I naively thought that my FaceBook posts appeared in the order sent. Not so. Look closely and you’ll notice that some posts hang around forever and others you don’t see at all.
It’s because an algorithm controls them, tailored to you; your “likes” and postings you respond to.
When you think about it, it’s bizarre communication system. “It seems like a science fiction dystopia,” in which Big Brother controls our perception warns Christian Sandvig on CBC radio’s Spark.
Yet many FaceBook users aren’t even aware of the algorithms. They wonder why some friends never post anything, oblivious of the machinations.
Others know how to “game” the system by using key words that boost their postings; words such as “congratulations” even when it’s inappropriate. For example: “Congratulations, Canada is at war in Iraq.”
Or they use brand names to punch through the happy filter says Sandvig. “Isn’t my baby, Bud Light, cute,” jokes the professor of Communications at the University of Michigan.
Zeynep Tufekci has a similar concerns. While Twitter lit up with postings over the racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri, when a young black man was shot by a white police officer, FaceBook was strangely silent. It wasn’t lack of interest. Tufekci found out that FaceBook friends were very active with postings about the explosive atmosphere.
Tufekci realized that FaceBook was deciding what should be of interest to her. “There was this disquieting moment because I really don’t want a world in which FaceBook decides which of my friends’ postings I am going to see.”
Algorithms are not necessarily bad. But in the happy FaceBook world of congratulations, wedding announcements, and baby pictures, algorithms are crafted with a certain motive in mind. After all, FaceBook is a commercial enterprise. They are selling your eyeballs to advertisers. While their algorithms are not transparent, their motives are. ”I wouldn’t be surprised if FaceBook algorithms are designed around likes and purchase behaviour.”
Social media have a moral obligation to users, not just commercial obligations to advertisers. “They are not just selling shoes. We made them successful through use of our friends.”
We need to know things that may not be delightful. “What if a friend is contemplating suicide, and FaceBook decides I don’t want gloomy thoughts.”
Not only does FaceBook have a moral obligation to users as a clear channel of communication, it risks financial decline by being boring. In comparison, the drama of the unfiltered world of Twitter makes interesting.
However, even Twitter is thinking of tweaking their chronological stream though algorithms to stem the torrent.
Well designed algorithms are a useful thing. Google does a good job of anticipating what I’m looking for. Apparently, so does Netflix. My braking algorithm does a better job of stopping my car than I could under difficult conditions.
FaceBook should give us more access to our algorithm so that we can customize it. The tweaking allowed now is laughable. You can adjust the news feed from “top stories” to “most recent” but as my niece tells me, FaceBook switched her back three times in the last few weeks. Choice is a temporary option, it seems.