Social algorithms are the new Windows

I consider myself fortunate these days not to have to spend too much time using Microsoft products, especially Windows. But when I worked in newspapers for more than a decade, I "lived" in the Windows ecosystem everyday, as most office workers do.

I found the usability of it terrible, with my biggest pet peeve being the inscrutable error messages when something would go wrong. I did and still do consider myself a pretty technically savvy user, but I usually had no idea what Windows was trying to tell me was wrong so I could troubleshoot it.

This led me to hate my office computer in general. But then I had a little revelation that at least clarified why this system sucked so much. It wasn't arbitrary; there was a reason:

My office PC was never made for me in the first place.

Know who looooooooooves Windows? Corporate IT guys. They have certifications to support it, which in turn creates a little franchise to base their careers upon. Even more important, they make the purchasing decisions within companies that put revenue dollars in the pockets of the PC manufacturers and Microsoft.

Hence a Windows PC is really built for the IT guys, not for me as the end user, even if I'm the one living with the damn machine everyday. That's why it sucks – to me.

I thought of all this again as I read a recent post by Slate's Shannon Palus about quitting Facebook. With some additional emphasis added by me, notice how Palus describes the experience of deactivating her Facebook account recently:

I don’t feel particularly better or worse. Just a little delighted that it was so painless.
I wish I could say I was motivated by a principled stand against the tech giant’s role in the spread of misinformation, or in the hollowing out of the media industry, but the truth is I wasn’t getting any value from the platform, and I finally realized that. Fewer and fewer of my friends use Facebook regularly. The algorithm is so gummed up that it kept showing me stuff I didn’t care about while failing to consistently highlight life updates from those whom I did care about. And I kept learning of such updates through other channels first, anyway.

Seems Palus misses Facebook about as much as I miss Windows. And the reason is ultimately pretty much the same: Those algorithms that were so cluelessly mucking up her Facebook feed were never really written for her. They're written for advertisers who pay the bills for Facebook, so they can target users with ads more effectively. That's why the algos suck – to Palus.

Of course, Facebook strenuously denies this, or at least tries to misdirect attention away from it whenever possible in their public comments. To hear them tell it, the proprietary algos working under the hood are all about "connecting the world" and putting you in touch with "friends" – which often doesn't quite align with the dictionary definition of the term, by the way – and similarly froofy, feel-good stuff.

While those benefits might sometimes be a byproduct of Facebook's algos, they're not the core reason why the algos exist. The real driver is the ad model, let's be honest. Luckily, more users are waking up to that reality everyday.


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