How do social media feed algorithms work?

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These days, it seems like you can’t get very far on the internet without hearing the word algorithm popping up. Now we know algorithms are just sets of instructions, so let’s take a look at social media algorithms.

Whether you’ve watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix and are now looking for your tinfoil hat, or you’re just curious, we’re going to take a look at everything you need to know about social media feed algorithms.

When we talk about social media algorithms, we are talking about the feed algorithms that decide which posts appear in your feed. Social media companies probably have a lot of algorithms in play, so it’s important to distinguish which ones we’re looking at.

Essentially, feed algorithms use machine learning to predict which posts you’ll like, and it shows them to you in your feed. Most social media platforms, with the notable exception of Instagram, give you the choice between an algorithmic feed or a chronological feed.

A comparison between chronological and algorithmic feeds on Twitter.

With algorithmic feeds, you see posts in the order the algorithm thinks is best. Chronological feeds, on the other hand, organize posts according to their timestamps. So your Instagram feed might show a post from an account that they think you’ll like before a post a few minutes ago by someone you don’t interact with a lot.

To achieve this, social media platforms collect data from posts you’ve interacted with in the past, currently hot posts, and sponsored posts. But the data that these algorithms study is immense.

Platforms can collect information based on what posts your friends like, your search history on other sites, and even how long you watch the posts. By combining all of this data, the algorithm can predict which posts are likely to interest you.

Related: How to Disable Algorithmic Feeds on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

Social media platforms use algorithms for a simple reason: to keep you on the platform. If you see any articles that interest you, you’ll keep scrolling to see more. It is basic human instinct.

But why are social media platforms interested in keeping you on the platform? This is the main goal of any business: money.

The more time you spend browsing a social media platform, the more advertisements it can show you. Think about it. If you see an ad every three Instagram posts, the longer you scroll and the more posts you see, the more ads you also see.

Screenshot of advertising engagements on Instagram.

Every time you see an ad on social media, the platform makes money. Just looking at the ad is called an impression. Social media platforms charge advertisers based on impressions. So, every time you see an ad, the social media platform is making money. These fees increase when you interact with an ad by clicking on it.

There is also another main reason to keep scrolling, and that is long term use. Social media platforms want you to keep using their apps. Yes, it’s so that they can continue to generate ad revenue from you for the long haul, but it’s also a little more complicated than that.

Social media companies want you to come back to the platform over and over again because that means it can count you as an active user. The number of active users is vital for social media businesses. They use this number to set advertising prices, research investments and measure success.

Related: How to Reduce Targeted Social Media Ads

As you can see it all comes down to keeping your eyes on the posts and scrolling through the app,

Do companies really control the posts you see?

It’s important to make the distinction that social media companies don’t strictly control the content you see.

Each platform’s algorithm has been designed to show you relevant content and make the platform money.

The algorithm will evolve on its own, this is the machine learning part. It chooses which posts to show you, without any human oversight. There’s no one in any social media business sitting at a desk and choosing who sees what. While each platform creates its algorithm and gives it a goal, the company cannot choose what content it displays.

Related: What Are Machine Learning Algorithms? This is how they work

Algorithmic feeds also won’t make you miss any content. Twitter and Instagram explained that their algorithms only affect the order of posts.

This means that it does not hide or delete any content. So, although posts considered interesting are displayed at the top, if you keep scrolling, you’ll still see all new posts since your last use of the app.

There is a major problem with algorithms, and that is addiction. Social media is a great example of an addictive habit, and it can lead to mental health issues as well. It’s not proven, but a lot of people believe that social media algorithms make this problem worse by applying the feedback loop that makes people scroll.

Read more: What is social media addiction?

Meanwhile, algorithms have also been accused of creating echo chambers, guiding people towards extremist content and fake news, and inciting sensationalism.

Obviously, there is a good balance in keeping you on the social media app. This is exactly why advanced algorithms work it rather than people.

Of course, algorithms aren’t great at predicting what we want to see on social media – it’s computers, not our brains. There are times when the algorithm will get its predictions wrong and end up boring you with content that you are not at all interested in.

Algorithms have their problems, but they often achieve the goals that social networks seek. Otherwise, social media companies wouldn’t use them.

But when it comes to whether or not you want to participate in these algorithms, you at least have a choice, usually.


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