What is the algorithm and what it does in social media?

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What is the algorithm and what it does in social media?

In: Technology
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An “algorithm” is just a process or set of rules for a calculator or computer to do a certain thing. When people complain about “algorithms” on social media websites, they’re usually complaining about how the site is programmed to share/show information in a certain way. Facebook’s a good example in that it can get stuck showing you days old posts from a limited number of friends even when you’ve got 100+ and they’re all actively posting. It’s just how it’s programmed.

The algorithm in question, there are many algorithms in other places, selects what to put into your “feed”, or recommends you to read.

An algorithm in general is simply a mathematical way of solving a task. They’ve been around for millennia, but in a modern context they’re used a lot in computer programming so that computers do what we want them to do (sort this list alphabetically, skip every third song etc).

When people talk about “the algorithm”, they’re usually talking about the method by which a social media platform presents you with information – whose posts you see first, how often you see someone’s posts. By making small tweaks to this algorithm, these companies can “surface” wildly different information to you. Done on a mass scale, this can widely alter the things people read and thus the things they believe or understand.

“The algorithm” is just a joke-y way to say “I have no idea why this social media site is showing me _______”.

An “algorithm” is simply a bunch of rules that someone programmed a computer with. If your algorithm is “when I tell you a number, square it and tell me the answer”, then feeding 5 into the algorithm produces 25 as a result.

Social media sites use complicated algorithms to decide, for example, what ads to show you: the ads that you see won’t be quite the same as the ads that anyone else sees. The specific details of things like this are closely guarded secrets (so that no one can, say, figure out how ads are served and manipulate that to make sure that their ad is shown to everyone), so if someone gets an ad for an inflatable light-up giant hamburger costume out of the blue, they may roll their eyes and say “the algorithm is at it again”.

An “algorithm”, in general, is just a way of making decisions.

“The” algorithm – the one that a particular social media site (like Facebook or Twitter) uses – is actually a collection of multiple different algorithms, all working together to decide what to show you next.

These “algorithms” pay attention to all sorts of information about you, including what you buy, what you click on, what you talk about, and so on – and then work together to figure out what to show you next, that will cause the owners of the company that made the algorithm to make the most money.

Most of the time, this is done by keeping you as addictively engaged as possible, so the more obsessively you respond to a particular sort of thing, the more it will show that thing to you. (This is different from you LIKING a thing, or from that thing actually being true! If “the algorithm” notices that it can keep you clicking by showing you made-up stuff that makes you really angry, that’s what it’s gonna do!)

All this makes the company money by keeping you clicking, while the corners of your eyes are filled with various advertising. Even if you don’t buy anything, the hope is that if it’s got the attention of millions of you, eventually somebody’s gonna buy something. (And of course, since it knows all about you and other people like you, it’s going to show you ads that it thinks you’re more likely to buy stuff from – and if it’s wrong, then it changes until it gets it right. Note that, again, this is different from showing you stuff that you actually need – it’s just going to push stuff at you that gets you to spend money, regardless of whether it’s a good idea or not.)