Go Tweak Yourself, Facebook
Talking about social-network service changes as mysterious changes to algorithms turns software companies into false idols.
Last week Facebook “tweaked its algorithm” again. The latest update promises to show users links that people spend more time reading, which might be a good thing for media outlets like this one. Another update, this one purely hypothetical, concerns the company’s hypothetical ability to affect the outcome of elections by altering its news feed—to prevent a President Trump, for instance.
The tech press loves to talk about the social network’s updates this way, in terms of “algorithm tweaks” and “algorithm changes.” Likewise for Google, whose search software “tweaks” also feature frequently in media coverage. Mostly it’s a shorthand that highlights the black-boxed nature of the software that drives companies like Facebook and Google—amorphous, gray machines churning and gurgling mysteriously before ejecting truth, or a version of it, anyway.
When you read about them in the news, these changes take on a dramatic tenor, almost a cosmic one. “While there’s no evidence that the company plans on taking anti-Trump action,” Trevor Timm wrote at The Guardian about Facebook’s ability to influence elections, “the extraordinary ability that the social network has to manipulate millions of people with just a tweak to its algorithm is a serious cause for concern.” And writing at Slate earlier this year, Will Oremus warned that “Facebook’s news feed algorithm can be tweaked to make us happy or sad.”
The warnings aren’t misplaced. As more and more of our social, cultural, and political lives are filtered through software services run by big tech companies, it’s important for citizens to understand how those services construct information rather than just displaying it.
But when the media writes about “changes” and “tweaks” to “algorithms,” it does a disservice to its own message. As I argued last year, talking about big, complex companies and their services as mere “algorithms” amounts to a theological position. It fashions a cathedral of computation at whose altar Internet users supplicate. In that piece, I suggested replacing the term “algorithm” with “God” when you read it in the press. Facebook could tweak its God to stymie a Donald Trump presidency! Merely mentioning the vaunted “algorithm” raises its station, fetishizes it, treats it as a totem.
The word sounds smart and efficient—both in computers and in writing about them. In computer science, “algorithms” are self-contained, well-defined methods for carrying out processes. There are sorting algorithms and routing algorithms and encryption algorithms. In their traditional sense, algorithms described solved problems whose methods are well-known and specifically defined.
a cool thing to remember is that whenever someone says "A.I." what they're really talking about is "a computer program someone wrote"— Allison Parrish (@aparrish) March 26, 2016
But that’s precisely the opposite of the software that runs Facebook’s news feed or Google’s search results. It’s why Oremus calls the former a “closely guarded and constantly shifting formula.” Facebook and Google and their ilk aren’t gods, nor are they even really just software. They are businesses, made out of lots of things—people and clients, office locations and Wall Street analyst expectations, and yes, software and hardware as well. But perhaps most of all, they are bureaucracies, complex organizations with many thousands of stakeholders, all pushing and pulling against one another. This isn’t heavenly effort, but just ordinary terrestrial work. Even Facebook itself doesn’t deploy this rhetoric. They call the supposed algorithm tweaks “updates.”
To tame the beast that is Facebook, first let’s stop talking about it as if it were wild. If the media and the public really are concerned about the increasingly mysterious and influential role companies like Google and Facebook play in contemporary life, one small but substantial step they can take is to bring them back down to earth. To stop elevating those services to the divine rank of gods or the elegant simplicity of algorithms. Nothing mysterious or holy is really taking place when Facebook updates its service—even if those updates still might have important implications for ordinary life.
Facebook’s “algorithm tweaks” should not be viewed as decrees from an omnipotent software-god. Instead, let’s evaluate and discuss them the same as any change to a company’s product or service offerings: as opportunities to evaluate their value, cost, and appeal, and to debate whether and how to use those services in the future. True, it’s hard to quit Facebook and Google—maybe impossible, even. But that doesn’t make them supreme beings. Facebook is a worldly corporation. It offers an information discovery service. Sometimes it makes changes to the way it offers that service.