Taking Stock Of My Reliance On Algorithms (Or Lack Thereof)


The recent controversies surrounding social networks and what they do to people’s perceptions of reality has gotten me to take a bit of a deeper look at the ones I use and, particularly, the extent to which I rely on algorithms in each one. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve let algorithms run my life that much at all. The battle over how to curate social media really comes down to one question though: do you trust users or the network to avoid getting users caught up in bubbles?

The problem with Facebook has come from outside organizations figuring out how to manipulate the algorithms and catch users in feedback loops. YouTube has been similarly criticized for creating feedback loops of increasingly inflammatory and disturbing content in autoplay and suggested videos. On the other hand, those algorithms exist partially to keep users from putting themselves into bubbles.

A lot of people seem to actively resist algorithms on places like Twitter and Facebook. Complaints from people wanting to simply see their feeds in chronological order are common, and I’m definitely part of that group. Behind that, in just about all of my social networks, what I’ve noticed in my own behavior (and likely the behavior of other people crying out for chronological order) is an insistence on tightly curating the sources of my own feed, which has pluses and minuses.

I think I’ve recently said here before that my main “social network” is actually RSS. I’ve been using it since Facebook was very young and before social media really took off, and I basically never stopped. A relic from the early 00’s, it might actually be a good way for people to get news feeds without any implementation of algorithms. You just sign up for feeds and each one gives you a straight stream of updates. The downside, as one article I read notes, is that it’s a “fire hose” of news with absolutely nothing trimmed out.

On Twitter and Facebook as well though, I go out of my way to resist the network’s trying to tell me what I want to see next. On the rare occasions I look at Facebook’s news feed, I make sure to click “most recent.” I actively avoid using the actual Twitter website and the official Twitter app because of how much unwanted stuff they slide into my feed, no matter how much functionality the Twitter company strips from third party clients.

In fact, I think the only “social network” where I’ve relied on algorithms has been YouTube. I try to avoid autoplay as much as possible and almost never click on the suggested videos on the side panel, but the suggested videos and channels on the front page have led me towards new subscriptions.

I seem to accrue new content in all my social networks the same way: I follow an initial set of sources, and then follow what I see through those sources. Usually it’s what those sources share or what their favorites are. I don’t really pay attention to what social networks show me based on who my friends are, instead seeking out new connections myself. This is how it’s been with Tumblr, Flickr, Twitter, and RSS. The exception is YouTube, where my interest in a few history videos has led me down a rabbit hole amateur-but-still-engaging history documentary videos and other general “knowledge” stuff as YouTube calls it.

As far as the issue of feedback loops goes, I try to keep an open mind when determining what new stuff to follow. I don’t know if that actually works though.


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