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The Internet Needs to Be More Random: An Interview with Random Shopper Creator Darius Kazemi

Kazemi programmed a bot to buy himself totally random media off of Amazon every month.
A man looks through inventory at an Amazon warehouse, via Reuters/MSNBC

That everything you do online is tracked is a common refrain amongst privacy experts, but there's a flip side that's less discussed. All of that data about your browsing habits and interests being saved by countless entities is increasingly used to shape how the Internet is presented to you. The filter bubble used to be self-made, with people tending to not spread outside of an e-circle they created. But now, with personalized searches, customized shopping algorithms, and targeted ads, the web you see is unique to you.

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That's changed how we interact with the web. We now expect that our experience is going to be "smarter": more tailored, more customized, better curated to our tastes. But what of everything we're missing out on? The web doesn't feel so new and random anymore.

Game developer  Darius Kazemi is trying to change that. He's created a number of web projects that deal with randomness, including prose-barfing Twitter bot @metaphorminute, and now Random Shopper, an Amazon bot created to spend a set budget on absolutely whatever books, CDs, or movies it comes across. It's a fascinating concept aimed at breaking you out of your own consumer bubble, and recently I had the chance to talk to Kazemi about the project and why the Internet needs to start surprising us again.

Motherboard: How did you first come up with Random Shopper?

Kazemi: I've been playing with randomness for a long time, it started last year. It came out of my interest for random level generators for games and it morphed into some projects I did to generate random metaphors and random slide text and that sort of thing.

I like that feeling that you get when you order something, Amazon delays it forever, and it comes a year later. It's like a present that I paid for myself!

The original project was going to be a page where there would be a budget and a slider. At one end it would be completely random, and the other would be 100 percent not random, like stuff in your wish list. As you slide from one end to another it would start traversing Amazon's recommendation system and then start adding pure randomness to it.

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When I sat down to start making it, I started working on what was the simplest implementation of this. There was one end, the wish list, and the other was completely random. I made the completely random one as my first pass.

In the process of making it I realized that the random stuff was a lot more interesting than the stuff that Amazon recommends to you all the time anyway. I got 10 percent of the way on my project and thought "Oh, I'm done. That's cool." It changed from this larger idea to a smaller, simpler idea, and I think a better one.

That's something that stuck out to me. Whatever you buy is always tracked and stores try to send you stuff that algorithms think that you like. Is that something you're trying to buck against here?

Yeah, I am. I'm in the process of trying to make this turn into a conscious effort to break the filter bubble. Amazon knows what you like, and when you log in they are going to show you things that you are probably going to buy. So if you love 90s indie rock, you're probably going to find 90s indie rock when you log in. In fact there's a huge wealth of things out there that you otherwise would not see because Amazon makes it hard for you to see them. You have to go looking for them.

[Random Shopper] is kind of a test. The reason I picked CDs, DVDs, and paperbacks as the stuff that it would buy, as opposed to everything on Amazon, is because those are discrete pieces of media, and if it sends me a movie I can just watch the movie, if it sends me a book I can read the book. I'm hoping to use all the stuff the bot sends me, as opposed to a charger for a device that I don't own. It's not something that I can evaluate and think about what it means.

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Lots of people have developed different ways to try and break out of filter bubbles for searches. But for shopping, that's something that sticks out that doesn't exist. And you figured out a way to randomize your shopping that is not wasteful, that doesn't, like, buy your kids' clothes.

Right, clothes that aren't in my size.

Is that something you can see more of in the future?

Yeah. One of the interesting things about doing this project is that people will chime in and say that this project reminds them of some store or another. There's a bunch of online shopping outlets that kind of do this.

My wife recently bought–I forget from what store–they were selling a pack of like 10 gifts for $100. It was a grab bag. But it looked like there would be some cool stuff in it, and it picked which friend would get which gift appropriately. There are actually clothing sites that do something similar, where you get a subscription and they will send you a certain amount of stuff each month, like ties.

There's actually been a surprising number of people that ask me if I'm going to turn this into a product, and if I'm going to make this a service for people, like an app or a website you can go to.

That's the first thing I thought, to be honest.

A part of me is a little bit horrified at that just because this whole thing was sort of set up to critique our need for this random crap all the time. But I'm not going to discourage anyone else from doing it. I may set something up myself, but probably not.

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I am going to open source the code for the bot, and I will happily encourage anyone to take the source code and build something of their own, commercial or not.

As you mentioned, there have always been book of the month clubs and services that promise to be curated, but I think people have trouble trusting the quality of that. Here, by saying that it's totally random, you change the expectations.

Right. I'm interested in the feeling you get when you delegate shopping to a completely random algorithm. It's almost like gambling a little bit. You get that kind of rush, but this is nice because its a controlled rush. I'm not going to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars like in Vegas. But it does feel that way.

There's cool stuff that happens in the margins of this bell curve, in the margin of this normal distribution of behavior, that we have to embrace.

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What about how important curation has become online? The web isn't so random anymore. What do you think about the current web culture?

This actually ties into something that I felt very strongly about several years ago. For about 5 years I worked in online games, first MMORPGs and then Facebook games, that sort of stuff. Especially when I was working on Facebook stuff, my particular job was as a gameplay metrics analyst. I was one of the people that collects the data about how people play the games, analyze it, and make recommendations for the team: This system is broken, we should fix this, or this item is selling really well and let's think about how to utilize it.

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What is troubling to me is that after a couple years of doing it, people tended to seize on these algorithms and essentially say "We expect people to behave mostly like this, with a few outliers," and a lot of the time the response was if people are going outside of where we expect them to go, we should push them back towards the middle. I actually am offended at that idea.

You'd be so glad a bot bought you this. Via Random Shopper

I think a lot of the fun things that happen in games are the things you don't plan as a developer, and to squash people's activities that happen outside of that acceptable margin of error is not something that I like.

It was interesting to see people seize on these algorithms. They just get these wild eyes and they're like "Oh yeah, I have this chart now that depicts normal distribution and I have to make sure everyone's normal combat behavior meets this normal distribution or else it's not good game design." What I tried to tell everyone all the time was no, that's not necessarily true.

There's cool stuff that happens in the margins of this bell curve, in the margin of this normal distribution of behavior, that we have to embrace. But that's easier said than done. I felt that metrics and analytics were streamlining games to the point where they're really boring, and I think you can expand that argument for the internet as a whole.

One of the coolest things I ever experienced on the internet was back when Delicious first started. I think it was late 2005, I don't remember exactly, when one of my favorite things to do was watch the full feed [of submitted links]. I would reload the page and there would be 10 new links that had been bookmarked by somebody, all sorts of things, and most of it was crap but some of it was really interesting. It was like watching the internet fly by in front of my own eyes.

Something else Delicious offered back then, and doesn't anymore, was a way to filter just MP3s that people had bookmarked. So I would make whole playlists of what people had bookmarked, in any genre that you could imagine. I was really sad when they discontinued that feature. So [Random Shopper] is getting back to that feeling I had from just having the Internet typed at me in a really raw way.

So what do we do? Do we need more randomness on the Internet?

I would like to see more randomness on the net. Everything I do adds randomness to the Internet, so I certainly hope to see more of it. I don't know if you saw the Twitter bot, but try following that bot for even an hour. It tweets a random metaphor once every two minutes and it just fills your feed.

I've been following it since I made it up two months ago and it's awesome. It's kind like the heartbeat of Twitter, if it doesn't appear every two minutes I know something is wrong. But it also just puts this weird weird stuff into my feed and I like it. And apparently a lot of people do, as it has a fair number of followers, although most of its followers are bots. [laughs]