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Cover image for Algorithms are ruining our lives 😒

Algorithms are ruining our lives 😒

Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨
INTJ & knowledge hoarder 🧠 junior techie 🐣 blogging my 💖 out @ dev.to & technoglot.com 💻 lifelong learner 🤓 experimenter 🧪 anime-lover 😍
・3 min read

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Howdy DEV gang! 👋🏻 I trust you are doing great (if not, here's a virtual hug 🤗).

Despite experiencing a bit of a writers block, I decided I'd get a discussion going so that I can get the ball rolling again (🤞🏻).

Today's topic: algorithms. Specifically the ones we find on social media platforms and the consequences they bring. I don't intend to say algorithms are bad, but sometimes they really aren't that great.

Let me give you some context first.

A little context...

A while ago I attended two talks on building your online presence and building a system to create content consistently. I wrote two posts about these talks, which you can find below.


Frequently asked questions during these sessions included:

  • How do you promote your content?
  • Where do you promote your content?
  • How do you ensure your content is discovered?
  • How can I measure the traffic my post attracts?
  • What tools can I use to analyze my contents performance?

You get the idea (or so I'd hope...).

Long story short, all of this got me thinking. Thinking about how preoccupied we have gotten about metrics and online popularity. How social media plays a central role in our lives and how it takes control of our lives (if we allow it to, of course). And here's the thing about "social" platforms: they all implement some sort of algorithm and recommendation engine. And what does that do? It keeps people and their work from being noticed. It buries your efforts. Here's a recent example of a fellow with a large pool of subscribers on YouTube who's not having the best time with his content.

These days, we no longer people please. Instead, some of us live to please algorithms. We go to crazy lengths to get our content noticed and at times we fail miserably. This only helps to deteriorate our mental health further (among other problems that may arise as a result).

So my question to YOU is simple: How can we as developers create platforms and tools that empower people to show their work and guarantee that everyone gets a fair chance of being noticed? How would you try to solve this "issue"?

I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please drop them below! 👇🏻




Still here? Catch me on Twitter or find me elsewhere! If you like my blogs and are feeling generous, kindly consider to 👇🏻




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Discussion (42)

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miguelmj profile image
MiguelMJ

First of all, glad to see you here again @technoglot . Second, that's a brave title to put in a developers community 😂😉

Honestly, I think all this comes from demonizing the term "algorithm". As @egilhuber said in another comment, it's impossible to think in another solution without thinking in another algorithm. That's because algorithms are literally everything that happens under a computer.

I think that the problem are not the algorithms; is what people expect of these systems. We all would love to see content relevant to us, but also appear in the relevant content of others? The problem has nothing to do with the algorithms because they will literally recommend the popular things. Algorithms don't know what is quality content and they don't know when you put your heart in your work. They only know what people give attention to. They are a bunch of algebra, text mining and graph theory, that's all computers can offer.

And, as we people don't always give relevance to quality content, the algorithms won't recommend your quality content if it's not somehow popular (like the unfortunate case of @bugsysailor and his photography). That's why there exist a lot of strategies to obtain and retain the attention of the readers/watchers/consumers (enter clickbait).

In my opinion, when you don't have the favor of the algorithm (and the algorithm is completely innocent to me), the only alternative is to use a "natural" recommendation system: human relationships. Build circles person by person in different communities with time and dedication. At first you will need the "boca a boca" (word of mouth), but then, if your content is good enough, people will stay and promote you into bigger audiences. But there are thousands of people doing exactly the same... and we can't all be relevant at the same time.

So, everyone reading this, enjoy your number of followers, be it ten 10 or 10.000, try to support people that are passionate about what they do and do the same.

Just a piece of my mind ❤️

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patricknelson profile image
Patrick Nelson • Edited

It's a very interesting problem, really, because we're talking about people creating very powerful systems which then are used as platforms for connecting other people. And, as you say, it's easy to demonize "The Algorithm," particularly if there isn't much clarity surrounding exactly what that really means since it can range anywhere from meaning basically all code, or simply the "secret sauce," or the proprietary components of how a company promotes users and content. As a developer, my interpretation of the colloquial use of the "The Algorithm" (as a sort of proper noun) has been the latter.

As you say, it seems like inevitably the algorithms we have to write, despite our best efforts, may still result in feedback loops, both positive and negative. That is, they may reward "good" behavior and punish, so to speak, the "bad" behavior (or that which is deemed worth or unworthy by the mysterious almighty algorithm in the sky, er, "cloud"). It's amazing to watch as it favors a few, particularly on profitable platforms like Twitch, YouTube and etc. When so much money is involved, you're bound to see a huge amount of angst tied up in it; particularly when it involves the wellbeing of creators who begin to depend on it.

I don't have a whole lot to contribute to the discussion per se; just a muse as well. 😅

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

I don't have a whole lot to contribute to the discussion per se; just a muse as well. 😅

No worries, this is a satisfactory contribution! I enjoyed reading your comment 😁 And to be honest, algorithms really feel like "secret sauce". Funny thing is that as a developer you are expected to understand what these "algorithms" entail. That stuff runs behind closed doors, not a single platform provides full disclosure on how these "algorithms" work. Neither do they share how they get so filthy rich thanks to the efforts of their users. Sure, "advertisements". I bet there's much more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

But then again, as devs we should know better as to not generically call these things "algorithms". If I knew better, I'd do better! 😂

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! 🙌🏻

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miguelmj profile image
MiguelMJ

Alright, it's fair to interpret "The Algorithm" as the proprietary components promoting different creators or content. However, I don't like to use the name "algorithm" for that, because in that case it is actually the interests of private companies that make the difference, and "The Algorithm" makes it sound like it's not something human-controlled. Private companies shouldn't wash their hands using that term.

And in the end, even if there were no private interests behind, even if the algorithms were completely public and open, they would not be bias free. And these kind of differences is what us, as experts, should communicate to the general public.

  • Algorithms will always be limited, so know what to expect.
  • However, there are components in them (the secret sauce) that give power to certain private interests, but those are always human-controlled, so don't blame technology: blame greedy people.

Thanks for your answer, Patrick, it made me think!

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

Oh boi, thanks for the thorough answer as usual! It's always a pleasure to read your comments 😁

You definitely raised many good points here. It is us indeed that give popularity to content. Machines can't make much of it since they don't (yet) reason like we do. I just think it's "sad" to live at the mercy of an algorithm. There's many tricks we do (at least some of us) to get our content noticed by others. We please the algorithm, but it does not reward us in the way we want 😂.

I must admit that this is a pretty tricky thing to tackle. I just can't help but wonder if we can do things differently. How? That's not clear to me yet. After all, we are at the intersection of tech and human nature.

Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts @miguelmj !🙌🏻

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miguelmj profile image
MiguelMJ

The intersection of the century, indeed!
Thanks for your answer and your kind words, as always 😄

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury

Take the power back with alternative and specialized platforms and networks. Those big tubes have anything but empathy and meaning, while we desperately need that.

Their AI is not even real AI, far from it. They make money, so do people that embrace that "philosophy".

We need other ways to thank creators than just number of likes and followers. Engagement, for example with meaningful comments, is a good start.

I also despise the generic term "content" (even if I keep using it by lack of a better word, so I'm not judging anyone here).

It's not only content creation, it's a sharing process. You put your heart, your soul and your energy in it

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

I also believe that the only thing that really matters to these companies (the ones running social media networks and the like) is money. To be very honest, I don't see what's so "social" about social media.

Engagement, for example with meaningful comments, is a good start.

LOL, it seems like that's asking for too much. With our attention span as short as it is now, there's almost no way in hell to get genuine engagement. You are more likely to find spam bots out there than people that truly support what you put out there.

It's not only content creation, it's a sharing process.

When I say content, I also mean mundane things that we share online. Some folks create content (be it videos, blogs, photos etc) and make a living out of it. Others do it just for fun. Both are fine. What's not so fine, is having a freaking algorithm dictate who gets attention and who doesn't. We have a chance to build a "fair" place for others online, but the opposite keeps on happening.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury

I really appreciate the way you tackle sensitives issues. These are very important.

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lukaszahradnik profile image
Lukáš Zahradník

Can you define what the "real AI" is and why their AI isn't one?

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury

I'm confident I can, but something seems to bother you in that expression. Could you tell me what ?

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lukaszahradnik profile image
Lukáš Zahradník

Can you share with us what the "real AI" is then? And why their AI isn't one?

Nothing bothers me. I'm trying to understand where you are coming from with that bold statement and what is your reasoning for it.

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury

Well, I don't think it's a bold statement at all.

They use machine learning, which I would describe as using mathematical models to make the computer "learn" without direct instruction, while AI would mimic human cognitive functions. We are far from it.

When I look at the captioning system and the automatic removal of objectionable content, many fails and false positives, the overall quality worsens over the years. More and more creators are quitting the platform.

They use buzzword like the so-called "AI" to justify their political and financial decisions.

Is it more clear this way?

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lukaszahradnik profile image
Lukáš Zahradník

They use machine learning, which I would describe as using mathematical models to make the computer "learn" without direct instruction, while AI would mimic human cognitive functions. We are far from it.

AI is a large umbrella term, and Machine Learning belongs under it. Machine Learning models do not learn (yes, no quotes) without direct instructions as supervised learning is also a thing.
AI is not just about mimicing human cognitive functions (that would be cognitive computing?)

When I look at the captioning system and the automatic removal of objectionable content, many fails and false positives, the overall quality worsens over the years. More and more creators are quitting the platform.
They use buzzword like the so-called "AI" to justify their political and financial decisions.

I doubt that captioning system is getting worse over the years as there are improvements in this area.
Content removal, on the other hand, might be getting worse, but that is caused by policies and people tweaking it to, as you say, "justify their political and financial decisions." Still, in the background is the "real" AI.

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury • Edited

AI is a large umbrella term, and Machine Learning belongs under it

I see your point and I cannot say you're wrong, but it's a little bit nitpicking to me. My point is "AI" is used as an argument to justify human decisions, like it's the right thing to do as it's "pure rationality", or a fair system, not "human biased".

Note that I've nothing against business and making money and stuff, unless it instabilities people, stifle creativity, and ultimately devalues creative work. I really do believe that's the case now.

You don't go to YouTube because you're in love with the UI or the algorithms. Don't get me wrong. That's not useless at all, it does add value, but it's not the primary goal.

You go there for the people, the entertaining, the learning, etc. They created a fantastic platform with great features, they make a lot of money with it. Fair enough, nothing to say about it.

However, they now use sneaky techniques such as "shadow ban", or even direct censorship, and technology helps justifying that.

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lukaszahradnik profile image
Lukáš Zahradník

I mostly agree with you that YouTube has those issues and get your points. My only/main issue was with it not being real AI.

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jmau111 profile image
Julien Maury • Edited

That's because we don't see "AI" the same way, which makes your first question the most relevant. I'm not saying current techniques are simplistic or dumb, to me, it does not mimic human mind.

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inhuofficial profile image
InHuOfficial

That video was really telling of the issue with relying on one platform to spread your message (says me currently only posting on Dev.to 🤣)

A real eye-opener for people who don't build their own lists - it might be an old saying but "the power is in the list"!

Great article again, I am enjoying your perspective on these watercooler subjects you have been posting lately! ❤

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

Thanks for joining in! I'm glad you still find something of interest around the watercooler 😂

"the power is in the list"

They work and that's the reason why listicles exist xD

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inhuofficial profile image
InHuOfficial • Edited

Oh no, "the power is in the list" refers to building your own mailing list or a prospects list, a list that you control!

Sorry I should have made that clear I thought it was a well known saying.

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

Hahahaha, it's alright! I learned something new today 😂

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egilhuber profile image
erica (she/her)

This is a fun issue to try and solve, because I always end up thinking of another algorithm! It's interesting going down the rabbit hole of which techniques work best for each platform because once you know them, it's hard to unsee them! As a user it can feel a little empowering going from "why am I seeing this?" to "oh, that's why I'm seeing this", but it's also frustrating. The algorithm thinks it knows what the user wants, even if that rarely lines up with what the user wants. IIRC, part of Youtube's algorithm is the thumbnails (you know the ones - bright colors, exaggerated expressions, maybe a bit of text). Those videos might be more likely to get clicked, but that says nothing about the quality or relevance of the content!

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

What concerns me is the fact that some people make money creating content, and yet these algorithms, at one point or another, hurt the creators' stream of income.

Frankly said, I believe that a platforms value lies in the users. If Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other platform had no users, it wouldn't have much value.

I get that algorithms are there for a reason and that removing algorithms only introduces more algorithms, but honestly, do we need to "solve" everything with tech/algorithms? I'm inclined to think otherwise.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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bugsysailor profile image
Bugsy Sailor

I have so much empathy for this. I've posted a daily sunrise to Instagram for a year, lots of comments for my small following saying "I look forward to your sunrise every day!" But then I stop for a week, and not even my closest friends say a thing. I started to spend a tremendous amount of time editing a little sunrise video each morning, posting to different social media channels, but I could simply no longer justify the time and effort for a few likes. But don't worry, I still watch the sunrise every day (871 straight), but I'm back to doing it just for myself.

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

But then I stop for a week, and not even my closest friends say a thing.

That truly baffles me. Even the ones that follow you, stop seeing your content at some point. And at times, for reasons we cannot anticipate or justify!

but I'm back to doing it just for myself.

Glad to see you are doing so! 🙌🏻😊

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! I appreciate it!

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theowlsden profile image
Shaquil Maria

How can we as developers create platforms and tools that empower people to show their work and guarantee that everyone gets a fair chance of being noticed?

That's a good question. The problem is in recommendations I think. The algorithms try to recommend a certain work based on patterns. If we somehow create an algorithm that would show the works (regardless of views and thumbnails and other characteristics) instead of recommending them, then it can be unbiased and everyone could get a fair chance.
Also, if an algorithm is created that emphasizes new or low-view content, that could help solve the problem.

I do wonder if social media can work without algorithms though🤔

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horomancer profile image
horomancer

I guess it comes down to what you want from 'social media'. The old days of simple image boards were largely algo-free and content of interest was pushed to the top via other people's commenting or adding to the thread. This also meant the threads with the most action tended to be the most extreme, inflammatory, or controversial.
In small communities, there probably isn't much need for an algorithm, but in a vast sea like youtube, how can you hope to discover interesting things without already knowing to look for them.

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

Also, if an algorithm is created that emphasizes new or low-view content, that could help solve the problem.

I'm pro underdog content! 😂 That solution would actually satisfy me. It's so annoying to keep seeing and hearing from the "popular" voices online. They already have a huge follower's base (which I suppose they worked hard for). Sure, they probably talk about the hot stuff, but it's a nice change of pace to see the underdogs get some attention.

Anyone saying it's easy to make money through social media and the like is trying to sell something (you guessed it, an e-book on how to get more followers on Twitter).

I think the only work around I have as a consumer (now turned creator-ish), is to curate my feed more aggressively. I like to mute folks on Twitter too. And I'm mindful of whom I follow. Only way I see of beating the algo (as a consumer).

I do wonder if social media can work without algorithms though🤔

I think not. There's too many users and too much content being put out there. You need to place "gatekeepers" (algos) to guide consumers to the "right" places. Whatever "right" means to the algorithm anyway.

Thanks for joining the conversation! 😁

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aghost7 profile image
Jonathan Boudreau

I think we need more transparency in how the algorithm works. Get rid of opaque algorithms like "recommendations". These could be replaced with something like "others also subscribe to". Not only does this make it less stressful for creators, but makes it easier for users to understand why they're being shown certain content.

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

This could definitely be a good approach. In various instances I've been shown content that has nothing to do with my past behavior and it is confusing. I sometimes even tell the recommendation engine to show me less of X, yet after a little while, it shows me the garbage again, just because it's trending.

I'm the type that aggressively curates her feed. Despite my efforts, I'm still shown irrelevant things. It's a never ending battle 🤪

Thanks for joining the discussion! 🙌🏻

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juanfrank77 profile image
Juan F Gonzalez

Wooow great topic to talk about. I really haven't seen it like that before. The title made me wonder "why? algorithms were what gave me a job" and then I realized you meant the Algorithms of "social platforms".
But now that you mention it... if the problem is of that measure for people creating content, imagine how much bigger is for people on the other side of the spectrum who only consume.
I think if we see it from a more general view, these algorithms can be ruining our lives not just on social platforms but on other sites as well with the ads & buyer recommendations.
That reminds this TED talk youtube.com/watch?v=iFTWM7HV2UI

You pose an interesting question but I'm afraid that any solutions to that will not get enough traction for the fact of them not being "profitable enough" to the people of Big Tech.
That example that you shared with Youtubers can be just one of many, like FB hiding organic traffic so that people will eventually have to spend on ads to get more eyeballs on their stuff.

Hope you don't get too much writer's block because your posts are always interesting to read. 👏

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kspeakman profile image
Kasey Speakman • Edited

The immediate challenge of social media is the premise of broadcasting our thoughts to the world. We all have local/personal contexts where our thoughts make sense. But cultures vary wildly across the world. Sharing anything to the whole world is guaranteed to offend somebody. (Except cat pics.) And that's not considering trolls.

Algorithms / echo chambers attempt to serve the same purpose that local culture + personal interests served before the "social" tech was invented. But they are skewed by advertiser dollars. What makes sense for you takes a back seat to what keeps your attention and the advertiser dollars flowing. Negativity, sensationalism, and extreme points of view keep attention better than most things.

Your brain is designed to grow muscle memory for the things it frequently encounters. And what we frequently encounter due to algorithms is maladaptive attention seeking behavior by advertisers. This has shifted people to be more polarized than ever.

Solutions? The right incentives need to be set. Ads are the main problem here, as they provide significant incentive for advertisers (and anyone who wants to influence you really) to behave insidiously to users. I wonder what some of these services might look like if they were not-for-profit.

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ritaoportunity profile image
ritaoportunity

that is true. I feel a lack of variation sometimes because of algorithms. I think it would be cool to have "algorithm-free" zone. only workaround right now is to create a new accounts but sometimes that becomes difficult too, especially for paid services like spotify. and it's only a partial solution for user-side experience, I have nothing for the creator perspective

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drbearhands profile image
DrBearhands

I'd like to point a pseudo-error out as they will make the rest of my point clearer.

"Algorithms" is too generic a term and not the root of the issue. Instead, I see at least 2: advertisement-based revenue has turned users into cattle to be milked with no care for their well-being, and AI creates fitness functions based on mere correlation.

That the first one is bad is fairly obvious. The second maybe not. As humans we like to be judged for reasons that matter. From the mundane "why is my social media post not getting more likes?" to the serious "why did I get stopped by the police?". Protected classes (race, gender, age, religion...) are a buggy, patchwork solution to harmful correlation-based judgements with no causal justification that we have encountered within humans. AI is opening a whole new can of worms with correlations that we don't understand at all.

This makes the solution as obvious as it is uncomfortable: go back to paying for stuff and institute broad bans on AI that influences humans.

There's also a point to be made about how network effects create monopolies, but that seemed slightly off-topic.

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sherautcarsh profile image
Utcarsh Srivastava

Funny that the post about algorithms ruining our lives, is shown in my google feed by its algorithm.

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nefomemes profile image
Nefomemes

There should be a law that forces all big data algorithms to be open source for transparancy.

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andreidascalu profile image
Andrei Dascalu • Edited

On a platform targeted at developers I would surely expect a much better use of industry vocabulary than what one would find in a tabloid.
Algorithms? A generic blanket term that denotes a recipe-like implementation of a solution with various degrees of complexity?
I wonder if you got beaten down by depth-first binary search tree in school and you had Knuth nightmares :)

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author

What's your point exactly?

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andreidascalu profile image
Andrei Dascalu

That when speaking to a more technical audience it's best to be specific. Unless you really mean that all algorithms are ruining all our lives (or the concept of algorithms) then it pays to be precise about at least which algorithms you talk about (or which class of application of algorithms)

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technoglot profile image
Amelia Vieira Rosado 🐣✨ Author • Edited

In case it was not clear what I was referring to: algorithms used in recommendation systems on pretty much any social media platform.

Furthermore, I was speaking from the "consumers" perspective. I don't know everything about algorithms but in my opinion that is not a prerequisite for starting a discussion on this platform.

I hope that is clear. And well, if you happen to be more knowledgeable in this area, why not enlighten those who are less knowledgeable?

Thanks for the feedback. Have a nice day/weekend 🙂

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andreidascalu profile image
Andrei Dascalu

Certainly you're right that knowledge about algorithms isn't a preqrequisite. It's mostly a warning about the position vs the topic. Like if you're a non-medical person going on to a medical forum and stating how accurate "Dr. House" is (not asking, just making statements). You're bound to not be taken seriously by actual medical professionals. They will immediately wonder whether they're facing a serious conversation and how to approach it. Should they provide explanations? How to even approach an explanation, what kind of references would be useful to help understanding?

So here it goes an attempt. An algorithm is a recipe. A set of steps that when followed in sequence will provide an answer to a question. Algorithms are generic solutions that apply to a class of a problem, not a particular one. There's an algorithm to solve 2nd degree equations and it's the same regardless of the values of variables involved in a certain equation. There are a number of algorithms for the purpose of search, but they are defined based on the structure of the information to search in.

Recommendation engines have 2 questions to answer: what to recommend and in which order to provide results.

The first tends to be a classic search algorithm. The second tends to be a weighted algorithm, usually the "secret sauce" of such a system. However, the algorithm itself is less of a concern than what it takes into account and how it gets that information.

Say that Facebook were to recommend posts from your network. They consider the most important those that have most uses of the word "cat".

Getting the posts is straightforward. There may be a limit on how old a post may be, but that doesn't change the search itself.

The second is how to present results. Perhaps ... newest based on how many mentions of "cat" there are, these being the two parameters of this algorithm.

To have a chance at being recommended, of course, you need to know the criteria. You don't need to know the algorithm itself, how the search is performed. Well, you can, of course, educate yourself (Donald Knuth's "The Art of Computer Programming" is the algorithms bible in 4 great volumes) but it's more about which criteria are accounted for and their values.

Say one day Facebook switches to "dog" instead of "cat". Well, a pox on all those who were rooting for cats.

Of course, the issue rests a great deal on all the scoring mechanisms and the fact that their inputs are very tweak-able and those inputs are in the hands of people who become Gods of results.

Say one day I pay Facebook to switch from "dog" to my name (or if the author is me). The algorithm hasn't changed, just the value of the provided inputs. Ok, it's not impossible to tweak an algorithm, theoretically you can say that adding a variable that wasn't there before changes the algorithm (though technically that depends on how it worked before - there are fuzzy algorithms which by design take variable inputs).

Of course, there's also the matter than algorithms are purpose-agnostic. The mechanics are one thing, I could use the same weighted algorithms to score cars for a prize. It's a usage (purpose and inputs) problem rather than algorithm problem.

As a consumer, I would love to be able to have access to tweak those inputs myself so that I can get results relevant to my criteria, how the criteria that Google or Facebook considers relevant.

As a developer, I find it frustrating because some algorithms have long been incorporating AI (or at least assisted learning). Nevermind this may lead to built-in bias, but also they still have "manual" input overrides to sell high result scores to the highest bidder.

Algorithms are fine, the issue is still with people.

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theowlsden profile image
Shaquil Maria

Could've said all this with one sentence.

Algorithms are fine, the issue is still with people.