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

Ceruzzi, Paul CeruzziP at si.edu
Wed Oct 27 16:52:01 PDT 2021

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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