The Algorithm Dilemma

Last weekend, we watched the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and over the week, I’ve been discussing the content with my wife. We came to several conclusions, including that there are some algorithms and some services we are too dependent on for our entertainment needs. But there are others we can very much get rid of and should, as soon as possible.

The ones we are dependent on are Instagram and YouTube. We’re constantly on Instagram from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep. It’s unhealthy, and we’re trying to reduce our time on these networks, but it’s a way to cope with all that’s happening out there. We’ve pivoted from just using Insta for getting jealous about travel bloggers to using it for memes, current affairs, and TikTok overflow bloggers. YouTube is our coffee companion. Whenever we sit down after a long day of work, we use it to get the news, weather, movie and show trailers, and catch up on our interests.

In line with that, we’ve noticed that these networks have both gotten better and worse at latching on to our needs. Instagram has gotten frighteningly good with their ad-focus. I’m generally immune to ads – I rarely see them on my computers thanks to uBlock. But the ones I see on Insta are almost always tech focused and I’ve started really salivating on those. On the flip side, Instagram is a well known negative-thought-bringer and I’ve started noticing the general tone of negativity it brings in our lives. YouTube is great at generally recommending time pass videos, but it’s gotten horrible at surfacing new, good content. The same few videos are shoved down our throats every day, all day, until we watch them. Part of the problem is that our main place to watch YouTube is their Apple TV app. This app has terrible UI. There’s no refresh button and the app doesn’t make an API refresh call even if you kill it and start it again. It’s like the algorithm is stuck on these recommendations no matter what you do.

Lately, for my wife, the YouTube app has been recommending a YouTube produced documentary about Paris Hilton’s life. This is despite that she’s never seen any content related to Paris Hilton or her corollaries, has never seen anything related to obscenely rich and spoilt people, and actively avoided this video every day for the past five days. But, like the demon from the movie It Follows, that video recommendation follows her everywhere. Sometimes it’s at position two in the recommended list, sometimes four. It’s present in the Entertainment section of the app, and in the News section, and in Originals. It’s obvious why this is happening – YouTube produced this content and wants to earn it’s money back. It’s like they hired a Netflix PM and he (definitely a HE for ruining a good product) brought the same stupid ideas he implemented there, here. We’ve discussed starting the video and downvoting it. But my wife pointed out that the lesson from The Social Dilemma is that the algorithm doesn’t care about the vote. It just sees engagement as a good sign for their vested interests and will simply count that, discounting everything else. She has actively started skipping over the video, hoping YouTube will finally get the hint one day. Can’t wait.

One of the things our eyes were opened to was how inherently evil this dependence on shady algorithms is. One of the interviewees says, “but it’s easy to forget how much good these technologies have done, how they’ve connected long lost people and found organ donors.” Another says, “when we were building these, we just wanted to build a tool to connect […] but we forgot to look at the flip side of the coin” (quotes fuzzy and from memory, please watch the docu). But every new layer they peeled in the story felt like a revelation that every decision in these companies is made to cater to the bottom line instead of ever bothering to wonder if it’s good for the masses that use the social platforms mentioned. The design ethicist from Google at least mentioned thinking about how their actions affect millions. The folks from Facebook can’t be bothered.

The thing is, none of this is necessary. But it was inevitable. The Internet was always poised to take over the rest of media. A free travel blogger, vlogger, Instagrammer will always throw out the need to subscribe to a travel magazine. A labor of love tech blog will always dismiss the need to pay for PC Magazine. Someone posting news snippets and their commentary in their free time will completely upend the newspaper business. That’s just bound to happen. Video will always kill the radio star.

But this is not just because of the inherent freedom that comes with the Internet. It’s because our society, our norms, and our laws have always operated in whiplash mode, always catching on with something after it has just become passé.

As the documentary moved from the first half to the second, it started focusing on the political ramifications of the freehand these Internet behemoths got and a message came across. It’s not just social. Yes, YouTube is social and Facebook is a place for video. But Google is just as much to blame for inherently bad search algorithms, and Amazon for terrible facial recognition technology as Facebook and twitter are for letting foreign powers turn American politics into a sham, as WhatsApp is for enabling mass state-sponsored violence in parts of the world, and as tech companies are for promulgating the problem of racial and gender inequality while talking about the Internet as an egalitarian utopia.

After the docu, I sat for a long time in conversation with my wife and we discussed ways that we can improve our interactions with the Internet as it is today. We decided to move from Google Search to DuckDuckGo. We decided to uninstall the official twitter client and exclusively use tweetbot and others. We decided, over these past few days as YouTube inundated us with a Million Heiress’ documentary, that we will actively stop using the YouTube recommendations section and start using it’s Search and Channels to find content we want to watch. It’s not like their search is any better, since it shows only a fraction of the content on the service before giving up on you. But at least it’s better than their silly recommendations algorithm, which really needs an overhaul. Lastly, we decided that we’ll police our time on Instagram and tell each other to get off the network as much as possible.

In other news, I was recently reading an article about what Google is doing to keep bad results out of their Search, and here are my notes on the topic –

Google has a new plan to keep junk out of search

Google Search is every bit as important

Yup, we often overlook it, but search is actually way more important in people’s perceptions of the world than we think.

Social media has proved that “people read it and shared it” has no correlation to expertise, relevance or truth.

I would say that there always has been a more discerning, a more learned clientele of knowledge than the common folk. Though it’s not true that common people are in any measure lesser educated, they certainly are less discerning and more prone to peer pressure. If they see something being shared, they are more likely to jump on it as their new belief than some folks who would rather investigate, even though that investigation doesn’t take more than a few minutes in today’s information soaked era. Speed of information veracity has already reached a pretty good point and algorithms and machine learning continue to make it faster. But people’s willingness to ignore all that is also increasing.

So the technological solution is to create better tools to nudge people towards the truth. But the societal solution is what will matter in the end, and one societal solution is to make people less busy in their work lives, giving them more time to look outwards to what’s happening in the world. The current working generation doesn’t have the brain space to deal with everything going on in the world on top all the work they’re expected to do. We’ve all seen the chart where productivity has risen disproportionately to income levels in the last few decades. This has led to a form of inequality where the only people who have the time to ponder over important things are those who are either content with their current means, or have enough means to not worry about money. Now, this has been the case since the time of Socrates, but should not be the case today, should it?

Update: I was thinking about a simpler time when we used to own the knowledge that we bought – whether as newspapers, or books or magazines. Similarly we used to own music and video. But moving online liberated and democratized all these – people who could not afford music players or expensive books could enjoy streaming music, or ad-supported music videos, or read Wikipedia or blogs to gain knowledge. People have built entire careers through learning programming or handiwork on YouTube. We used to own apps on our phones five years ago, and today we’re moving to subscription models and rundles. But this means that if we want to share something, we have to do it on the platform it’s on. If you’re sharing an Instagram post, or a medium blogpost, the receiver is forced to login to see it. If you own Kindle ebooks, you can “lend” it, but only on Kindle. There needs to be a whiplash where we start paying for our knowledge again, for our media again, our ability to share and spread our sources. But that needs a perspective and longer term thinking that’s a longer conversation.

A comment on The YouTube Conundrum

The following is a comment I was writing on the above post. It became long enough that I’d rather just throw it on here for posterity. A couple of loosely knit thoughts on YouTube –

YouTube seems different.

Source: Is YouTube Fundamental or Trivial? – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

YouTube is different.

Instagram, twitter etc have a feed. YouTube doesn’t have a feed like that. YouTube does have an autoplay option, but in my experience most people prefer to keep it turned off. It’s a fundamentally different browsing model than these other social networks.

The author wishes people use YouTube as a sort of backend to embed videos into their websites. I’d say that a lot of people did initially experiment with video embeds as a means of ‘indiewebifying’ YouTube and Vimeo. Many still continue to do so. So many methods of embeds exist, from WordPress shortcodes to YouTube itself giving you easy to copy iframe and html5 snippets. But that’s not how YouTube is truly consumed. Just like those other social networks, YouTube is consumed mainly within their app. There’s true continuity there, even though most people don’t actually use it.

The other point is that content is king. When you’re chasing silly cat videos, whatever YouTube suggests seems fine. Similarly, when my wife has to do some housework, she puts on one fashion blogger or the other and the algorithm takes her on a journey of background noise that’s more than adequate.

However, when we get home and want to either watch some news/latenight commentary/random funny videos from specific content creators, we specifically select a video, play it, and exit after it’s done.

My main method of consuming YouTube is on the Apple TV. With the new version of their app, YouTube has effectively shot themselves in the foot. The app doesn’t do a very good job of good, engaging, never-ending recommendations. We’re a little more discerning than letting complete random videos play when we’re actively looking at the screen, so after a few refreshes, the content of the day dries up and we can actually get out and watch something else we’ve been paying for – Netflix or Amazon.

So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?

YouTube is both, true. But it’s both because people have recognized the value of uploading serious content on there. Now, serious content isn’t only suited to video format. It can be made in photos (see brainpickings Instagram) and in tweets (the reuters twitter feed). But can it be consumed in those formats easily? No, and that’s why YouTube stands out.

YouTube is a conundrum because people actively upload cat videos on it.

Changing my relationship with Facebook

I’ve come across two posts today that are of high interest to me (and probably to you, dear reader).

First is this official Facebook blogpost here. It talks about how Facebook has discovered that those who use social media passively, just for browsing, end up sadder than those who use it actively, commenting and chatting with friends. I’ve seen people use Facebook for posting material which I sometimes thought was too long or too short or too general to be posted on what is supposed to be a rather private network. But if it brings joy to them, and helps me connect with them, then why not, right?

The second post is here. It’s a heartbreaking tale about how the algorithm destroys relationships and makes us devoid of important information. The algorithm is prioritizing information for us and in the process is making us less human. Please do read it.

I’ve been thinking about Facebook’s blogpost and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way forward is to game the system. What does that mean? It means to post frequently and interact with people. It means to force the algorithm to think that I’m some sort of high value poster. Till date, I’ve refrained from cross-posting my tweets to Facebook. I believed that Facebook is reserved for longer posts, meatier ones that mean something to the people to whom I’m posting. But the algorithm doesn’t think like that. The algorithm rewards those who post often instead of those who post things of value. So I guess that ends now. Thoughts are thoughts, no matter how small they are. I’ll post them on Facebook simply so that one day, when I want to post something of value to my friends on Facebook, the algorithm deems me of enough value to make sure they see my posts.

Some of you may object to this on the basis that you see my posts on twitter (and other places). Well if you do and do not interact with my posts on Facebook, the algorithm will downgrade me for your experience. In that way, what Facebook does to control our lives is highly personal and deeply disappointing. Hopefully, you’ll see that.

To all others, I hope you like my short gripes which I send out every once in a while. I’ll try this for the year of 2018 and share the results with you at the end of the year. I posit that inputting more to Facebook will mean I’ll also get more output from it. Let’s see if that turns out to be true.

Facebook’s biggest mistake with Snapchat

Facebook has a problem. No, not Snapchat. Snapchat is competition.

Facebook’s problem is SnapCreep. After failing to buy out their competition, Facebook has steadily been trying to steal the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) parts of Snapchat and integrate them into their own apps.

This invasion has been reflected on Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and now the main Facebook app as well. But for all that work they’re putting into copying for their competitor, they’re rather unsuccessful in making it obsolete.

This is because Facebook doesn’t seem to understand that the markets they’re looking at are different. People who want the notorious features of Snapchat doesn’t want it in the same apps as they use to keep in touch with their high school frenemies. They want to keep those worlds separate. Similarly, people who want to use WhatsApp to communicate with family and close friends don’t want to post silly photo updates. They already use the camera functions rather well.

Facebook seems to think that it can meld certain features into existing apps and wish away Snapchat. But that’ll not happen because of the way these apps are setup and used. That’s Facebook making a big bet and trying to change the rules on the racetrack after the race has begun. WhatsApp is a cure for traditional SMS. Facebook is the social network of default. Instagram is photo-sharing on drugs (which is why people certainly seem to be taken by the daily stories features, but they’re loathe to use things like disappearing pics or face filters). All of these have set functions, set features and that’s why they sort-of go together. That’s also why Facebook has been able to integrate the users in all these apps together, though I do have a complaint about pushing the same users over to WhatsApp and Instagram as I already have in my Facebook lists.

Snapchat is a slightly different beast. It has a precedence, no doubt. Yahoo Chat, melded with Omegle. But neither the use case, nor the customer base lends itself to a traditional keep-up-with-your-friends social network. Which is why Facebook will not beat Snapchat by pushing similar changes to their current customers through these apps. They’ll only end up alienating smart users who have looked at Snapchat and notice the pattern.

Instead, Facebook needs to do something they’ve not done in a long time – start from scratch. Take a page out of Meerkat’s book (no Facebook, this does not mean go and buy that company) and build something from the ground up, the app and it’s user base. Let your experiments go under the radar, and fail often. But please, keep these out of the glaring view of the media and your own idiosyncrasies until it’s actually a product and not just patchwork.

Your problem with Snapchat isn’t that Snapchat exists, it’s that you’re trying to replicate it, without actually making the effort of building something new. The solution is clear to your users – go and build it. They might come.

Here’s some love for LinkedIn Users

Just tap that button

Some time ago, my brother came to me with a problem. He loves LinkedIn. It’s a great service. But as much as he loves connecting with people on that professional network, there are some glaring inefficiencies that he does not appreciate. He wasn’t interested in removing ads or making it look nicer. He just wanted to see the information that people intend on displaying on the site. You see, there’s a plethora of information available on LinkedIn, but it’s mostly hidden.

For some reason, if you’re landing on a user’s profile from LinkedIn’s user search, or from a Google search, you end up seeing this –

But what you should really be seeing is, at least, the user’s name, a little bit about their history and experience. Essentially, you should be seeing something like this –

LinkedIn’s been around since some time now, but they haven’t fixed this weird issue and so, your LinkedIn experience is often curtailed by what can only be called a minor bug.

Not any more. Today, NiKhCo. has launched a new tool, “LinkedIn Reveal”, which will solve this absurdest of LinkedIn woes. It enables you to explore LinkedIn with the depth you never thought possible. We’re not trying to build something that changes the way LinkedIn displays information or makes things look fancy. We’re just building something that lets you see LinkedIn as it truly should be – a beautiful, open, professional network with all the information you need about people, companies, jobs and connections.

LinkedIn Reveal is now available in the Google Chrome Web Store. Do check it out. It’s valuable for everyone who uses LinkedIn. Also, here’s a screenshot, because pictures somethingsomething thousand words somethingsomething. :)

License, don’t acquire

Silicon Valley has a bad habit – that of buying outright any company that might prove useful to them and the tech community. When Google bought Waze, Facebook bought Spool and Pinterest bought Icebergs, they all did it to bring to their platforms, users and companies, ideas, technologies and features that they believed would be a good fit with their own setup.

But they did it wrong. Waze is a great app and when it finally disappears (as do all Google acquisitions), it will be a great loss for it’s users. Waze has a unique UI, a dedicated user following and features that are not at all present in Google Maps. While the integration went well, Google Maps is an overloaded app with too many features. Eventually, they’ll simplify and drop a few features, getting rid of many core things that Waze is known for. In no circumstance will Waze ever recover from this setback.

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Word of the day: rubric

According to TheFreeDictionary, rubric means a title, class or category. It’s also used when referring to a subheading or the full title of a file/post or page. Neiman Journalism Lab used it as follows –

The Brief, a tailored summary of business and international news under the rubric of “Your world right now.”

Source: Maybe the homepage is alive after all: Quartz is trying a new twist on the traditional website front door » Nieman Journalism Lab

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You Won’t Finish This Article Either

Just today, I was having a discussion on ADN about how there’s too much noise on the Internet and if I had the choice of a broadcast medium, I’d go with newspapers. Some time after that, I noticed the link to an interesting article on Slate about how people are not reading entire articles on the Internet and are just skimming through, or even just reading the headline, and tweeting the link if they like the headline or an eye-catching photo.

At this point, it’s my duty to inform you that this is a post about Social media, sharing, reading on the Internet and is a bit of a rant, so if you’re not interested, you’ve already left the article. I’d also like to tell you that I wanted to name the article – “Dealing with loss, of Readers” but that seemed rather grim and I wanted to mimic the Slate headline, because it’s just that good. There’s another reason that I’ll tell you later about. Continue reading

Are you getting hammed on your social network?

We all hate spam. Spam is useless, it fills up too much of our email space and it takes a lot of time to get rid of. That’s why email providers invented filters. They wanted everyone to be rid of everything associated to spam.

In today’s age, we’re not restricted to email. Most of our conversations happen on social networks and email is reserved for sending documents or larger conversations (or maybe the occasional person who’s still not on any social network). There’s some protection from spam in social networks because it’s in the benefit of the network providers to prevent non-sense from entering a user’s feed (this is, of course, not true for Facebook). Thus there are enough ways to block spam (ban the spamming friend or application, set filters or use hardware to detect spam) or to avoid it (by overlooking certain posts) that we’re no longer too worried about spam. But what about ham? Continue reading

Year of Social

The season is changing and here, in Boulder, Colorado, it means colder nights and shorter days. It’s time for animals to wrap up their food gathering operations and finish working on cozy homes for the all too familiar winter.

 

This hibernation is also coming to a very important aspect of my life. Last year, at about the same time, I dumped Facebook in favor of Twitter. I had been inactive on the micro blog since long and returned to it, only to discover so many new and amazing connections and services. I found people worth talking to and got help where I needed it. I also posted a lot on this blog here, taking it through many iterations, themes and (free) hosting providers. Now I’ve moved it to a paid provider – NearlyFreeSpeech in order to maintain a better uptime ratio.

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