Editor's note: this op-ed was contributed by Matt Klein of ZINE in response to the keynote given by Kyle Chayka at VISIONS Summit: NYC. The recording will be available to Future Commerce+ members in June.

I recently bought myself a tiny, portable FM radio for my desk.

It’s now one of my favorite things I own.

I have it often tuned to WKCR 89.9FM NY, which is Columbia University’s student radio station. It’s a special, historic station. In 1956 it became one of the first college radio stations in America to adopt FM broadcasting. No coincidence considering Edwin Howard Armstrong, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at Columbia, was the man who invented FM.

For the majority of its existence, WKCR-FM focused on alternative musical programming, and today is praised as one of the best jazz radio stations in America.

It’s playing as I literally write these words.

When I work, I don’t want to think — I mean, I don’t want to think about anything other than what I’m working on. Outsourcing my playlist to an expert over a soulless Spotify algorithm feels refreshing. It’s a small way to pledge allegiance to Team Human. This afternoon’s real DJ decides what I hear next.

Over the last decade, tech platforms have come to effectively dictate taste at scale, flattening culture by algorithmic means. Call it “The Age of Average,” “Filterworld,” “Algo Supremacy,” “Cultural Homogenization,” “Blanding,” “Refinement Culture” or “Cultural Moneyballism.” It’s all the same.

It’s been endlessly argued that algorithms influence too much of what we watch, listen to, read, and even think. Personal taste erodes while decision-making is outsourced to the platform. This globalization, platform persuasion, and general apathy has spilled over into all types of homogenization: the look of our coffee shops, cars, architecture, logos, cars, etc. These trite visual motifs are further fueled by financial and emotional risk. Departing from the norm is scary. Meanwhile, the emergence of Gen AI is increasingly feeding us back the average, making deviation from the norm even less common.

There’s an irony here: Algorithms were once believed to untether us from the masses and offer paths for personalization. But “For You” is not about pushing the limits of our artistic palates, but a device to serve us what the platform wants us to be satisfied with, herding us into perfectly predictable siloes that can be targeted with more “precise” recommendations. Anything other than this is a liability to the business model.

We’re waking up to this – evidenced by the countless terms for the phenomenon. Consensus: “Algorithms = Bad.”

But this begs the question: “With the sheer volume of too much stuff to sift through, what comes next?”

Very quickly, the unanimous answer from the cultural pontificators emerged: “Curators!”

Human-generated, nuanced, expert, word-of-mouth recommendations are being touted as the much needed substitute to platform algos. This of course is not new. It’s just a return to the days of Blockbuster employees, bookstore keepers, and radio DJs, just like the ones I’m currently entrusting.

But this future of curators requires skepticism.

Firstly, notice how those who have pre-existing followings and social capital are the ones often pushing this narrative of curators. Elitism begets self-appointments of “ruling curators.” Professional curators or taste-makers (like Pitchfork or Infatuation reviewers, museum curators, or your favorite style blogger) often come from similar, well-educated, high-income backgrounds. We know what happens here. Unchecked blind spots and biases lead curators to often overlook works by minorities or underrepresented creators. Human curation is great, for as long as these custodians of culture aren’t completely insulated, which, no different than algorithms, results in a homogeneous culture.

This curator dynamic treads dangerously close to “gate-keeper,” systematically narrowing the range of perspectives being promoted to the masses. Curatorial power in the hands of a privileged elite has never not been problematic.

In 2022, The Mellon Foundation conducted a study of the national museum field and found that 76% of museum curators were female, and 73% were white – only slightly better from 83% in 2014. The CreateNYC Culture Plan, issued by New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs in 2017, offered a damning verdict on one corner of the cultural field: “The whitest job in arts and culture? Curator.”

Who are the curators we choose? What’s their background and aim? And most importantly, can we trust them?

A decade after WKCR 89.9 FM NY hit the airwaves, there was a glut of new music being pressed. Some labels were churning out and releasing nearly a hundred singles a week. If you were a label in the 60s and 70s, how the hell could you ensure that your artist’s records were getting played?


Mid-level DJs were suddenly pocketing at least $50 a week in bribes from labels requesting airtime. With inflation, that’s over $500 today. Not too shabby considering the average hourly rate for DJs at the time was between $1.60 and $3.00/hr. Meanwhile, household name jockeys were commanding even higher fees. Drugs and prostitutes were their other bargaining chips. And it all paid off. Payola became so effective and commonplace that Congressional hearings were held and legal requirements were signed, ultimately forcing the disclosure of paid airplay from labels.

Well, did that work?

Of course not! Ever wonder why the same 10 songs play constantly on many stations today?

Further, in the platform realm, the consultancy Music Tomorrow researched how playlists are impacting emerging artists and found:

“Over the last four years, major labels accounted for nearly 70% of the music featured in the ‘New Music Friday’ playlist on Spotify, 86% for ‘Rap Caviar’ and 87% for ‘Pop Rising’ playlists.”

It’s also worth remembering many playlists are not generated by computers, but by expert curators. The human still exists in the loop. Same system, different home.

Pay-to-play is now seen as an open secret – even beyond music.

Made clear by radio DJ payola schemes since the 50s, human curators are incredibly susceptible to manipulation. Granted, this exact vulnerability ushered in the $24B — and still growing — influencer economy. Is there any difference between influencers and the new “curators” that we’re so eagerly welcoming?

Lester Bangs, an American music journalist and critic for Creem and Rolling Stone, came out against payola back in the day. In an interview in 1980, he alluded to the more sinister element of the scheme, which still risks curatorship today.

“Most of the people writing about the music are pretty much in the pocket of the record companies. It’s not even a question of payola. You don’t have to give them payola. It’s really just a question of trendies. ‘Well, what am I expected to like this week and what’s the proper attitude about it?’ It’s disgusting because it’s just one more example of people not thinking for themselves, and these are the opinion makers not thinking for themselves!”

Maybe the only thing worse than being paid off to have an opinion, is guessing and adopting others’ opinions out of fear of being “wrong” about your own.

In an era of personal brands and monetizable reputations, every single one of our posts is a performance. If you exist online, there is no such thing as authenticity. This only becomes more true, the more eyeballs you have on you. Online, the world's a stage.

Anyone who thinks purely honest recommendations and unfiltered publicized opinion is possible — today, or moving forward — is naive to the dynamics and pressures of social living, amplified by global reach.

Genuine curation is most likely to occur if a curator is self- or crowd-founded, immune to external business interests. But a paradox emerges. An individual who is financially secure or successful enough at building a following to fund them, doesn’t exactly qualify them as an honest, critical curator.

The most needed curator is one unsusceptible to payola and public scrutiny, but further is willing to not only challenge followers’ tastes, but their own, mindful of blinding biases.

I don’t believe there’s one “better” recommendation engine over another, and we can go on debating what makes a successful curator, but it doesn’t matter until we crack a more fundamental question at hand:

Why on earth do we even need taste-makers and curators today?

Just because something is popular — a look, song or TV series — doesn’t mean that the algorithm made it that way or that people don’t actually like it. To be in complete awe of the algorithm’s almighty influence is to discredit individuals’ preferences and ability to make their own independent choices.

It’s belittling to presume consumers are required to be told what to like. 

Humans are plenty capable of deciding what to enjoy. Organic word-of-mouth recommendations already drive much of our consumption. It just happens bi-directionally and laterally, not tops-down, one-to-many. Out of personal interest, self-appointed curators may argue otherwise.

The paradox of choice is also leading to increased perceived disappointment. This is a plague of perfectionism.

If we don’t like algorithms telling us what to watch or buy, why is it that we’d like humans telling us what to watch or buy? It’s more “humane?”

What we ultimately require – more than curators replacing algorithms – is the energy to explore, discover and share new works, and the self-confidence to develop independent taste... even if that means enjoying what no one else does, or enjoying exactly what everyone else does.

The only thing objectively cooler than a highly-followed curator exhibiting their top picks is simply having your own opinion.

My Sangean Wooden Cabinet FM Radio was curated by the MoMA Design Store. That’s how I thankfully discovered it. Similarly, I still value my DJs who play on it, curating the best, the overlooked and the emerging.

But whenever I’m tuned to WKCR-FM and something plays that I’m not feeling, I have no problem jumping to another station.

I know what I like.

Do you?


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