If you are focused on social media or Web search and like news, you’ve almost certainly seen headlines about algorithms: how this or that search or social media giant has “changed its algorithms.”

Here we take a short step back, to briefly explore algorithms and provide some examples for context regarding what’s fundamentally behind search, SEO and your social media “news” feeds – mechanisms or functions that comprise much of what companies such as Google and Facebook offer users.

TechDissected interviewed Kyle Mann, a rising senior math major at Oberlin College. He said that in the most simple or generic terms one can think of an algorithm as computer code – code that has become widely used. During our Skype interview from where he was completing an intensive summer studying math at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, he said an example of a simple algorithm is how you derive an average of things: you add them up and divide by the total number.

During his most recent year at Oberlin, Mann used Dijkstra’s algorithm for a campus-wide presentation to determine the mathematically optimum placement of the campus mailboxes to best serve all students. “Dijkstra’s algorithm is used in routing protocols, to calculate the distance between points in a network and also for choosing which ways to send information on a computer network,” said Mann. For his application at Oberlin, Mann said he used it to crunch a dataset of GPS locations of all his fellow students, a dataset of dorm locations, a dataset of sidewalk intersections and a dataset of adjacent intersections.

Meanwhile, at the Budapest University his fellow students studied clustering algorithms used for large networks when you have nodes (people) and links (who is connected to whom). Mann said of algorithms used by Facebook and Google, “they’d be very complex algorithms; they are gathering what they want. Facebook (uses) a very large conglomeration of algorithms,” (including), specific algorithms for which pages appear on a news feed,” added Mann. “If the way it’s functioning is different, its algorithm has been changed. Every step in the process is an algorithm which works with data.”

Some current, in-depth analysis of algorithms and social media is from Tarleton Gillispie at Cornell University who concludes in an in-press paper:

A sociological inquiry into algorithms should aspire to reveal the complex workings of this knowledge machine, both the process by which it chooses information for users and the social process by which it is made into a legitimate system. But there may be something, in the end, impenetrable about algorithms. They are designed to work without human intervention, they are deliberately obfuscated, and they work with information on a scale that is hard to comprehend (at least without other algorithmic tools). (forthcoming in Media Technologies, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA)

So as you scroll your Facebook “news” feed or Google search results – with their proprietary, ever-changing algorithms in mind – you might begin to understand how increasingly lost most of us are in a sea of manipulated big data – afloat on rafts of computer code that are quietly, efficiently putting folks, including most marketing people, ever further out of their league.


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