….your feed is now controlled by a capitalistic, populistic dictatorial algorithm!
“All I will ever see in my newsfeed are puppies and food”. Get a peek into this and other narratives through which users depict the perceived negative influence of algorithms in their daily social media consumption.
By Josefine Grunnet and Nicolai Traasdahl Tarp, MSc students in Digital Design and Communication at the ITU.
Users of online platforms daily encounter content that have been algorithmically selected to best fit their personal interests. This logic of personalization is becoming more prevalent in digital media, yet some users of social media show great dissatisfaction with this underlying logic of the technology and argue against this by emphasizing the social implications for present media consumption and communication.
On March 15, 2016, the popular image sharing and social media platform Instagram announced a future implementation of algorithms on their platform, which quickly sparked a fierce debate among Instagram-users on Twitter. The discussion revolved around tweets with use of the hashtag #RIPINSTAGRAM (ed. rest in peace Instagram), where users strongly problematized Instagram’s proposed algorithmic changes. Using TCAT (Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset) developed by the Digital Methods Initiative, we collected roughly 4.000 tweets disseminated during the days after the announcement, all containing the hashtag #RIPINSTAGRAM. This blog-post gives an insight into the methods used in order to capture and analyze the data. Furthermore, it provides an overview of the various narratives emerging from the discussion of a new curating algorithm on Instagram. Narratives, which we have decided to categorize as counter-narratives, due to their oppositional character towards Instagrams proposed algorithmic changes.
The starting point of this analysis was a dataset of roughly 4.000 tweets containing the hashtag “RIPINSTAGRAM” sent by 3.378 individual users over a period of two days, from 16 March to 17 March 2016. The tweets was collected using the Twitter Capture and Analysis Toolset (TCAT) a data capture and analysis platform from the Digital Methods Initiative – also referred to as DMI-TCAT (Borra & Rieder, 2014).
(Fig. 1. – Graph showing the amount of users and tweets during the sample period)
The initial dataset was cleaned and sampled further to produce the final set of empirical data. This second set of data was restricted to tweets written in either English or Danish. Afterwards, this dataset of roughly 1.200 tweets was cleaned of retweets, as a way of avoiding duplicates that would distort the analysis. This created a third dataset of 650 tweets. Finally, the tweets were categorized as either descriptive (i.e. repeating the Instagram announcement) or commentary (i.e. attitudes towards Instagram’s announcement) and the commentary tweets were extracted to create the final dataset of 531 tweets.
Based on a grounded theory approach and an elaborate open coding of the collected tweets, we uncovered four different narratives of algorithms, which we due to their oppositional character have chosen to categorize as counter-narratives. All of these counter-narratives were continuously reproduced by the users participating in the debate on Twitter. The counter-narratives have been categorized based on the overreaching imagery prevalent in the discussion. Before reading these counter-narratives, it is important to note that they were all produced and reproduced before any actual algorithm was implemented on Instagram.
The counter-narrative titled “algorithmic dictatorship” is one of two narratives, which represents the power relation between algorithms and users in social media. In this counter-narrative the users are presented as oppressed and the algorithm as a dictator that have a supreme and unchallenged power to decide on behalf of the user. The counter-narrative is reproduced by several users through various depictions of how an algorithm would affect the users and the flow of information. Some users describe the effects of the algorithm as “[…] it’s not enhancing, it’s controlling.”, “[…] orchestrated by algorithms” and “[…] ruling our lives.”. This counter-narrative represents an understanding of the algorithm as something that rules and controls the users by governing what they will be exposed to. This is a depiction of governance quite similar to what you would expect in a dictatorship ruled by control and propaganda. The users express themselves as being oppressed, without any agency to change what they see in their news feed. The algorithm becomes a dictatorial curator of information.
Parental guidance is ascribed
This counter-narrative describes algorithms as an ascribed patriarchal figure and parental guide. The dissatisfaction with this type of guidance is evident when users ascribe certain attributes to the implementation of algorithms : “seriously instagram? i already have a parents, dont be mine. don’t tell me what to see.” This counter-narrative represents the understanding that user agency is being ignored and replaced by an algorithm, which as a consequence disregards the users’ ability to shape their own news feed without outside intervention. The algorithm leaves them as nothing but bystanders. Furthermore, multiple users argue that they are “[…] fully capable of passing by photos I don’t care about.” or “[…]my brain is way more better in knowing what it likes,” arguing that they have a better understanding of how to shape what they are exposed to than a curating algorithm. The algorithm becomes an ascribed parental guidance, which users cannot escape. Like the counter-narrative of “algorithmic dictatorship”, this represents a skewed power relation and a conflictual relationship between users and the algorithm. A relationship where the algorithm has the upper hand.
Only cats, naked girls and makeup-tips
The argument for this counter-narrative is found in the everyday experience of the social media and the understanding that the logic of the algorithm, the appraisal of the popular, degrades the practise to a matter of mainstream internet culture.“[…] all I will ever see in my newsfeed are puppies and food” and ”[…]naked girls, cats, dogs & makeuptips, only feed items with algorithm”. A user concludes this as “a mess of useless content that I don’t want to see”. In this counter-narrative, the main fear is that as a consequence of pop culture gaining more ground, art and underground artists of lower popularity will suffer and lose empowerment. We uncovered that the users problematize this promotion of ”trending”, as it is stated that the algorithms will create ”more of the same” and that ”they forget that diversity is the fuel of success”.
Teaming up with capitalism
This counter-narrative represents the algorithm as an enhancer of the market and the argument behind it is that the algorithm constitutes new terms for gaining visibility on social media. The users comment on the alteration to visibility, stating that “Instagram wants you now to pay to be seen!” and “now the rest of us can never be seen on Instagram”. Furthermore, the counter-narrative represents the understanding that the increased emphasis on the market displace the social dimensions of Instagram. A user comments on the logic of the algorithm as “[…]great for advertising but terrible to follow friends & family.”
The understanding of the algorithm as a player who teams up with capitalism is constructed even further by comparing the game of visibility to the marxist logic of social order and class struggle. A user comments and states that “once again the internet is showing how only the high class matter”, which is a token of the idea that algorithms create a hierarchy on social media in regards to the game of gaining visibility. This hierarchy is closely related to capitalism as the game is played out between actors of the market, the big businesses over the small. This hierarchy is feared to be reproduced in the sorting of the feed, where “the only way to go up is to pay for Ads,”.
The future of algorithmic rule
So, to sum up: your social media feed is now run by a capitalistic, populistic dictatorial machine, who autonomously weigh money over users, corporation over family, cats over artists and there is nothing you can do about it! Or is there? These fears follow a clear dystopian and deterministic perspective on technology, writing off the users ability to influence technology. However, many scholars argue for a approach to technology focusing on mutual-shaping, wherein users actually possess the ability to shape algorithms and thus have an effect on the content they are presented for. So, based on this users can arguably take on two different approaches to algorithms. Either as minions of the algorithm or actively engage as collaborators together with the algorithm. It will be interesting to see which role the users choose to take on in the future. Minions or collaborators?
*)This blog-post is a compressed version of our paper “#RIPINSTAGRAM: Emerging Counter-Narratives in the Conception of Algorithms”, an exam paper written as part of the course Digital Democratic Citizenship at the ITU. This blog-post contains rephrasings as well as citations from the original paper.