It’s already a well-worn trope that algorithms are good for some things (processing huge amounts of data) and bad at others (anything to do with human interaction) and yet Instagram has now joined Facebook, Twitter and Uncle Tom Cobleigh in rolling out an algorithm that purports to display the ‘most important’ things in your feed.
In short: stop it.
In long: It began – as many things do – with Google. Google were the first people to do a good job of automating the process of crawling and ranking websites in response to queries.
Prior to that, things like Yahoo, DMOZ, Best of the Web etc used human eyeballs to judge the quality of sites and pop them into categories. And guess what? Humans are both imperfect and corruptible and trying to put entire websites into one category is often impossible (hence my long-running belief that Schema is a backwards step). I can still just about recall the days when getting a site onto DMOZ was phase 1 of an SEO campaign, and meant trying to find someone who either accepted anything that was put in front of them, or someone who would accept anything that was put in front of them alongside a brown envelope with some cash in it.
So Google’s programmers wrote an algorithm. It followed every link to see where it led, and added that place to its index. Then it calculated the importance of pages based on the number of links, and the rest you know (i.e. their swift rise to total dominance made the internet accessible to all, and also hopelessly corrupted its very nature, turning everything into a commercial shitstorm and an entire economy based on the whims of this algorithm).
So. Algorithms have a place. It would be an act of absolute folly to try to replicate what Google does with humans. Google still pay humans to do a bunch of testing, but RankBrain is the first tolling of the bell for those guys.
Google search engineers, who spend their days crafting the algorithms that underpin the search software, were asked to eyeball some pages and guess which they thought Google’s search engine technology would rank on top. While the humans guessed correctly 70 percent of the time, RankBrain had an 80 percent success rate.
As most of the commercial web hands over usage data to Google through Analytics, and drives traffic to their web pages via AdWords or other Google properties, so mass data tools can be used to supplant human imperfections. If a site has a high bounce rate for a particular query, Google might fairly surmise that that site is actually not suited to that query and start to drop it down the rankings. Finding a replacement for ‘linkjuice’ has probably been Google’s top priority for years now, and each turn of the ratchet brings the end game closer.
Naturally, Google having set this tone means that every company wants to have an algorithm, BECAUSE ALGORITHMS. But it’s not always clear who these algorithms are meant to serve, or to what end outside the very specific needs of Google.
Twitter and Instagram are two big brands that have recently rolled out algorithms to their products that actually serve to defeat their own very nature.
An example: I follow a bunch of people on Twitter – from friends with a handful of followers to big accounts who tweet (seemingly 24/7 – get a life, guys!) about the search industry. Trad Twitter just showed everything in chronological order, which is perfect for the medium. How is any algorithm going to determine relevancy: no one outside Twitter’s engineers knows. While I’m not a programmer any more, I do know that all they’ll be doing though is chugging data. The algorithm will pick tweets for me from the people I followed based on either one or two things:
- Tweets which have had lots of engagement (I wouldn’t know about that: my stats are lousy)
- Tweets from people I most commonly interact with (which is about three people).
And why are they doing this?
Ostensibly to ‘improve’ Twitter so it behaves more like Facebook and thus can attract the idiots who populate that horrid corner of the internet. In reality, we all know that they’re ramping it up so they have a further means to shove advertising in. At first it will be indirect (“this tweet from Celebrity X was amazingly popular”) but then as Twitter’s finances continue to get worse they’ll just use it to sell another slot to advertisers until eventually they give up and sell to Yahoo! for them to hammer the final nails into its coffin.
And so it will come to pass with Instagram, Snapchat and whatever-the-fuck the “next big social media site” is. (hint: not Google+)
And why is this a bad idea?
There are some people I follow who I never engage with and who don’t have big follower counts, but whose content sparks trains of thought that otherwise might not cross my mind. Someone like @TheWarNerd tweets infrequently and has relatively (in the scheme of things) a low follower count of under 10,000 – but I wouldn’t want to miss a single tweet.
You know how this plays out without me having to type it. Shorn of metrics to analyse the way I follow him, Twitter will probably conclude that he is ‘less important’ and shove his tweets down the line. Instagram will do exactly the same thing and it will suck for exactly the same reasons.
Why does this keep happening?
I have a bit of a theory about why big tech companies start to “improve” their products until such a point that they become an unusable mess and die. It’s because of the typical life cycle of a platform and the peril of having a team of immensely talented idiots around the place.
- Great idea
- Great PR begets exposure
- Exposure begets big investment from someone
- Big investment means recruiting a whole bunch of Really Smart Guys to help get things scaled up
- A whole bunch of Really Smart Guys begets boredom when the scaling has been done and the name of the game is administration
- Boredom begets dwindling PR exposure
- Dwindling PR exposure begets the need to announce things
- The need to announce things begets asking the Really Smart Guys to think of ways to ‘improve’ things.
- Really Smart Guys’ improvements begets disenchantment because Really Smart Guys don’t know shit about how humans work
- Disenchantment begets falling user numbers
- Falling user numbers mean Microsoft or Yahoo! buys them – partly to get the Really Smart Guys and partly because they can’t think of their own ideas
- Someone realises it’s all been a huge waste of money
- It shuts
I don’t even know why I’m writing this, or where it’s going – other than it’s been almost a year since I wrote anything on my blog and one simply must keep up with these things so no one sees behind your carefully constructed facade to find the jaded 40-something web manager within.
Anyway, the point still stands: take yourself and your stupid algorithms and get in the bin.