A friend of mine sent me this link a few days ago: 'Fiction is outperforming reality': how YouTube's algorithm distorts truth.

As a confirmed nerd, socialist and sometime computer scientist I felt the need to comment:

As I understand it the algorithms behind YouTube's "up next" (or Amazon's "you may also like" and etc. etc.) are based on counting how many people click on something after previously clicking on something else.

This is a bit different from Google websearch, but both are ultimately counts of human decisions about what is interesting.

The raw counts are augmented by calculations about what is likely to stimulate clicking on an advert, and the human decisions counted also likely include some that are paid for by the search and social media companies. Then anyone with an advert to push or an axe to grind tries also to get their own counts added to the mix by faking behaviour (often by paying large numbers of people to surf or "share" in a particular way).

When you're logged in to a system (Facebook, Google, Twitter, ITunes, etc. etc.) your own past behaviour and that of your connections in social networks is also added to the mix.

The upshots are that:

  • the sensational will generally be promoted, and the mundane become less findable
  • the rich and powerful can condition, to a degree, what is promoted
  • the links you see (when logged in at least) tend to be similar to what your connected peer group have previously seen and clicked on (the "bubble effect")

How might society deal with these (often negative) outcomes? We could force the big providers to spend a lot of money editorialising the feeds. (It would be a huge sum because the feeds are so large and editorial work labour intensive.) We could mandate the provision of open and distributed democratic alternatives (with communities of users given the editorial responsibility), making digital infrastructure part of our core provision of social good, like a health service or pensions or education. (All of those social goods are currently being attacked in order to provide more avenues for corporate profit making, of course.)

We probably can't deal with it in any successful way under the current system :(    But there are some nice stories from optimists here :)

Time for a change!


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