Audio Extra: David Tortolini on Why TGI Friday's Comes Up When You Search "Mexican Food"

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Audio Extra: David Tortolini on Why TGI Friday's Comes Up When You Search "Mexican Food"

On the bias of algorithms, the conflation of cuisines, and why all the "best" coffees taste exactly the same.

Last week, I released an episode with scholar David Tortolini about the importance of digital spaces. We discussed how platforms like Instagram and TikTok aren’t simply places to post beautiful photos and funny videos, but are also public forums where users can convey their values and cultivate community, circumventing traditional barriers to entry.

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We were on a roll during our interview, so much so that I realized we’d been recording for longer than usual. I decided to excerpt some of our conversation and send it out as bonus content for Boss Barista’s paid subscribers—thank you for your support!

In this audio extra, David and I delve into the specifics of his research, discuss how coffee preferences are made and codified, and talk about why we lump together and homogenize cuisines from some countries but not others. Give it a listen!

Ashley: David, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about your research specifically.

David: Specifically, I look at how Latin American food culture, primarily Argentinian, Peruvian—I've been doing a lot of work with Peruvian food culture the last few years—and Mexican food cultures are represented in digital spaces.

I look at how applications do like—now they do live cooking shows and how ingredients are talked about and how, when you look at search results in apps like GrubHub and Yelp, when you type in “Latin American,” what are the kind of identifiers for those nations.

Ashley: What have you seen, or what's come up?

David: [Sighs] Problems, sometimes.

I see problems sometimes. You'll see things like when you type in GrubHub, you'll type in “Mexican food” and you'll get TGI Friday’s, because it says TGI Friday’s Fiesta Taco Bowl is Mexican, is an old-school Mexican dish, because the algorithm built in [to these apps] looks at the description by the company and they'll say, “Hey, that's what we're gonna use as our search result.”

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