The Mysterious Algorithms Behind Social Media Platforms
…and why you sound silly when you say Facebook ‘tweaked’ theirs:
First things first: what is an algorithm? If you throw that question into a search engine it yields definitions along the lines of “ a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or problem solving, especially by a computer.” Pretty straightforward, right? An algorithm is essentially the guidelines followed when looking for a solution to a problem.
To make a computer do anything, you need to write a program that gives the computer a step-by-step set of instructions. With this power, the programmer is also in control of how the computer carries out the steps. An algorithm is a technique used to explain to the computer how and they can be conditional depending on the potential new issues that arise when solving a larger one. Here’s an example of four potential algorithms that can be used to give a friend directions to your home:
The ‘text me’ algorithm:
- Walk down Lane Ave.
- When you get to the red house, text me.
The ‘Uber’ algorithm:
- Download the Uber app.
- Call a car.
- Enter your destination.
- Arrive at red house.
The ‘public transportation’ algorithm:
- Take city bus #70 to the mall.
- If it’s rush hour, switch to the red line to avoid traffic.
- Get off on Lane Ave.
- Knock on the door of the red house.
The ‘gas money’ algorithm:
- Call me.
- Ask for a ride.
- Provide gas money.
- Arrive at red house.
About a month ago, the tech press and social media went wild when Facebook announced they were changing an algorithm (something that happens all the time) that controlled trending content. Since this happened, the word ‘algorithm’ has been used loosely in colloquial conversation about social media and in credible news sources alike. As a company of highly educated tech nerds, one can imagine why this common misconstruction of the concept may prompt a clarifying blog post.
The response that was warranted by the Facebook update was not unintentional or isolated. Giant companies like Facebook and Google announce mysterious software “algorithm tweaks” to their consumer base in order to make their software and their marketing better. When a person who utilizes social media platforms receives this ambiguous notice of a change to their finely tuned online niche, they feel some type of way.
The emotion evoked by tech press announcing changes holds immense amounts of power. While making regular changes to software may or may not negatively affect your experience or willingness to use a platform, it should make you aware.
People go to social media platforms to create an online presence based on the things that they care about or the things that they want people to think they do. During political elections, controversial current events and trying personal times, people look to the internet for reassurance and information.
These platforms have garnered so much power over our emotions often we do not realize how they are directly filtered by big tech companies. Information is not simply being displayed or announced by “algorithm tweak” press, it is being manipulated.
As we launch full throttle into this globalized “now generation” of self-driving cars and hypervisibility, PVM urges you to stay alert and educated before falling into the trap of strategic marketing.