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Algorithm Anxiety: Hacking the Machines


The Youth Lab at Thinkhouse, The Youth Marketing company explores Algorithm Anxiety and Algorithm Hacks

Algorithm Anxiety: Hacking the Machines

Being on the internet today means being bombarded with suggested content from algorithms. Digital natives are well aware of this and have lots to say about it. Ai and machine-learning is telling us what we want, but do young people really want this? This week’s 52INSIGHTS explores algorithm anxiety and how young digital natives are hacking the algorithm.  

​​What’s the Algorithm Actually Doing?

When talking about ‘the algorithm’, most people are referring to the way in which they receive targeted information on online social networks in the form of recommendations - things to buy, read, follow or watch. 

“I really love that the [Spotify] algorithm sends me suggestions based on what other music I listen to. I’ve discovered so many new artists and songs purely because of the curated playlists. It's an easy way to enjoy music and it's really rare that I'm shown anything I dislike. On my homepage they usually highlight when an artist I like has a new album out and I really like seeing that because it also makes me feel a little more in the loop/ahead of the curve. Thinking you're getting the newest thing immediately is a nice feeling - even if everyone has the same experience.” Grace, 28, UK

Recommendations are based on personal internet usage habits, where ‘the algorithm’ (code with a mission to keep you engaged) learns what individuals are most likely to enjoy. And it’s pervasive. Today, the algorithm short-circuits the process of discovery in nearly every digital context. From Instagram and TikTok to food delivery apps and Spotify music recommendations, the algorithms are constantly jostling our newsfeed towards their goal. 

We could write a whole 52INSIGHTS on the TikTok algorithm itself. 

“TikTok is so crazy. You can see the algorithm changing as you use it. If I watch ONE cooking video for example, suddenly every second video is a cooking video. It's so smart because when  I'm in the mood for certain content it picks up on that live. There are lots of mini subcultures too - people who are different ages or genders have a completely different experience. One of my friends is on 'Bird TikTok' and constantly sends funny videos from people who have birds as pets. I have never once seen a video about birds on my FYP [for you page] but I get lots of dog videos. It's also slightly concerning because you can get so far into certain bubbles or niche groups and tend to think that's the whole world - where others are seeing something completely unique.” Eleanor, 29, UK

Algorithmic Anxiety Is a Thing

And while some young people enjoy the content delivered by algorithms daily, there is a growing uneasiness about the enormous power and influence that popular social media platforms have to impact our preferences. Why? There are worries around ‘unseen’ manipulation and lack of control, and of course, concerns around how it limits discovery (where’s the spontaneity in getting ‘fed’ things based on what you already like?) The anxiety around algorithms really boils down to tensions in freedom vs control, information and influence. No one likes feeling misled.

“Algorithms are the enemy of serendipity. To paraphrase Nietzsche, when you gaze into social media, social media gazes into you. In other words the algorithm feeds you a content diet of what you like to gorge on. But surely the experience of trying things that you don't like is an essential part of cultivating what you do like?” Donagh Humphreys, head of social and digital innovation, Thinkhouse.

“I’ve been on the internet for the last 10 years and I don’t know if I like what I like or what an algorithm wants me to like…I want things I truly like not what is being low-key marketed to me…” Valerie, 23, UK

“We are constantly negotiating with the pesky figure of the algorithm, unsure how we would have behaved if we’d been left to our own devices. ” Kyle Chayka, New Yorker

Algorithm Hacking

Of course, the machines are not perfect. People are writing articles to help others ‘fix’ their (trash) Instagram feeds, sharing tips on how to discourage the algorithm from sharing unwanted information. In the depths of the Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial (when you couldn’t escape courtroom clips on TikTok) explainer articles emerged to help people de-prioritise the content. There were some great responses from people getting sick of seeing them too. People are now turning to the likes of Discord chat rooms and apps like BeReal to buffer algorithm-fed online experiences, where content is provided only by peers. 

Then there’s the holes in the algorithm, where highly relevant content is seemingly flagged, delisted or demonetized when other similar content is not. We saw this recently with YouTuber CoryxKenshin who streams gameplay. He claims to have personally experienced bias in the YouTube automated system, which flagged his videos as ‘unsuitable’ for advertising when other comparably sized content producers did not. This was further compounded when the video he made about uncovering the potential algorithm bias was also flagged for ad suitability. This raises fierce debate around potential inbuilt bias, prejudice and favouritism in the algorithm itself. Young climate activists on TikTok have raised similar concerns about algorithms. 

Brand Takeouts

Acknowledge The Algorithm: If you can’t beat it, join it…There’s some fun examples of brands acknowledging the role that the algorithm plays in helping them reach specific audiences - for example, addressing the fact that ‘you are seeing this post because you are aged 18-34 and have shown an interest in sports’ …in a humorous way. There’s fun to be had in this space in subverting marketing manipulation fears and speaking openly about why you’re addressing certain audiences online. 

Hack The Algorithm: The algorithm has been blamed for creative work looking the same. Create your own algorithm hacks in how you work and make sure you’re getting inspiration from a variety of resources in order to stand out. Bringing social media users ‘Wild Card’ creative ideas can feel like a brand is breaking out of the algorithm as it’s standing out as ‘different to the norm’ (even if it's still operating within the algorithm boundaries). 

Invite Different [Campaign Inspiration]: Tap into the importance of cultural freedom & breaking people out of their digital bubbles. A recent Fnac France campaign was framed as an antidote to the (apparent) fact that 80% of what people read, watch and listen to is determined by algorithms. ‘The algorithm says that according to your profile you should not like this but Fnac believes that culture should be curious and free,’ read one of thel ads. Fnac used an algorithm to determine the kinds of books, movies and music people were most likely to enjoy – and then showed them online ads for the opposite.

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THINKHOUSE, Fri, 16 Sep 2022 15:08:19 GMT