Caught in the web: Navigating life as a victim of the algorithm

Caught in the web: Navigating life as a victim of the algorithm

Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris said, “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”

I know this sounds a little nonsensical but think about it.

Say you’re on Facebook or Instagram or even Pinterest, you’re using some product (in this case, the platform itself) and not paying for it, because, of course, the app is free. The algorithm then feeds off you to add to its massive supply of information, thus making you the product.

This is exactly what the algorithm does.

Uses you as a product.

The Digital Marketing Institute explains that “an algorithm is a mathematical set of rules specifying how a group of data behaves. In social media, algorithms help maintain order and assist in ranking search results and advertisements.”

Additionally, “Each social media site uses different algorithms to determine relevant posts to promote. It’s important to be aware of the differences to make the most of each separate avenue for social posting,” according to Forbes. “Often, algorithms impact how quickly your posts will be noticed and what size of an audience they’ll be promoted to.”

This may feel scary, knowing that a computer is directly responsible for the TikToks you watch or the Instagram posts you see and is actively treating you as a source of data, and it should be.

The good news is, although you’re a victim of the algorithm if you’re on social media, there’s nothing you can do about it.

In a review published Aug. 3 in the journal “Trends in Cognitive Sciences,” social scientists from Northwestern University found that the objective of social media algorithms, designed to boost user engagement and functions of human psychology, can instead lead to increased polarization and misinformation.

But, you can limit your victimization.

To begin with, ignore recommendations provided by the app itself.

I’ve personally fallen victim to YouTube’s homepage because, of course, I want an in-depth explanation of why Tim Anderson thought it was okay to leave the White Sox.

But Discover Magazine explains that you should alternatively “search for what you want, rather than passively yielding to its judgment. Even if something intriguing pops up as a suggestion, try searching for it manually instead.”

You can also unlink your various online accounts and essentially starve the algorithm of its information. This means, that although convenient, you must resist the urge to use the “Login with Facebook” or “Login with Google” options when opening a new account. 

Just use your email or phone number, it’s not that complicated.

Lastly, and maybe my most obvious suggestion, just limit your use of social media.

Eliminate having to fight the algorithm by simply not catering to it.

I’m not saying delete all your social media and go off the grid, because I understand that’s not plausible in today’s society, especially as teenagers, but just limit your time with it.

“We can use algorithms as an aid to the systems of our society like pilots use autopilot,” said author and neuroscientist Abhijit Naskar. “But we must never let them run our society completely on their own – the day we do will be the day we fall.”

End of the day, use social media as much or as little as you want but just know you are a product. 

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