I’ve been thinking a lot lately about algorithms and their brute force introduction in to our everyday lives. I think there is a time & place for an algorithm but in many ways, they are failing us as users & failing us as a society.
There are times algorithms are of great use, such as those used by search engines to gather up millions of documents, sort them & hopefully present the one closest to your search term. I take issue with the algorithms developed by the likes of Google, but more with respect to how they censor results & control information flows. Their information retrieval techniques have always been astonishing & their ability to sort & serve data with algorithms is commendable, however, they are now straying into the murky territory of policing the information we see which is disconcerting. I very much recommned switching to https://www.startpage.com/Start Page for your search. Google results without google & their creepy data mining.
However, on the whole, the Google search algorithms aren’t the ones I’m concerned most about. That dubious award goes to the likes of social media algorithms. I was a major fan of the original Twitter for example. Back when Twitter started, we had a simple, chronological timeline. Tweets were shown in order of post time and it was impossible to miss a tweet. We didn’t have access to a retweet button, you had to do that manually with an RT and copy & paste. This meant twitter was much less spammy as it took the actual effort to retweet. We also didn’t have the like button. If you liked something, you either smiled to yourself, or you replied & started a conversation. It was social.
Fast forward to 2017 and Twitter is an algorithm infested quagmire. If you use the official app or a web browser, you are presented with a hideous mess of tweets you may like, based on tweets liked by people you follow. You also have a selection of tweets you may have missed and a whole bunch of other crap tweets you have no interest in. Combine that with sponsored tweets & Twitter have quietly achieved infinite scroll. You literally can’t catch up on all of your tweets as it will just keep presenting you with content which you never asked to see. They have also introduced the quick retweet buttons and threaded conversations, meaning your timeline is now chock full of noise and junk. The simple & easy to follow timeline of the past is now an algorithmically controlled advertising & data mining leviathan.
I personally try to limit the amount of noise I see online. I’ve read hundreds of books from the fields of tech & psychology which all suggest that we are suffering from information overload. The ‘attention merchants’ as many like to call the social media companies & content creators are finding more ways to aggregate data & content in order to keep your eyeballs on their platform. Numerous academics suggest that human beings simply haven’t evolved & developed the mental capacity to take in so much data. Our brains simply aren’t able to deal with so much data, leaving us lethargic & burnt out.
I personally felt like there was a rapidly diminishing return on the value of Social media. I gave up Facebook completely over 6 months ago due to their algorithms & the febrile political and social atmosphere developing on the platform & I also deleted all Facebook apps from my smartphone. Snapchat is gone. I now stick with Twitter & have closed down all of my other social accounts.
I found that the algorithmic changes implemented by tech companies worked too well. I was hooked on social media and constantly trying to absorb stream after stream of information & content. With no end in sight & the possibility of infinite information & an infinite scroll in apps, I decided to take control of my social media usage. Add into that trendint topics & hashtags & recommended users to follow & you are combarded with information you didn’t seek.
I initially considered stopping using all forms of social media but decided instead to focus on using only Twitter and tailor my experience away from their algorithms & back towards something I can use. This meant making some changes to the way I use the platform.
The first thing I decided to do was to unfollow all but my favourite friends on twitter. No more companies, no spammy content, no people I’d added through curiosity or after a single exchange. I wanted a concise list of people to maximize the value of twitter & minimise my exposure to information. I managed to get down from 1400+ people I was following to around 300. I’m constantly reviewing this list but find it manageable. I unfollowed all news outlets and breaking news accounts, I stick to reading that on news websites when I choose to.
The second step I took was to turn off retweets for everyone I follow. No exceptions. I was interested in original content & I’ve found that links people actually take the time to recommend with a tweet and a link are much more valuable to me than those which are simply retweeted, often blindly. It took a while to click-through to everyone to turn off their retweets, but this dramatically changed my twitter experience. Now, when I wake up in the morning I may have 40 tweets to catch up on which takes a matter of minutes. Before I literally couldn’t catch up so I would give up and potentially miss important tweets. The first major problem with algorithms, they decide what I’d like to see rather than letting me decide.
My next step was to ditch the official website & apps altogether. Twitter bundles its algorithm features and sponsored tweets directly into the apps. This means that even with a small following count & no retweets, it will still show you algorithmically gathered content & bombard you with noise. The key is to use the Twitter API. I’ve used the Tweetbot app on ios for years and ideally, it shows everything on your Twitter timeline in chronological order. No algorithm junk, no sponsored tweets. The great thing I discovered was that TapBots have a version of Tweetbot for Mac OS. This means I can get the same ios style twitter interface directly on my mac. Whats more, I can use iCloud or Tweetmarker to sync my apps across all devices so it remembers where I left off reading on the timeline. I decided to go for Tweet Marker as this is an open & cross-platform service and can be used on Linux and other platforms I use regularly.
With tweetbot, I can now effectively manage my twitter experience & also reduce data overload. I’ve found my social media usage is back to early day twitter. I can check in a few times a day when I have a moment & get caught up on everyone’s tweets. I can then step away and do other things & resume later in the day. It is the perfect workflow for me.
Other advantages of Tweetbot include the ability to mute hashtags or keywords. Any keywords you add will allow Tweetbot to filter out entire tweets from your timeline which contain those keywords. These ‘mute words’ sync across your tweetbot apps. I have a few setup now as in 2017 my twitter was becoming a shouting match for politics instead of a useful resource. By adding a few simple mute words I can rid my timeline of the politics, saving me getting into a rage with fellow Twitter users. If 2017 has taught me anything, it is that political discussion & social media do not work. Without face to face discussion debate isn’t possible. So I now filter out the politics & stick to reading news sites without the debate & I chat to real people in person about the state of the world. Much more productive.
Over the Christmas period, I’ve decided to protect my tweets. This is for personal reasons, but mainly because I’d rather not have the whole world & people I no longer talk to gaining an insight into my time with friends & family.
The above workflow for Twitter is the ideal way to regain control of your social media from algorithms. It’s the main reason I stuck with Twitter. It’s not possible to apply a similar workflow to Facebook because of a lack of API access, so Twitter is the ideal platform still available to tailor in this way. By reducing the algorithmic noise you really will feel better about social media again.
I find Instagram is now unusable because of the algorithm, I miss so many people’s photos. A lot on Instagram is time sensitive, such as when someone posts and they are local to you, but you don’t see the post until days or weeks later so youuo can’t comment or meet up. I find that it is a much less social platform. It’s fun to browse pictures, but as a social platform, it fails miserably. I now also find that every other Instagram post is sponsored or an advert, so again information overload starts to creep in & the time sucking ability of social media begins to affect my productivity.
I’ve found modern social media to be anything but social & I’ve also discovered it becoming more addictive, with many of the negative side effects of addictive behaviour, from reduced attention span, to full-blown anxiety. It feels so nicely to wrangle it back into a usable technology.
Obviously, the issue of algorithms is a vast one. I’ve still not discussed those used by music streaming services or video streaming services, not to mention online shopping sites, but I’ll address these in future posts. I really just wanted to get some thoughts down on paper while I’m still reading around this subject & working out fixes.
I’d love to hear your hacks for getting around modern algorithms, especially in social media. I could take about this subject for days on end, but I’d much perfect to hear your thoughts.