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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:



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.

Jake Paul via YouTube
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We should overcome our instinct to mock Jake Paul’s school shooting video

The urge to mock the ex-Disney star diminishes the victims he speaks to and ignores the good YouTubers can do.  

It’s very “darkest timeline”. Ex-Disney star Jake Paul (brother of vlogger Logan Paul, who infamously filmed the dead body of a suicide victim) has created a 22-minute documentary about the Parkland school shooting in which he greets Florida senator Marco Rubio with the words “Hey, what’s up man?” and doesn’t mention gun control once. 

Paul – who has previously made headlines for setting fire to a swimming pool – goes on to ask the politician: “I think like a lot of people think passing laws is super easy, can you explain some of the struggles around, uh, passing laws?”

It’s hard to not immediately balk at the documentary, which was released yesterday and has since been widely mocked by the press and individual journalists. Critics note that Paul doesn’t mention gun reform within the YouTube video, and many mock his conduct towards Rubio. Others accuse the video of being an insincere PR move, particularly as Paul has previously fetishised guns on his YouTube channel – and has a tattoo of a gun on his thigh.

21-year-old Jake Paul talks and conducts himself like a child, which is what makes the video immediately jarring (“I just wanna become homies with them and just be there for them,” he says of the Parkland survivors he is about to meet). There is a vacant – almost dumb – expression on his face when he speaks with Rubio, leading the viewer to question just how much the YouTube star understands. But this is precisely the value of the video. Paul is a child talking to an audience of children – and talking to them on their terms.

YouTube doesn’t disclose the exact demographics of a YouTuber’s audience, but fan videos and Paul’s comment section reveal that most of his 14 million subscribers are young children and teens. Paul is introducing these children to a politician, and the video is edited so that Rubio’s claims don’t go unchecked – with footage of the senator being criticised by Parkland survivors playing in between shots of Paul and Rubio’s chat.

Paul (admittedly unintentionally) asks the senator questions a child might ask, such as “Is there anything that people can look forward to? Is there anything new that you’re working on?”. Although this might be jarring for adults to watch, the comment section of Paul’s video reveals it is already positively affecting his young audience.

“Definitely going to speak out now,” writes one. Another: “I shared this to my Mum and asked her to show the head teacher so everyone do that as well.” Childishness is still transparently at play – one commenter writes “Plzzz Stop the Guns… it hurts my feeling I’m crying… 1 like = 10 Pray to Florida” – but this too shows that Paul has introduced new concepts to kids previously more concerned with online pranks and viral fame.

Of course, it’s easy to see how this might be a cynical move on Paul’s part. Yet how can we demand more from YouTubers and then criticise them when they deliver it? Paul’s video is far from perfect, but engaging children in genuine discussions about current affairs is a commendable move, one far superior to his prior acts. (Paul previously caused controversy by telling a fan from Kazakhstan that he “sounds like you’re just going to blow someone up”, and his diss-track “It’s Everyday Bro” is third most disliked video on YouTube). Like it or not, Paul has an incredible influence over young people – at least he is finally using it for good.

Paul’s video has also undeniably helped at least one teen. “It’s just easier to talk about what’s going on with someone like you than a doctor or someone,” Jonathan Blank – a Parkland survivor – tells the YouTuber in the video. Later, his mother praises Paul through her tears. “It was the best therapy for my son,” she says, “You didn’t have an agenda, you cared.”

Other Parkland survivors are angry at the media’s response to the video. Kyle Kashuv – also interviewed in the documentary – has tweeted multiple times since the video’s release. “Media has the utter audacity to mock my classmates and Senator Rubio for doing the interview ON MY REQUEST AND THE REQUEST OF TWO OTHER STUDENTS,” he wrote.  

“If you mock a video where my classmates, that witnessed their friends get murdered in cold blood, are crying and putting their hearts on their sleeve, be prepared to be hit back twice as hard.”

Kashuv differs from the most famous group of Parkland survivors, as the teen supports the STOP School Violence Act over national gun reform. Yet the teen’s politics do not make his thoughts or feelings less valid, or his voice less important in the conversation. While critics note Paul spoke little of gun reform in his video (instead he suggested that schools have bullet proof glass and Instagram should flag pro-gun posts), the YouTuber later tweeted to clarify his stance.

“Gun Reform changes we need in my opinion,” he wrote. Paul went on to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should be 21, go through a six month training course, and have a mental health evaluation. He also tweeted that gun shows should be banned and there should be a “30 day wait period after purchase to receive firearm”.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Paul is right, or has all the answers, or is even equipped to discuss this topic sensitively. Yet his promise to pay for busses to the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington DC, alongside the fact he didn’t monetise his YouTube documentary, speak of someone at least trying to do some good. “We all want the same thing and that’s to make schools safe,” he says in the video. Although he gives Rubio and the STOP School Violence Act a platform, he is dismissive of their impact.

“Kind of why I wanted to make this video in the first place is to activate parents and kids within their own schools and communities, that’s the way things are going to get done the fastest. We don’t to wait for hundreds of people in Washington DC to pass the laws,” he says.

Though the description to Paul’s video was most likely written by a far-more savvy PR, it’s hard to disagree with. “I vow to be part of the solution and utilise my platform to raise awareness and action across the board, but we cannot focus on one issue, we must actively discuss and make progress on them all,” it reads.

The criticism of Paul smacks of the old media sneering at the new media, galled and appalled that a 21-year-old YouTuber would dare wade into politics and do so less than perfectly. Concerns about propriety and morality are a veil to disguise a pervasive distaste for YouTube stars. Criticisms that his suggested solutions are stupid ignore the fact that it’s not his job to reform society. It’s like having a go at Sesame Street for not criticising Theresa May.

YouTubers might not be the idols that adults wish teenagers had, but we can’t change that. What we can do is encourage viral stars to engage with important issues, and not mock them when they do so less than brilliantly. Jake Paul may not be a good person – it might even be a stretch to describe the video as “good”. But the YouTuber made an effort that should be commended, not mocked. 

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