is like a monthly mixtape of books that include both new releases and old finds. Hanif Abdurraqib’s SixtyEight2OhFive project enlists writers to wax poetic about their favorite albums for each of 37 formative years in his life. And people on the social film-tracking platform Letterboxd offer completely algorithm-free (and sometimes hilarious) recommendations for films in oddly specific categories of their choosing. Chances are, you could spend years discovering work that tons of other people love, but that an algorithm would never feed you because you never thought you were interested.
Be Your Own Algorithm
Most algorithm-based recommendations make surface-level connections about similar artists or what other users like, not to mention that you can’t tell it exactly what you like about a song or a movie, or that you like it but don’t really want more that’s just like it. So if part of stopping an algorithm from telling you what to consume next is to stop letting it tell you what your taste is, another way is to beat it at its own game. It’s likely that your favorite directors, musicians, and writers have given interviews about the artists and work that influenced them, and that list will probably look a lot more eclectic than what your algorithm spits out. You only have to look as far as the source to find unexpected stuff that you might love: find out the record labels that produce your favorite albums, and see what other artists they represent. Likewise, the bibliography section of your favorite nonfiction books can be a real gift. And if you really want to surprise yourself, plenty of tools will recommend media at random without presuming to know anything about you. Recommend Me a Book presents sample excerpts without revealing the title of the book, so you can click through before finding one that resonates, influenced only by whether you like the writing. What the Fuck Should I Watch? suggests movies at random while allowing for some feedback if you’re not feeling like a specific genre. And Every Noise At Once offers a full list of the astounding 5,000-plus genres that exist on Spotify; click on one at random and listen to a representative playlist.