Sunday, May 1, 2022


This last week has seen a constant stream of news stories following the announcement that Elon Musk, for whom “billionaire” is the most encapsulating description, is to buy Twitter for $44 billion, nearly a quarter of which appears to be his own money.

Amongst the acres of musing over what the “free speech absolutist” wants to do with the social media platform, especially given his frequently antagonistic use of it, one commitment Musk apparently made was to “making the algorithms open source to increase trust”. This move would address the concerns over the opacity of how content is promoted to people, especially when that content is questionable, but my interest came more from a different effect that algorithms can have.

The day after the announcement of Musk’s deal to buy Twitter, views to this website, for want of a better word, tanked. I would love to know why, because I can’t imagine that everyone finished reading at the same time – it made me wonder what I had apparently done. It’s a good thing I don’t write for a living, yet.

It is the sort of event that makes you wonder if algorithms can act as a godlike force, picking and choosing whose work is shared widely, making and breaking careers. I say this as someone who is aware of a force bigger than themselves, but concluded that this perception comes from myself – if there is a heaven after I die, then colour me surprised.

There is a definite difference between how “the algorithm” is talked about from the standpoint of a “content creator”, dropping your carefully-crafted bait into the fish pond, hoping something will eventually bite, without any ability to ask the fish what its dietary requirements are. 

This constant guesswork is maddening – you become as oblivious to what makes something popular as unpopular. You could just create for yourself, but not if you want to make it a career – waiting for likes and views is one thing, but insight into the process by which people are being shown your work is required, especially for people I have watched on YouTube talking about what “the algorithm” “seems to like”, or what “pleases” “the algorithm”.

I suspect that algorithms are what make the value of a social media platform as much as the content itself, as the effects of them dictate the content, encouraging particular subjects and themes. If Elon Musk insists on calling Twitter “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated”, everyone must know the rules of engagement, then the platform’s rules of engagement. The most important algorithm, however, may be the one in a billionaire’s head.

No comments:

Post a Comment