How to Train Your Algorithm | 2230

We need control over what we see and how we see it. Every app should have a lab rat’s guide to taking over the experiment.

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How to Train Your Algorithm

I went down to Bristol for a few days this week. We ate great food, saw great people, and we had a lovely break. I was mostly offline. It was wonderful.

The only thing that breached the shields was the drama about the tiktokification of Instagram

Back in February 2018, unhappy with some of the changes Snapchat had made. Kylie Jenner posted a Tweet to her then 24.5 million followers saying β€˜Snapchat was over’. The next day Snaps shares plummeted 6 per cent. Within a week, its market cap was down US$1.3 billion.

Snapchat obviously wasn’t over after Jenner’s tweet. In fact Snapchat is currently the 6th biggest social media network in the western world. It’s bigger than Twitter. 

In case the drama passed you by, earlier this week, Instagram pushed its short videos product, Reels, into the main algorithmic feed for users.

β€œMake Instagram Instagram again,” Jenner posted to Instagram. β€œ(Stop trying to be Tik Tok I just want to see cute photos of my friends). Sincerely, everyone.”  Kim Kardasian also shared the same post, millions of their followers did the same. 

Their intervention had so clout that Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri, posted a video of himself on Twitter. Acknowledging that everyone hates the new update and the pivot to short video. Ryan Brodrick over at Garbage Day described the whole statement as an “overwhelming display of confident self-annihilation“. 

The CEO admitted that the UX changes were not ‘yet good’. But still doubled down on the apps pivot to short video saying:

“If you look at what people like and consume on Instagram, it’s shifting more and more to video over time, even when we stop changing anything. So we’re going to have to lean into that shift.”

This is such bullshit. 

Instragam introduced Reels into the app following Tik Tok’s lead in August 2020. 

Of course users are shifting more and more towards consuming short video. 15 second short video content combined with zero agency algorithmic curation is one of the most addictive design patterns ever discovered by humanity. 

After this go and listen to Richard Pryor’s sketch about Freebasing cocaine. As he talks about his pipe, recall any recent conversation with a friend that has gone something like this: β€˜I need to get off Tik Tok, its taking over my life’

It’s no coincidence that this type of content and delivery mechanism is now in everything. Facebook, Youtube, Tik Tok, Instagram, wherever. It captures our attention so completely. Even more addictive than Web 2.0’s traditional pull down to refresh mechanic. 

One video becomes two, then an hour goes by. A few weeks later you have got the taste for it. As Pryor says, “all of a sudden it’s a kilo for the weekend”.

I think it’s immoral.

In the midst of the lockdowns, Instagram made an active choice to implement (or rather copy) one of the most addictive user interfaces ever devised.

These dark design patterns are only viable on our phones. As the app pradigm is the most restrictive and controlled computing environments.

Nearly a decade ago, Tobias Revel wrote the influential essay Designed Conflict Territories.

β€˜There’s no town square for Google”. He said.

We have no space in which we can protest, in which we can occupy and configure a conflict besides or in front of the thing we wish to protest and air our grievances against. For both the new geopolitics and the threat of climate change, there is no common language, no common space, no commons.

Kylie Jenner’s war with Instagram is another front in the same conflict as Epic Games’ battle with Apple. Never in human history has there been such totalitarian control over thought, action and memory.

It’s not enough to just complain and demand that Instagram stop making changes though. We as users, need to be able to collectively articulate what we want to be different.

We should demand the ability to change the front end and layout of the apps we use, and in some cases have paid for. 

I can’t stand the fact that buttons for Youtube Shorts and Reels are right there on the apps main page. Calling me, tempting me. It really is an outrage that Instagram wants to move reels into the feed. And I want to move them out of sight. Hide it all under a rug inside a menu. I am outraged that I can’t.

We should be able to say no. No, I do not wish to see short videos in my feed. I want to see pictures of cute cats and avocado breakfasts posted by my friends. We should be able to rearrange the furniture.

At the very least there should be a simple UX path called ‘how to train your algorithm’. A user flow that explains simply: step by step how it works and how you can influence and interact with it. 

I have learnt a lot in the last year about interacting with machine intelligence with image generators. There is both the prompt AND the model’s parameters.

The organisational and the structural logic of the machine. 

On social media the relationship is one sided. Personalised feeds and algorithms learn from our behaviour. Then in turn, it behaves in ways that it believes will increase our attention and retention. 

The user is the agent being prompted. It should be the other way around. always.

We must demand more agency within online worlds. We need new social norms. We need control over what we see and how we see it. 

Every app should have a lab rat’s guide to taking over the experiment.


The script above is the original script written for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the edit.

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2 responses to “How to Train Your Algorithm | 2230”

  1. […] no discernible way of training the algorithm, you might as well be watching TV. In fact for many, the Internet is just that. 4-5 channels. […]

  2. […] Spotify radio insists that I will like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard. I do not. I don’t vibe with them at all, despite the banishing the track every time they come on Spotify doesn’t care. How to stop the madness!?? […]

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