- The algorithm is the real tastemaker, smoothing and smothering the diverse possibilities of our experiences, creating coherence from the excess, creating categories under the guise of limitlessness.
- What you’ve had before is what you’ll get forever, variations on a theme, data points of difference no different than those of countless others.
- Many of us suffer a kind of content fatigue. Too many posts; too many TV shows to try to watch; too many toothpaste brands to choose from; too many fake reviews to wade through buying an electric kettle online.
Options overwhelm. Where 20, even ten, years ago there were so many TV channels we now have innumerable Netflix originals—to say nothing of every other streaming service you may subscribe to. In the place of CDs, $12 a pop, or pirated tunes on a 64mb SD disk there is the endless autoplay of Spotify. And do the selections of these services not suit each of us so well? It can’t be custom-made if it’s for everyone: Welcome to the era of the mass individual.
Some, such as writer Anne Helen Petersen, have suggested that among the positives of such a glut of options is that a wider range of consumers has more media available to them. “‘Peak TV’ meant more television shows, but it also meant more shows directed at people who weren’t me, aka people who weren’t middle-class, straight white ladies,” she wrote, not without noting the more cynical motivations: a broader customer base—e.g., more shows for (and hopefully by) Black audiences and queer viewers, means more subscribers or advertising-watching eyeballs, all, to go full-cynic, without taking up precious TV primetime. “When you logged on, instead of feeling overwhelmed, you were supposed to feel comforted by the fact that the screen showed you what was popular, and what other viewers like you were watching, and what you had been watching.”
We’re given what we’ve already gotten—what they think we want, and what we’re in turn made to circumscribe as the edges of our desire. I mean that the algorithm is the real tastemaker, smoothing and smothering the diverse possibilities of our experiences, creating coherence from the excess, creating categories under the guise of limitlessness. At the material level, such media options are often options to buy into a handful of content producers and streaming platforms. A Netflix show is a Netflix show is a Netflix show; the same executive pockets get lined. As Unilever hawks everything from electric-blue toilet bowl cleaner to vegan meatballs and seemingly competing brands of packaged cookies come from the same companies synthesizing pharmaceuticals, so too does a sizable chunk of competing luxury fashion houses come under LVMH and Kering’s domain. But most consumers aren’t doing much more than window shopping at the Gucci store.
Perhaps they’re shopping at Shein, where the constantly updated supply shop may seem as infinite as a Prime page. According to an article published by Rest of World, the Chinese corporation added up to 10,000 SKUs each day over the past several months, and unifies around 6,000 independent clothing factories, connecting them via custom software that gives “near-instant feedback” on product success. Such a system allows Shein to “churn out and test thousands of different items simultaneously,” making small orders and seeing what sticks, what the company calls a “large-scale automated test and re-order (LATR) model.”
“Everything is optimized with big data,” apparel manufacturer Lin Zhen told the reporters. “You can see the current sales, and then it will tell you to stock up more if you sell well and what you need to do if you don’t sell well. It’s all there.” This is not unlike Netflix which, per Petersen, “To make itself ever more valuable to ever more people, Netflix began employing their massive datasets, gleaned from the watch histories of millions of customers, to give flailing consumers a way to stay afloat.” What you’ve had before is what you’ll get forever, variations on a theme, data points of difference no different than those of countless others. As Sheng Lu, who studies the global textile industry, explained to Rest of World, companies like Shein are using data to decide what to produce, thus many competing companies are producing many similar-looking garments. “If you use the same data inputs, and you’re using the same algorithm, maybe the outcome is also very similar—if not exactly the same,” he says of the almost identical output by different brands. “At many of these companies these days, including, I suspect, at Shein, it’s not the fashion guys that are designing clothing. It’s engineers. Engineers looking at data.”
Part of Shein’s success also has to do with the infinite scroll interfaces and habits it mimics, targeting “a generation who grew up exploring their personal style on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.” Fashion and identity’s entanglement have long been the site of consumerist exploitation. Take, as an example, teens. “Perpetually shoplifting identities, teens are authenticity machines, proving who they are by buying into an aesthetic,” write Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela in Garage (2018), their para-architectural exploration of suburbia. “This is the ‘hot topic’ ideology in which corporate interest controls trending individualism.” In the Rest of World story, the authors recount the unnerving tale of 20-year-old Julia King, who after thrifting an argyle sweater vest and posing in it online, saw the defunct Chinese seller Preguy using the photo of her to sell their knockoff, knockoffs which soon proliferated across Amazon and Walmart and AliEexpress, across TikTok, across the torsos of various identity-consumers. Teens with their postered rooms and their quasi-subcultural identities (“you not only are goth, you were born goth.”) can, per the examples in Garage, escape the ‘burbs to the internet and “manifest their hostility toward the structures that represent the indulgences of the bourgeoisie,” say Erlanger and Ortega Govela. But, “This threshold is a delirious reality: teens become the product and creators of what they protest.” In fact, any of us who use social media or shop online are producing precisely what we consume—data points for companies like Meta to sell our habits to their real customers, the advertisers, to in turn create the digital environment where we form those habits, ad infinitum. We live in our own simulation, a LED-lit world of self-fulfilling AI prophecies.
Many of us suffer a kind of content fatigue. Too many posts; too many TV shows to try to watch; too many toothpaste brands to choose from; too many fake reviews to wade through buying an electric kettle online. Choose the closest option. Reactionism similarly comes and goes: From Brandless™-branded products to yesteryear’s normcore as a standout aesthetic—even banality has to have its novelty to keep the corporate emperors in clothes. In fact, as prediction and simulation are built into our everyday lives, the false idea of options manufactures us as consumers who are willing to buy more to be different just like everyone else. Julia King has an argyle sweater vest and I need one too. Selling us the funhouse mirrors where we simultaneously see ourselves and each other refracted into a Picasso-like arrangement of near recognizability. It would be uncanny if it didn’t fade so well into the noisy background. We decorate ourselves in the false freedom of thirty versions of the same makeup tutorial, maybe arguing over whether we prefer Tom Ford powder blush for $90 or MAC at $25 to do our cheeks (both made by Estée Lauder). We tie a bow from the front of our this-cycle Zara top that looks like last season’s Loewe and last week’s Shein. We stare in our mirror. We are being ourselves. We take a video, we edit and post, we are sharing our individuality, we are like nobody else—like everyone.