On Algorithms

I've been reading about social media algorithms lately, so here's a crash course on them. Scroll to the end for links to me rambling on the internet, if you'd rather.

If you're into reading social media posts in chronological order, you may have noticed that you have to change settings regularly on your social media platforms of choice to make that happen, when it's possible at all. On the other hand, you may thrill at the opportunity to see "the best stuff first" every time you log in. Either way, you can thank an algorithm, which "informally refers to a series of steps or instructions that can be followed for solving a problem" (Vempala, 2014) with computer code. Actually, you can usually thank more than one algorithm.

What problem are they solving? Are they absolving you of responsibility for keeping up with your boring relatives? Making sure that you're fluent in the latest memes? Maybe, but most algorithms' creators really want you to log into their sites more often, and react to more posts in a quantifiable way. The current generation of algorithms are succeeding at that (and I don't have time to cite all the social media networks crowing about their success).

Algorithms may be great at guessing what you want based on your past behavior, but they're pretty bad at telling what I want. I keep thinking about Caryn Vainio's missed chance to help a dying friend. She was counting on Facebook to show her all of her friends' updates, and it didn't. Algorithms served up a hell of a lot of clickbait and swayed the U.S. presidential election in ways that researchers are still quantifying (see "Twitter Use In Election Campaigns: A Systematic Literature Review" (Jungherr, 2016) for a swiftly aging review on what's currently known). Those growing pains are why algorithms get updated and changed so frequently.

The solution for those of us who the algorithms don't yet understand is to keep digging through your account settings and learning about what's changed and what it affects. For example, three days ago somebody figured out how to control your Facebook feed under the new algorithms. Tumblr lets you turn off their "best stuff" feature with a switch. Twitter and Instagram still think they are such experts in what you want to see that you should never turn off their reorganization. Actually, Twitter lets you think you've switched off their "best stuff" and still shuffles your feed like a manic blackjack dealer.

But who knows how the algorithms will change next? Keep absorbing information, you information sponges.

And now it's time for another installment of what I've been up to on the internet:

  • Los Angeles Public Library blogger Daryl M. asked me some good questions. Since then I finished Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys and I love it. I hear there's going to be more. Cannot wait.
  • I talked about sci-fi fan theories I'm fond of on Hypable.

So, not much. I've been writing! There's still snow outside my window and I have warm coffee. It's a good time to write.


Jungherr, A. (2016). Twitter use in election campaigns: A systematic literature review. Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 13(1), 72-91.

Vempala, N. (2014). Algorithm. In W. F. Thompson (Ed.), Music in the social and behavioral sciences: An encyclopedia (Vol. 1, pp. 39-39). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: 10.4135/9781452283012.n13

R. E. Stearns