“Algorithm.” It’s a fancy tech term that most people, unless they’re involved in mathematics or computer science, probably can’t define without Googling it. It’s also at the heart of many problems today with social media platforms, and they’re hurting countless content creators.
First, let me define the term. According to Merriam-Webster, an algorithm is:
a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation; broadly: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end especially by a computer.
Put very simply (perhaps too simply), they’re a set of instructions that computers follow. It should go without saying that they’re absolutely vital to computer science, mathematics, and artificial intelligence research like machine learning. I should probably note now that I support artificial intelligence. I’m on Team Technoprogressive.
This isn’t why I take issue with algorithms.
I take issue with algorithms when they’re used improperly, or when companies — usually social media companies — don’t want to employ actual human oversight and use them as a cost-saving mechanism to police content creators that rely on their services to make a living.
On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a terrible idea, but algorithms are not fine-tuned. They’re a broad net, incapable of the sort of contextual understanding that a human possesses — and when you deal with content creators who rely on social media platforms to make a living, that broad net is often damaging.
A good example is this very website. We have around 115K fans, but thanks to Facebook’s algorithms, any given post will only reach around 400 of those fans; 500 if we’re lucky. This is probably in response to the “fake news” scare and Russian bought ads, but algorithms are a very poor choice in this fight, due to their lack of nuance.
To compensate for the lack of nuance, and this is speculation on behalf of us in the blogging community, we believe these algorithms target sites that have a political affiliation in their title, or a title that is in some way obviously political. In short, they’re using a stamping press when they need a hex key and as a result, content creators suffer.
Facebook isn’t the only place where you see this disregard for content creators. YouTube is notorious for it; YouTube’s content copyright system, which is completely automated, is aggressively Kafkaesque. Recently, YouTube employed yet another algorithm that, for some channels, slashed their ad revenue by half or more.
Most of these problems could be solved with human oversight. I get the urge to use algorithms — they’ll never improve if we don’t — but right now, they aren’t good enough for the job. Humans are needed for this.
Related: SURPRISE! Russian-Bought Facebook Ads Targeted At Key Battleground States During 2016 Election
And for the people in the peanut gallery snidely commenting about how content creators should somehow expect this for relying so much on social media companies — unless you’re self-employed, guess what? You’re relying on a company for support, too.
No matter what your position, you aren’t safe. How long do you think it’ll take before there’s an algorithm that’s threatening to put you out of a job, too?
I’ll give you hint: not very.