My Life Is Not An Algorithm
It was Christmas 2015. My mom, my husband (then fiancé), and I were in the throes of intense hunger, quickly scanning the menu at Lexington Brass, in search of something to calm the growling in our stomachs. When you’re hungry, and you can smell food broiling/frying/grilling nearby, and it’s not on your table, let’s just say your temperament is more fragile than it would be if you had a full stomach. It’s best to keep the conversation limited to what you’ll be eating and drinking. But my mom had other plans.
She asked if I’d seen something about one of our many family members on Facebook. I think it was one of my cousins, who’d recently had a baby and shared photos online. I mentioned that I hadn’t seen it, and that I hadn’t seen family posts for quite some time. I was connected to over 1,000 people, and thanks to the Facebook algorithm, I only saw posts from 5-10 of them on a daily basis. I also added that I mainly used Facebook to share my work and build my brand. To which she insinuated I cared more about my business than my family. Which wasn’t my intent but you understand how these types of seemingly harmless conversations can be amplified when people are hangry.
It was a silly thing to argue about, and we were able to move past it once the first Manhattans reached the table. In fact, there’s a photo of my mom and I, from that afternoon, sitting on my windowsill. We’re all smiles, able to overcome our squabble about the Facebook algorithm.
But that conversation wasn’t the last time I’d discuss the pros and cons of said algorithm with my mom, or with dozens of others. The algorithm is an impossibly complex formula that controls what we see and when we see it. The more we interact with a person’s or page’s content, the more it shows up in our News Feed. This top-secret formula favors videos and content produced by individual users over that of businesses. Yet somehow, it still prioritizes ads.
Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced he was shifting the focus of the algorithm once again, so that we could see content from our friends and family more often, and clear our News Feeds of branded or sponsored messages from businesses, brands, and media. It’s a change I’m sure my mom is thrilled about. However, it raises a few concerns for me.
I’m a digital entrepreneur. I’ll share this post on Facebook in the hopes that my friends, family, and followers see it, click it, comment on it, and possibly share it. Facebook is sending a message that it doesn’t want people to see my articles, which already don’t have much organic reach. The only way to get decent interaction with a business page post is to empty out your wallet to Facebook Ads, a strategy that contributes to Facebook’s cash flow, but forces me to become an advertiser when I don’t have the money or interest in doing so. This News Feed change points to even worse engagement for my posts, which doesn’t thrill me.
But there are even bigger implications beyond poor post engagement. I worry that we’re all losing our ability to function as autonomous adults. Now, we’ll see more content from our families, not because we want to see it, but because Facebook’s engineers are directing us to do so. And most of us will simply accept these changes, as the average joe doesn’t have a direct line to Zuckerberg’s office to discuss the effects of this decision. What if I want to see more content from the media channels and personalities that I love, that produce and curate great content that suits my interests? For me, those pages, like MTV’s Decoded, Native Son, or Uptown Bourgeois (shameless promo), are one of Facebook’s biggest draws. By reducing their reach, Facebook is essentially reducing my reasons to engage with the platform.
And still, even bigger, is the fact that a single social media platform can have such strong influence over how we spend our time, what we read, and who we engage with. Not to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist, but Facebook is controlling what we see, and the company is being very open about it, and we’re accepting it. Why is it so easy to tell us what to do or where to focus? What do we do if we don’t like these changes?
At times, it feels like everything in our lives is being directed by data. Think about Spotify, and the concurrent rise of music streaming. Streaming memberships and ad revenue, and Adele, have saved the music industry. But in the process, a behemoth like Spotify has gone from being a disruptor to one of the industry’s most powerful gatekeepers. Data, and record label funds, are determining what songs and artists make it onto your favorite playlists. So, even though you might feel you’ve genuinely discovered a new artist on the Rap Caviar playlist, that artist was placed there specifically for you to find. And not because their music is good, or because they’re truly talented, but because the data shows they’re getting the best response. For music lovers, the thrill of hearing a new favorite song, band, or album is emotion-driven, not data-driven. It’s disheartening to think of music discovery as a tech business. Sure, you could argue that the music business has always been just that, a business, but never before has its decision making and strategy and research been displayed so blatantly and soullessly.
At times, between social media feeds and curated playlists, it feels like our lives are nothing more than ad space to powerful companies. We’re walking Google Ads. Our smartphones, and thus our minds, are becoming bullet points in a prospectus, data points in reports.
Tech is infiltrating every aspect of our lives, and it’s exerting more control and influence than we realize. I love technological advancement, and I consider myself an early adapter, often one of the first in my group of friends and family and peers to try now, understand and assess later. But not every advancement is welcome.
I understand algorithms, and curation, and data, but I also understand free will and emotional connection. If I lose the ability to utilize both, in finding new music and reading social media posts, where do I lose that freedom next? What else gets programmed? Will the data determine everything?
Is my entire life just a mix of various algorithms?