The word algorithm seems to fill some people with dread. It is most likely caused by Facebook using an algorithm to decide what you see on their site.
It used to be that you just saw each post from anything you ‘liked’ and anyone you were ‘friends’ with. With the most recent posts at the top, getting older as you scroll down. Then all of a sudden things were different. (According to Facebook) You see things that will be interesting to you first, and won’t see things you don’t like at all.
Facebook remembers what sorts of things you interact with, what seems to get your attention. And then you will see more of it. It’s not instant, if you start liking posts about knitting, you won’t only see knitting for the next hour. But gradually, over time, Facebook try to understand what floats your boat.
But all of that is slightly off topic. An algorithm is simply a set of steps to achieve something. You use them every day. But you probably call it a receipe, method, pattern, process or maybe it’s just the steps to do a simple task:
- Put water in kettle
- Turn on kettle
- Put teabag in cup
- Wait for kettle
- Pour in water
- Wait until it’s brown
- Put in milk (but no sugar)
And there is your simple tea algorithm.
There is nothing bad about them, they are used in all the software you use. You iPhone or Android phone has 1000’s in it that make the phone do what it needs to. All the apps you use on it do, too. Any ‘smart’ devices do, too.
But the algorithms which are used to decide whether you see your best friend’s holiday photos or a political message from a party you don’t like do feel more ‘personal’. The social network, website or app deciding what you see or even which side of something you are exposed to can have an enourmous influence on your opionions of something or the world in general.
Imagine you have a friend who is similar to you. But, for whatever reason, Facebook mostly shows you positive things about Brexit. But Facebook shows your friend negative things. Imagine how two people with similar beliefs could become to have an extremely different view on the same thing.
This could happen by chance, you happen to ‘like’ a post about something the Conservative party did, but your friend was on Facebook later in the day and happened to ‘share’ a positive response the Labour party did. Now you and your friend may start to be exposed to more and more opposing views compleatly by chance.
But what if someone were to pay to influence people in this manner…