The World Through Social Media Algorithms

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we lost control of what we see, read — and even think — to the biggest social-media companies.

I put it right around 2016. That was the year Twitter and Instagram joined Facebook and YouTube in the algorithmic future. Ruled by robots programmed to keep our attention as long as possible, they promoted stuff we’d most likely tap, share or heart — and buried everything else.


If it were just about us and our friends and family, that would be one thing, but for years social media hasn’t been just about keeping up with Auntie Sue. It’s the funnel through which many now see and form their views of the world.

This is something we should continue to keep in mind as social media companies evolve. I am doubtful of the longevity of audience-specific platform clones — Parler, for example, or the Facebook copycat MeWe shown in Stern’s article — but I am certain that the major platforms will have to keep changing in response to the kinds of problems that have bubbled up in recent years. I hope there is increasing emphasis on quality and user control; as Stern says, this is something platforms have already proved they can readily adjust for these outcomes.

This is no substitute for a better option, which is to avoid using social media platforms as a primary referral source for news. A better-designed algorithm is no substitute for keen human editors across multiple reliable publishers. But, since our collective dependence on social media is unlikely to subside, it is an ethical responsibility of these platforms to better tune how they sort users’ feeds.