The Algorithm as Medium

Mediation, an inventory of effects, and only a little complaining

Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the Newsletter where we explore fringe ideas that are more relevant to daily life than they may appear at first glance.

My recent “restriction” on facebook has me thinking about how its algorithm is designed to dig into our neurology and create a powerful feedback loop.

An *ahem* “friend” posted this image in a group I help run:

It’s from the 1990 movie Ghost, which took a surprising amount of effort to find out (Almost 3 minutes!).

And being a ghost is about right. You can see everything, but you can touch nothing. Early on in my restriction, which I assumed to be a technical error since the “community violation” that caused the restriction accepted my appeal within two minutes, I’d check in every hour or so and see.

If you’ve never been restricted, it means you can’t like, comment, follow pages, join groups, or post.

So without any of the feedback loops involved that keep people on-site, scrolling quickly begins to feel empty and hollow.

During my first week restriction (for saying something rude about The English), I had to unlearn a reflex to click like or start a comment. And scrolling was difficult to stop.

Now I pop on to use messenger (which is unrestricted) and see it’s still here and move back on with my day.

Algorithm As Medium

So, if a telescope is an extension of human eyes, and a car an extension of legs, what is an algorithm like facebook’s Edgerank (A defunct name for FB’s algorithm I’ll be using as its current name) an extension of?

Not so much the act of seeing or understanding so much as the kind of information processing that so much of the brain is tied up in doing subconsciously. Sorting relevance and compositing a more complete picture from the fragments of data the senses give us.

Now, I’m very much out of date on Neurology, so my understanding may not be up to snuff. If any of you are neuroscience buffs, I’d be interested in your opinion of Chris Firth’s Making Up The Mind (2007). Which was one of the textbooks from my neuropsychology classes back in college.

What kind of effects does this medium have?

  • Feedback loops of confirmation bias

  • Focus on sensationalism & controversy

  • Amplifies conflict.

  • Optimized to maximize Time on screen

  • Ads every 2-5 posts on the scroll.

These are just some of the obvious ones.

Edgerank is a black-box that runs on what psychologists call Operant conditioning. We don’t know exactly how it works, but it provides variable rewards and negative reinforcement (removing something bad to promote the desired behavior).

Effectively, FB is the world’s largest and most complex Skinner Box, a closed feedback loop controlled entirely by Edgerank. Edgegrank can be customized for each person as those experiments FB got caught doing shows. We haven’t heard much about these in recent years but they pretty much have to be continuing to tweak and refine it. All for those sweet, sweet, advertiser-friendly eyeballs.

Edgerank, like any oprant process, is designed to hijack our dopamine/reward system. Give people a predictable reward and they’ll be into it for a little while and move off.

Give people a widely variable reward and it becomes addictive. The next post could be a life-changing insight or utterly irrelevant or the funniest thing you’ve ever read or alert you to a deadly threat or anything else.

It’s a HUGE range, which is sticky. The wider the range the stickier. And since the next post could be just about anything facebook hasn’t deleted…

I don’t really need to over-explain this. It’s pretty well-known tech execs will limit their own kids exposure to these systems they’ve foisted on is. And they’re right to do so, no matter how much teenage me would have thrown a fit about that fact (sorry again, Mom!).

Now, to be clear, I understood most of this before I got a facebook. I didn’t want one. But I was working at Disney World and was about to lose touch with a bunch of wonderful people… so, I logged on. That was like 15 years ago.

And now I’m looking for a real out.

But I’ve really had a good run with FB. I’ve met hundreds of wonderful people I otherwise wouldn’t. Many, I’ve met in person. I’ve fared pretty well in this devil’s bargain, even if many have commented that I’m on facebook too much.

But even those benefits, the illusion of control in how I socialize, come at real costs.


Algorithms are, I think, distinct mediums in the same way Oral, written, print/type, electric/broadcast, Digital/Telecommunications are.

They fundamentally reorder the way information passes among human social networks. And as long as they’re controlled by private institutions for profit, we’re going to see them hijacking human desires to drag attention to advertisers.

Another Algorithmic social network is possible, one where the algorithim’s main terms are known, controlled by an individual, and was configured to show statistics about how your consumption patterns relate to other people’s or your own past.

An algorithm designed to enhance metacognition and suggest alternative points of view.

There’s a 20 year old talk I found on the Psychedelic Salon from Earth and Fire Erowid titled, “Grassroots Peer Review” that i always come back to thinking about. It describes a network of interlinked trust networks. Where you could see how people you trusted reacted to a given article. Where you could tweak and refine the way you interacted with other trust networks.

There’s a seed of something there that could be used to promote real critical thinking and real self-awareness.

And that seems way better than getting into a dopamine high off starting an argument with strangers.