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

Kimon Keramidas kimon.keramidas at nyu.edu
Wed Oct 27 21:49:01 PDT 2021

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.


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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