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Algorithms may save us from information overload, but are they the curators we want?

Instagram is joining the legions of social networks which use algorithms to dictate what we see, and when we see it.

We've entered the age of the algorithm.

In a way, it was inevitable: thanks to the rise of smartphones and social media, we're surrounded by vast, unfiltered streams of information, dripped to us via "feeds" on sites like Facebook and Twitter. As a result, we needed something to tame all that information, because an unfiltered stream is about as useful as no information at all. So we turned to a type of algorithm which could help separate the signal from the noise: basically, a set of steps which would calculate which information should be prioritised, and which should be hidden.

Facebook or Twitter are apt demonstrations of this effect. Both collected users and incentivised them to post as much as possible, only to realise that the wash of information was turning off users. So both, at different times and in different ways, introduced curation algorithms to give us what they hoped we wanted: Facebook, in the form of a totally curated newsfeed which, as a Washington Post reporter discovered, often hides over half the posts our friends churn out; Twitter in a small "while you were away" section at the top of the otherwise chronological feed. Google, too, algorithmically selects the most “suitable” posts for you based on user data and location. It's this that gives it an edge over more privacy-oriented engines like DuckDuckGo or Bing. 

Until now, image-sharing app Instagram (owned by Facebook, incidentally) has resisted the draw of the algorithm. But in a short blogpost earlier this month, the company announced that "your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most". The move seems inspired by the fact that, according to the company, the average user follows upwards of 800 accounts, and therefore may be overloaded by posts which they aren’t interested in at the cost of those that are. As with Twitter, the site fears losing users to a kind of information fatigue. 

The reaction? Panic, mostly. Users began posting memes featuring an arrow pointed at the upper right hand corner of the screen, where you can subscribe to a user's posts. The aim is to get users to subscribe directly, so they receive an invidividual notification to their phone when their favourite Instagrammers post - despite the fact that, as multiple commentators have already observed, this would get incredibly annoying pretty quickly. 

But the desperate attempt to load fans onto the subscription lifeboat is understandable. As I’ve written before, many media personalities make partial or entire livings on the image-sharing app, and therefore what may seem like a tiny tweak in the app’s operations has come as a massive blow to many users. 

Others, perhaps those who don't rely on Instagram for their income, kicked back with superior posts like this one, assuring viewers that the algorithm wouldn't be penalising them:

 

#instagramchanges

A photo posted by tim (@theinfluencersmovement) on

Of course, @theinfluencersmovement doesn't know that for sure - none of us do. All we know is that the algorithm will forefront some posts over others, and Instagram claims this decision will be based on... 

...the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.

Of course, the implication here is that eventually, some posts may not appear at all. Personally, this annoys me: I use the site so I can see pretty much everything posted by the 200-odd accounts I follow, and I use my chronological timeline to make sure I've seen everything posted that day. This new system will make it more difficult to see the new posts when I quickly visit the app. Instagram faces the same issue as all social networks: its users don't all use it in the same way. (Instagram hasn't yet confirmed whether users will be able to opt out of the new timeline.)

Then, of course, there's the question of how exactly the algorithm will know what you're "interested" in. I'd hope I'd be interested in everything posted by the majority of those I follow, and it's not always true that I "like" or comment on my favourite accounts enough for Instagram to know which they are. Most users tend to follow a small number of close friends, plus a larger number who post images relevant to their interests. Will the algorithm be able to figure this out? Or will it just forefront sponsored posts and adverts, plus a few big-name users?  

It's impossible to say that algorithms are "good" or "bad", just as humanity isn't overridingly either. Algorithms are designed by humans, and therefore carry forward whatever prejudice or bias they're programmed to perform. As Victoria Turk has written at Motherboard, algorithms can be sexist, because many humans are, too. Facebook's creepy experiment that manipulated users' emotions via their timelines showed that algorithms are far from benign, simply because they aren't designed to be.

Annette M Markham, a communications researcher, argues in her paper The Algorithmic Self that we should view algorithms as "actors" (basically, people) within our social worlds. In fact, they're more important than any single person you friend on Facebook, because they dicate how and when you see every piece of content on the site. 

Perhaps, in an information-sodden online world, we do want an algorithm hand-picking our timelines for us. But first, we need to ask who they, and their creators, are – and what it is that they want. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

Getty/Glu Games/New Statesman
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The second coming of Gordon Ramsay

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.