No one outside Facebook knows for sure how it does this, and no one inside the company will tell you. And yet the results of this automated ranking process shape the social lives and reading habits of more than 1 billion daily active users—one-fifth of the world’s adult population. The algorithm’s viral power has turned the media industry upside down, propelling startups like BuzzFeed and Vox to national prominence while 100-year-old newspapers wither and die. It fueled the stratospheric rise of billion-dollar companies like Zynga and LivingSocial—only to suck the helium from them a year or two later with a few adjustments to its code, leaving behind empty-pocketed investors and laid-off workers. Facebook’s news feed algorithm can be tweaked to make us happy or sad; it can expose us to new and challenging ideas or insulate us in ideological bubbles.
And yet, for all its power, Facebook’s news feed algorithm is surprisingly inelegant, maddeningly mercurial, and stubbornly opaque. It remains as likely as not to serve us posts we find trivial, irritating, misleading, or just plain boring. And Facebook knows it. Over the past several months, the social network has been running a test in which it shows some users the top post in their news feed alongside one other, lower-ranked post, asking them to pick the one they’d prefer to read. The result? The algorithm’s rankings correspond to the user’s preferences “sometimes,” Facebook acknowledges, declining to get more specific. When they don’t match up, the company says, that points to “an area for improvement.”
“Sometimes” isn’t the success rate you might expect for such a vaunted and feared bit of code. The news feed algorithm’s outsize influence has given rise to a strand of criticism that treats it as if it possessed a mind of its own—as if it were some runic form of intelligence, loosed on the world to pursue ends beyond the ken of human understanding. At a time when Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants increasingly filter our choices and guide our decisions through machine-learning software, when tech titans like Elon Musk and scientific laureates like Stephen Hawking are warning of the existential threat posed by A.I., the word itself—algorithm—has begun to take on an eerie affect. Algorithms, in the popular imagination, are mysterious, powerful entities that stand for all the ways technology and modernity both serve our every desire and threaten the values we hold dear.
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