Algorithmic Sorted Feeds Are Not The Solution

We Weren’t Looking For Filter Bubbles, Fake News Or Ad Tech Tracking

I came across a post on social media this weekend suggesting that Snapchat needs to get with the algorithmically sorted feed craze—you know like Facebook and a bit more recently the official Twitter app experience.

Algorithms were marketed as the solution for taming our cluttered news feeds and personalizing our social media experiences.

We’ve heard so much about the benefits of personalization because it’s simply the de rigueur tool of ad tech though.

The persistent tracking brought to us by the digital ad tech world requires ad tech companies like Facebook and Google to rely on algorithms to mathematically curate what is presented on our screens. This is a necessity in the crazy world we’ve built which relies on views and clicks.

The problem that this world creates though is being observed in the proliferation of fake news and filter bubbles that few users understand. Recently, the user revolt against persistent tracking became worrisome to the entire publishing world which hitched its wagon to ad tech, because now more and more users are defended by ad blockers.

The algorithms, the oil for ad tech, are the same slick substance which tries to sort out news feeds. Few users realize though that every post click, reply or post share ends up feeding these algorithms which in turn present us with more content that we’re likely to engage with (fake news and filter bubbles at scale). See: The Algorithmic News Feed Problem

Those who receive pay checks from ad tech support the use of algorithmic feeds of course.

However, on the average user side, we’re tired of all the tracking, fake news (which proliferates as it relies on the same algorithmic ad tech) and filter bubbles that foster fact-deprived opinions.

The algorithmic news feed is too easily manipulated as it relies on engagement metrics that often are not very real or organic. Whenever I’ve seen a company move from a raw chronological display of posts to an algorithmically sorted one, the manipulation and bubble effect problems became worse. I saw it with Twitter (which gets praised for its move to algorithmic timelines because of course the ad tech benefits) and I see it on Facebook, including its child Instagram.

At least with Twitter, I can still achieve a reverse chronological display of tweets with a little effort and 3rd party app usage.

On Reddit, algos are manipulated too, but at least in many cases, moderators tame some of that nonsense. It doesn’t always work. Yet, it’s possible to find sub-reddits that are still moderated successfully.

Now if Snapchat catered to algorithmic stories (it does use algos in spots), it would just be a matter of time before the manipulation and ad tech presence really became pervasive. Its numbers might improve, but it would once more be at the expense of user experience (favoring filter bubbles, fake news and more ad tracking).

When I recieved the following tweet reply suggesting that algorithms should not be blamed, I scratched my head.

Snapchat isn’t where fake news proliferates. Also, you choose who you follow and watch. Don’t blame the algorithms for your preferences

That’s the whole point though. If we’re responsible for who we follow (and I believe that should be true), why do we need algorithms to sort the feed? Everything in a feed should be of equal value and display there because of our preferences.

Part of the problem is that many users pay too much attention to vanity metrics—often following anyone who follows back—and end up following thousands of accounts. That’s another discussion though.

Snapchat might not be the place where fake stories proliferate now, but hand it off to the algorithms even more and it soon will be. Come on, just look at the Snapchat Discover tab to get a sense of where those algorithms will lead us. The many click bait headlines there already give us a glimpse of where the algos would take the Story experience. The deceptive ads that already pop up between Stories are already a nuisance. Some want algorithms to get more involved?

We need a better solution. Algorithmic feeds have simply not provided the experience average users want (except for those employed in the ad tech world).

For now, I still favor raw chronological feeds because I pick which account to follow—and which to prune when necessary. I prefer to be my own algo.

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