Alex Tabarrok makes an argument that I don’t think is at all a good one.
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. … How many people complaining about algorithmic twitter don’t use junk-email filters? I want ALL my emails! … 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. … By trusting the machine intelligence to filter, you can open yourself up to a much wider space of information.
Cory Doctorow prebutted that exact argument-from-self-driving-cars eleven years ago – many others have made similar arguments about non-transparent algorithms since. But the point can be developed further.
Alex’s more fundamental claim – like very many of Alex’s claims – rests on the magic of markets and consumer sovereignty. Hence all of the stuff about billions of dollars “making its algorithm more and more attuned to our wants and needs” and so on. But we know that the algorithm isn’t supposed to be attuned to our wants and needs. It’s supposed to be attuned to Facebook’s wants and needs, which are in fact rather different.
Facebook’s profit model doesn’t involve selling commercial services to its consumers, but rather selling its consumers to commercial services. This surely gives it some incentive to make its website attractive (so that people come to it) and sticky (so that they keep on using it). But it also provides it with incentives to keep its actual customers happy – the businesses who use it to advertise, gather information on consumers, and market their products using tactics of varying sneakiness. If Alex’s imaginary administrative assistant is going to do our filing for free, he’s also going to keep asking us, increasingly insistently, why we haven’t yet switched our house insurance to Geico (while surreptitiously chucking mail from rival insurance firms into the trash).
When Twitter – a company that is notoriously a service in search of a business model – tells us that “Twitter can help make connections in real-time based on dynamic interests and topics, rather than a static social/friend graph,” it probably wants to increase user growth and stickiness to keep investors happy. But it also probably wants it easier to market products, push sponsored tweets etc without it being quite so clear that they are bought and paid for. After all, that’s where its profit model lies. The extent to which social media allows you to ‘open yourself up to a wider space of information’ in some uncomplicated way depends on whether it’s in the interest of the for-profit providers of this media to open you up to the kind of information that you might have wanted ex post had you had enough time and search capacity ex ante. That, contra Alex, is at best going to be a vexed question for Twitter and its ilk.