StoriesMarch 28, 2023

How do they work and what do they tell us about humans?

The internet is many things. At one point in time, it was considered to be an altruistic invention once upon a time. Today, however, it has become everything from a major human invention (that has changed the way we live and work) to a moral issue to be discussed and dissected. To put it simply, the internet is a phenomenon that may have very well changed how our minds are wired. There may perhaps be no facet of the internet more powerful than social media in shaping not only what we think, but also how we process the world around us. 

Social media is a place where people create and share content with other human beings. And by others, we mean potentially the rest of the world. It has become the place we go to express ourselves, find a sense of community, and satiate the very human need for validation. In today’s day and age, social media has managed to insert itself into so much of what we do - online and offline. We curate our lives tirelessly for the sake of the feed as we spend countless hours browsing through others’ stories. And when we are not doing that, we head over to, you guessed it, more social media, to entertain us. Three hours of 10-second TikToks and Instagram Reels (even YouTube Shorts) have replaced the time that was earlier spent watching a feature-length movie, or dare I say, reading a book. 

It does not help that behemoths such as Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp) and Google spend huge sums of money and energy on understanding how the human mind functions. While on one end of the screen, you have a high schooler scrolling through their Instagram feed, on the other, you have entire teams of psychologists, researchers, and analytics trying to understand the depths of the human psyche and ways to hack it. 

By no means am I insinuating that the likes of Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey had planned for this to happen. It just so happened to be a rare case of the right time, the right moment, and the right tech. A domino effect that made them incredibly rich. And the rest of us? Incredibly hooked. 

The Core Premise of Social Media Algorithms

Social media algorithms are a way of curating the content we put out on social media platforms. The idea is to engage the user, so they stay on the platform longer. Let’s look at Instagram: do you see posts based on recency (i.e., when they were published) by the accounts you follow? No. You first see the posts and stories that you are more likely to engage with. This is also true for the search page and reels. You see a lot of content posted by accounts you don’t follow or may not even have interacted with. It may be that this is the first time you are seeing their content. But it engages you. You see one reel that soon becomes two. And so it goes.

It is the same case with how things are curated on TikTok’s “For You” page or YouTube’s homepage. This is the case with pretty much any platform whose core motive is to keep users engaged - whether it be Reddit, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Pinterest. They want to keep your attention on their platform so they show you content that will engage you i.e., keep you hooked.

However, this does make us wonder: how do they know what is engaging for you? 

How Do Social Media Algorithms Work? 

There is not a whole lot that is known about the inner workings of social media algorithms. After all, these algorithms form a core part of these giant corporations. They must guard this secret for the sake of their profits. Also, as a side note, to not reveal just how manipulative the whole operation is.

Here is what we do know about these algorithms: They are data-driven (basically they collect a lot of data from their extremely huge user base) and employ machine learning along with something known as “ranking signals,” i.e. signals that rank each piece of content in order to gauge its value for an individual user. The purpose here is to order and curate the content on a user’s feed/search results/homepage in a manner that engages them. 

Given how there is a vast and ever-flowing stream of “content” on social media, it is vital that these algorithms seamlessly sift through content to only show an individual that which would pique their interest. This not only helps boost engagement but also shows users ads they would find appealing. This further helps fund the multibillion-dollar media-buying industry. 

That being said, while we may be tempted to think that social media algorithms only show us what is relevant to us, this is far from the truth. They also show us what is trending in general. There are times when you may see a video on YouTube that is completely off the mark for you. But it has millions of hits. If it engages you and keeps you on the platform for longer, they are winning. 

Let’s Talk About Virality

Once upon a time, subscribers mattered. The more subscribers you had, the more views or likes you would get. Those days are long gone. Now it is the algorithm that decides what you see. While consistent good work and good content often reaped creators more reach, now it is algorithms that choose which content goes viral. Virality implies that a piece of content has amassed a huge reach in a very short period of time.

If you have twenty thousand followers on Instagram, the algorithm will not show your content to all twenty thousand of them. It will push the content out to 10% of your total followers. If they engage with the piece of content (they like it/share/comment), then the content will be pushed out to more users. It will then go out to more and more users. On the flip side, if the piece of content does not garner much engagement from that 10%, then it will simply not get more reach.

TikTok’s algorithm does the same thing. It shows a new piece of content to a few users. If they engage with it, it shows it to more users. And more. Until the content goes viral practically overnight. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

We can tell a lot about how algorithms manipulate humans by looking at the changes taking place in various social media platforms. For example, we know that these algorithms are rewarding monkey brains. The biggest testament to that is just how much very short-form content is taking over across social media channels. We also know that social media algorithms keep us hooked by inciting emotions in us. 

We also know that social media algorithms may also try to show us things that would incite strong emotions in us. According to a 2019 study by a researcher at Facebook, Facebook’s algorithm radicalizes its users. The researcher made two Facebook accounts - one for a Trump supporter and one for a Bernie supporter. The researcher then liked whichever pages and groups Facebook recommended. The surprise? It took less than a week for both accounts to start seeing extremist content. One of the accounts was even pushed toward the online community QAnon. 

It is scary to think about just how deeply entrenched we are in this world of social media and just how much power these huge corporations yield. Perhaps the only way forward is to demand more transparency regarding these algorithms. It is only then that we will get an idea of the full picture and understand just how deep the manipulation goes. Maybe then we can begin to reclaim some of that power. 

Until then, I guess we keep meditating and putting a time limit on the amount of time we spend on social media. Or perhaps, if one is gutsy enough, delete the apps altogether?

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