Defer to the Algorithm

A BuzzFeed article predicts that Twitter will soon move from a time-ordered feed to an algorithmic feed, one that shows you tweets that it predicts you will like before it show you lesser-ranked tweets. Naturally, twitter exploded with outrage that this is the end of twitter.

My own tweet expresses my view ala Marc Andreessen style:

It is peculiar that people are more willing trust their physical lives to an algorithm than their twitter feed. Is the outrage real, however, or will people soon take the algorithm for granted? How many people complaining about algorithmic twitter don’t use junk-email filters? I want ALL my emails! Only I can decide what is junk! Did junk email filters ruin email or make it better?

Facebook moved to an algorithm years ago. At the time, the move caused complaints but I think algorithmic feed has made Facebook more relevant, especially in recent years when the algorithm has gotten quite good. The profits agree with my assessment. Many people don’t understand that there is no serious alternative to an algorithmic feed because most people’s uncurated feeds contain well over a thousand posts every day. It’s curate or throw material out at random.

Think of the algorithm as an administrative assistant that sorts your letters, sending bills to your accountant, throwing out junk mail, and keeping personal letters for your perusal. The assistant also reads half a dozen newspapers before you wake to find the articles he thinks that you will most want to read that morning. Who wouldn’t want such an assistant? Moreover, Facebook has billions of dollars riding on the quality of its assistant algorithms and it invests commensurate resources in making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs.

It’s not simply that the algorithms are good and getting better it’s that the highest productivity people will use their human intelligence to complement machine intelligence. That means trusting the machine to curate millions of items, bringing only the most important to your attention, and then using human intelligence to take action on the most important items. By trusting the machine intelligence to filter, you can open yourself up to a much wider space of information. I have many more friends on Facebook than I have IRL because I trust the algorithm to bring me only the best of my friends on any given day. A twitter algorithm will mean that I can follow more people without being overwhelmed. Even when the filter is imperfect, you are more likely to discover something of importance from 100,000 items imperfectly filtered to 100 than from 1000 items perfectly filtered to 100.

As Tyler argued in Average is Over, the future belongs to people who can defer to the algorithm.


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