How Recommendation Algorithms Run the World

Article by Zeynep Tufekci: “What should you watch? What should you read? What’s news? What’s trending? Wherever you go online, companies have come up with very particular, imperfect ways of answering these questions. Everywhere you look, recommendation engines offer striking examples of how values and judgments become embedded in algorithms and how algorithms can be gamed by strategic actors.

Consider a common, seemingly straightforward method of making suggestions: a recommendation based on what people “like you” have read, watched, or shopped for. What exactly is a person like me? Which dimension of me? Is it someone of the same age, gender, race, or location? Do they share my interests? My eye color? My height? Or is their resemblance to me determined by a whole mess of “big data” (aka surveillance) crunched by a machine-learning algorithm?

Deep down, behind every “people like you” recommendation is a computational method for distilling stereotypes through data. Even when these methods work, they can help entrench the stereotypes they’re mobilizing. They might easily recommend books about coding to boys and books about fashion to girls, simply by tracking the next most likely click. Of course, that creates a feedback cycle: If you keep being shown coding books, you’re probably more likely to eventually check one out.

Another common method for generating recommendations is to extrapolate from patterns in how people consume things. People who watched this then watched that; shoppers who purchased this item also added that one to their shopping cart. Amazon uses this method a lot, and I admit, it’s often quite useful. Buy an electric toothbrush? How nice that the correct replacement head appears in your recommendations. Congratulations on your new vacuum cleaner: Here are some bags that fit your machine.

But these recommendations can also be revealing in ways that are creepy. …

One final method for generating recommendations is to identify what’s “trending” and push that to a broader user base. But this, too, involves making a lot of judgments….(More)”.