Social Media Algorithms Need A LOT Of Work

Like you, I’ve heard a lot about the proprietary algorithms that social media companies use to determine which posts we see. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others regularly mention them in interviews and in their own posts. They’re pretty proud of them. They typically also mention their internal “metrics” — the systems in place that record how we react (click, scroll past, spend extra time on, like, share, etc.) to what we see. They’re tweaking their algorithms all the time.

It’s possible I’m an outlier, but I’m very convinced that their algorithms aren’t working well.

There are at least three kinds of algorithms operating on most social media platforms, determining different things:

1. The order of your feed / which posts you see
2. Which ads you see
3. “Suggested” items (contacts to add or pages to follow)

• Feed Sorting

Almost everyone I’ve talked to says they don’t like the way the first one is working. It seems the majority of people want their feeds in a simple, consistent chronological order, but the social media giants just won’t do it (“the company seems confident that a curated feed yields more user engagement than one shown in order”).

Again, they have their metrics, so statistically they could be correct. I know it’s not true for me. Here’s how it happens:

Me: “I want my feed in chronological order.”
Facebook: “Here, look at this post you’ve already liked and commented on two days ago.”
Me: *closes Facebook*

This happens daily. When I get to the point that I’m seeing posts I’ve already seen, or already interacted with, or have dates from a couple of days ago, I will only scroll for a few more seconds — to make sure there’s nothing new, and then I’m out of there. It’s frustrating for two reasons: (1) I know that if the feed was in chronological order, I would have seen those dated posts when they were new, and (2) I know that I’m missing current items while Facebook is showing me old ones. For example, I KNOW that NPR is posting new items now, because I can go to their page and see items marked “7 minutes ago”. But scrolling my feed, I’ll see an NPR item marked “two days ago”. I know that my friend Greg is posting new items now, because I can go to his page and see new stuff. But in my feed, where I should be seeing new items, I’m seeing Greg’s post from four days ago that I already interacted with. Presumably, Facebook is showing me Greg’s old post because there are new comments under it — but those comments are from people I don’t know and they’re not in reply to my comment. Presumably, Facebook is showing me NPR’s old post because I missed it two days ago, but if their feed was in order, I wouldn’t have missed it two days ago.

Instagram — which I rarely use because it’s next to worthless — is even worse. I opened the app just now to test it. The first image I see is from my friend Richard Barron, which was posted “two days ago”. I know I’ve checked Instagram in the past two days, so I assume there is nothing new and close the app. But if I scroll down, the next image is from another friend, posted “21 hours ago”. Oh. So there WAS something newer than two days ago. If I click to that friend’s profile, it’s his fourth-newest photo. Back to the feed though. The next image is an advertisement from Starbucks, which was a waste of time because I don’t like Starbucks coffee and won’t pay $5 for any cup of coffee.

So I’ve closed the app. If you posted anything yesterday (and at least one of you did), I’ve missed it. Perhaps I’ll see it when I open the app tomorrow and Instagram shows me more “two days ago” stuff.

Twitter isn’t quite so bad; as far as I can tell most of the tweets on the feed are in chronological order. My app starts me where I left off last time and lets me scroll toward more recent tweets. Occasionally, some are hidden behind the “see more tweets” button. I used to click that so I wouldn’t miss anything, but now I scroll past it.

• Which Ads You See

On Facebook, the ad algorithms are embarrassingly bad. 99.9% of the ads are for things I would never use/spend money on or things I recently bought and therefore don’t need anymore. Examples of the former: church, a $250 Northface jacket, fishing poles for sale locally, and a mobile home. Examples of the latter: a politician I already follow, a storage ottoman I already bought (a year or two ago, Facebook began showing me ads for storage ottomans the day after I bought one), and new TVs (again, I started seeing these within a day of actually buying a TV).

A recent exception was an ad for a used Pelican case being sold locally. I own two Pelican cases (one for camera gear and one for a firearm) and might someday buy another one. However, I would likely buy it new, not used from a stranger (who for all I know kept drugs in it).

On Twitter and Instagram, the ads I see are more random — reminding me of TV commercials. I’ll just see ads from anyone willing to pay for them. Those are easier to ignore. Already my brain is trained to see the “sponsored” text and scroll past.

I would LOVE to see good targeted advertising, but haven’t yet. Please tell me if the ads you see on social media are helpful at all for you.

• Suggested For You

Most social media has some form of this; it’s usually based on who/what you already follow and who their friends are. On Twitter and Instagram, it seems to be exactly that: “Follow X? They’re friends with Y, whom you already follow.” But on Facebook, it’s pretty bad.

Under friend suggestions, about half seem to be friends of friends, but a good third are people I already dropped from my friends list — which means Facebook KNOWS I don’t want to follow them. The remainder seem to be fake or unused accounts, and a very small percentage are rabid religionists, regressives, or racists (or all three).

But the suggested pages/groups is where Facebook gets it very, very wrong. The following are pages/groups suggested for me today: Exotic Hunting In Texas, NFL Smack Talkers, Argumentative Atheists, The Pointe (a misspelled neighborhood in Ft. Worth), Seminole Area Online Garage Sales, Sports Memories Of Dallas, Society Of Grey (sic) Beard Bikers, Milky Mamas Breastfeeding Support Group, Pokemon Ultra Sun & Moon Trades, Brazoria County Community Updates, House Plant Lovers, and last but not least: “Beer, Boobs, Bacon and Bullets” (Facebook’s algorithm should know by now that I would reject this group purely for their missing Oxford comma, among other reasons).

Only one of those matches any keywords in my profile, other groups I’m in, or things I post about.

• Conclusion

With all the excited talk about artificial intelligence, behind-the-scenes metrics, and the huge worth of “big data”, I would have expected better by now. So far, it reminds me of a computer dating match service someone attempted at my college in the early 1990s. Each person filled out a survey, their answers were entered into a computer, and then we were each matched with someone entirely incompatible with us.


Related: Big Data Can’t Make You Buy Things (2015.07.01)

  1. 1. I use the British “grey”
    2. Social media isn’t here for you, me or any customers or their user experience. Changes in the way they work are for one reason only: profits.
    3. My ad mining experience is better than yours for the most part: it mostly suggests cameras I view and dream about buying.
    4. At Open Mic Nyte on Monday, we talked a lot about the value of pen to paper over the vanishingly huge online experience; in 20 years, that notebook will still be on the shelf, but good luck finding anything online from 2018 on social media. One of our regulars even suggested that the next generation will be ready to shed the border of the app scene and simplify.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      1. I think one of my sisters does that too. I don’t really care; I inserted the “(sic)” mostly for fun. :-)

      2. Very true. But they don’t exist without us either. Instagram, for example, has lost a LOT of my viewing time by their extremely out-of-order timeline. Last night, I checked again and immediately saw “two days ago”, so I closed the app.

      3. That’s good to know. Perhaps I’m more difficult to scrutinize, or my interests are too broad and shifting for today’s algorithms to parse… Maybe in a few years I’ll see some improvement. :-) (Also, I know we’re too old to be their target demographic…)

      4. That’s certainly true for almost everyone. Though I no longer keep a paper journal, I do store all my content privately first, before uploading/posting — and make regular backups. Perhaps one of these days, I’ll format my journal files a little more tightly and splurge on a printed version just in case.

  2. Dana says:

    who for all I know kept drugs in it

    Remind me not to select you as a juror. ;-)

  3. Dana says:

    Please tell me if the ads you see on social media are helpful at all for you.

    About 60% percent of the time, they’re pretty spot on. But I’m also very good at filtering out noise so I often don’t even see ads on social media apps (I know they’re there; they just don’t register on my radar).

    I agree, Oxford commas are important. You do know that’s a generational preference, though. We’re an old and dying breed.

    • Wil C. Fry says:

      Oxford comma: without it, I always read the final two items in a list as belonging together more than the other — separated by commas — items. :-)

      Filtering: Yeah, I filter the ads most of the time too. I think it’s the really worthless ones that stand out in my mind the most. On Twitter, I seem to see a lot of DiGiornio (however you spell it) Pizza ads. Of all the store-bought pizzas I’ve tried, I like that on the least, LOL.

      Otherwise, I’m glad they’re “spot-on” for you most of the time. :-)

      • Dana says:

        Oxford comma: without it, I always read the final two items in a list as belonging together more than the other — separated by commas — items.

        That’s my husband’s favorite rant. Nothing like a missing Oxford comma to set him off.

        As for the ads – I don’t even use a ad-blocker, I just have finely honed tunnel vision. A chicken or the egg issue – either I have the sort of personality that hones in on important facts and ignores the rest and therefore I was drawn to law, or because I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years, I’ve learned to ignore extraneous non-relevant items…

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