[SIGCIS-Members] "How Social Media's Giant Algorithm Shapes our Feeds."

Allan Olley allan.olley at alumni.utoronto.ca
Wed Oct 27 22:28:32 PDT 2021


My sense is talk of when an algorithm becomes many algorithms or the like
is an example of a sorites paradox (how many items make a heap, if you take
one item off a heap it is still a heap yet if you take 10 items off it is
not etc.). How many steps can you add to an algorithm before it becomes a
heap of algorithms, a blob (or a piece of software and how many lines of
code before a piece of software becomes a suite of software and so on)?

My suspicion is talk of "the algorithm" may have started with Google's
PageRank algorithm. My sense is that the original PageRank algorithm was a
proper Knuthian algorithm of definite and limited size, but of course as
they applied it to search and had to deal with various exigencies including
people trying to game the algorithm there were endless additions and
tinkering. So probably the scheme by which Google arranges search results
is more like a heap of algorithms or  the Blob than the original PageRank
algorithm, but it is often called an algorithm or "the algoirthm".

I am guessing the popular notion of algorithm grew from Google's PageRank
to other not wholly dissimilar systems such as the method by which Facebook
(and other social media sites) decides what we see on our feed or Youtube
decides what videos to suggest we might want to watch and so on,

On Thu, Oct 28, 2021 at 12:49 AM Kimon Keramidas <kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu>

> Dear Paul,
> I actually don’t think that’s an inappropriate use of the term and that
> term has certainly evolved in popular use to this extent. I would also say
> that it has grown in its uses in technical application. It may seem like a
> blob from one perspective but for Facebook, the system that decides a
> post’s position based on predictions is very much a “well-defined, finite
> set of steps that produces an unambiguous result.” They get exactly what
> they want by feeding data into that algorithm and getting a result that
> they can then apply to their business practices. I think that in this day
> and age a conception of how algorithms are conceived, executed and worked
> has to be more expansive as technologies are increasingly integrated into
> complex formulaic processes such as these. For example, I am certain that
> there is some level of AI built into Facebook's algorithm and therefore a
> level of complexity that seems “blob-like” but nonetheless is conceived and
> executed with the goal of unambiguous (at least from their perspective)
> algorithmic results by Facebook’s engineers.
> Safiya Noble’s book blows this out even further as she argues for *Algorithms
> of Oppression. *Noble highlights that embedded social biases actually
> integrate themselves into the construction of computer-based algorithms.
> They embed themselves in such a way that we could say that these biases
> become acceptable cultural practices that integrate themselves into
> those “well-defined, finite steps of steps” if we start analyzing choices
> made in the construction of algorithms from a sociological as well as
> technical outlook.
> And as far as whether people should consider some algorithms as something
> threatening. That probably wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing at this
> point. I know that despite a long held skepticism towards all things
> Facebook even I have been shocked about some of the blatant abuses that are
> being revealed over the last few weeks.
> Looking forward to further conversation.
> Cheers,
> Kimon
> *Kimon Keramidas, Ph.D.*
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> On Oct 27, 2021, at 7:52 PM, Ceruzzi, Paul <CeruzziP at si.edu> wrote:
> This headline came from today's *Washington Post*, in a long
> above-the-fold article about Facebook's policies in determining what users
> see when they "like" a post. The article does not define the word, but
> describes an algorithm as "...a system that decides on a post's position on
> the news feed based on predictions about each user's preferences and
> tendencies." That sounds to me like a complex piece of software, with
> perhaps hundreds of lines of code, that takes in a lot of variables and
> produces a potentially wide range of outputs. It conjures up an image of
> something sinister and menacing. Not what Knuth defined as an "algorithm"
> in Volume One of his *Art of Computer Programming*. His definition has
> been refined over the years, but it retains the notion of a well-defined,
> finite set of steps that produces an unambiguous result.
> Should we be bothered that the *Post* (and I assume other newspapers) are
> not using the term properly?  Are people now going to think of an
> "algorithm" as something threatening, like "The Blob" in that famous
> Steve McQueen movie?
> Paul Ceruzzi
> Tom Haigh & Paul Ceruzzi, *A New History of Modern Computing* (MIT Press
> 2021)
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Yours Truly,
Allan Olley, PhD

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