Your life as an algorithm

In an article titled FYI: Taking Into Account Time Spent on Stories, Facebook tells us about how they are trying to fit all of their users into one box. They take a one-size-fits-all approach to software design–as many do these days–and falsely seem to think that they can make a magic algorithm that will make everybody universally happy.

However, the more they fuck with the feed, the more people get mad. But Facebook market their chaos thus: “The goal of News Feed is to show you the content that matters to you.” No, it’s not. That is categorically a bald-faced lie. The goal of the news feed is to show content in such a fashion that will maximise their revenue.

I’ve tried to do their surveys a couple of times in the past, but they’re designed in such a way that they’re not openly welcoming information or opinions. They’re leading viewers in a very specific way. And when they ask “do you like this kind of post?” the answer is never black and white. Their analytics of what constitutes a good post doesn’t match mine. And part of the difficulty in matching viewers opinions is constantly changing. For example, I don’t always want to see shared posts. But their surveys always make me feel like it’s an on-or-off thing. Do you like shares? Yes or No? There’s no grey.

Some of my friends share different things. Sharing memes, images, images of text, adverts, specials, competitions (ie; share this with your friends and you’ll go in the draw), in general, I find utterly despicable. Sharing news, interesting articles, or things of significance, I like. I have friends who exclusively share garbage, while some only share things of significance. The majority share a mix.

As a rule, if a person’s feed is overwhelmingly irrelevant to my interests (which I colloquially call utter shit), I take that little tick off “Following”. It means I miss the occasional real post they make, but that’s a small sacrifice that I gladly make.

There are people who mostly make “real” posts, by which I mean original thoughts, opinions, or photos of themselves and their families. In general I want to see those, but I don’t care about their children, their pets, what restaurants they’re at, or what meal they’re eating. Unless… (there’s that grey area rearing its ugly head again) they are extraordinary places or meals, or they’re cracking a joke. Or if it’s something serious that I can crack a joke about.

Turn that into an algorithm motherfuckers.

I’m not suggesting that these friends stop making these posts, because that’s equally vile, and is called censorship. It’s their page, it’s their life, and they can post whatever the damn hell they please. The problem is the software is not intelligent enough to figure out what matters to me. Worse, the programmers are not intelligent enough to ascertain that they’re not intelligent enough to write that code.

They’ve just concluded (after talking to other humans) that people don’t always interact with posts they care about. In other words, we read lots of things on the feed, and we click the links, and we like the posts, but we don’t Like the posts, or we don’t comment. We consume, but we don’t always engage.

As someone who used to publish a magazine, I know this first-hand. Plenty of people read my magazine, and subscribed to the magazine, and purportedly even enjoyed the magazine. But over its lifespan, not a single person wrote in to comment, positively or negatively. They continued to consume, but they didn’t engage. To this day, I have no idea if they liked the magazine, or if they were trying to censor me by keeping copies off the shelves, or if they were just buying them because the magazines were cheaper than toilet paper.

The level of interaction was limited to exactly like what we see on Facebook. You like something or you want to read it, so you follow it by Liking the page. Or on Youtube, you can subscribe to a channel. No doubt you watch the videos, or read the posts, but you don’t always Like or thumbs up or comment. That doesn’t mean it interests you less.

Now here’s a curveball… Sometimes we click on links and read articles or leave comments on them, but we don’t like them. That’s right. I’m not just talking about trolls. It’s legitimate to click on something, to spend time reading it, only to find afterward, or part way through, that it’s not relevant to our interests. Or that it offends us, and we never want to see anything like it again. Perhaps that desire to never see anything like it is subconscious. Sometimes we make a comment: “Dear Biscuit Company X, I don’t like the new flavour of your classic recipe.” Because we spent time interacting with it, Facebook’s algorithmic assessment of our life choices will now autonomously conclude that we want to see more of Biscuit Company X’s posts.

Facebook’s new algorithm will take into account that you may spend longer on a post because you’ve got a slow Internet connection, so they will factor that in. Perhaps this is all designed around the assumption that mobile devices are the new personal computers. Perhaps I’m an old fuddy duddy because I prefer a computer, which has a bigger screen and a keyboard. I guess it means that I can’t leave Facebook open in a tab on my browser now. I dread leaving it accidentally open on a post of someone’s child doing something intelligent and original like smiling or sleeping on an odd angle, then I will be inundated with lots of other smiling, sleeping little bundles of joy.

Wouldn’t it be nice if posts included tags such as “kids,” “pets,” “news,” “joke,” “games,” “music,” or whatever? Then users could just say, “hey, I want to see these sort of posts, but not those.” Wouldn’t that make life easier? Would that make the majority of users happier, and their feeds more meaningful to themselves?

That’s the secret algorithm: customisation. Let us do what we want, not what you think we want. Which, by the way, includes showing us 100% of the posts from Pages we sign up to. The reason I’ve clicked on Follow or Like on a band page, or a news page, or a whatever page, means … grab your socks, this is where the big reveal comes … that I want to see the goddamn posts on that page.

In the meantime, stop telling me what matters to me.