Algorithm nation

What are algorithms, how do they decide what we see and what we don’t see online?


What we see in our news feeds isn’t always the truth. In fact, it’s usually decided by a sequence of actions that for many of us remain a mystery: the algorithm. What are algorithms, how do they decide what we see and what we don’t see online, and can they be used to break, not build, our social media bubbles?

At a dinner party, if you were asked to describe how an algorithm works, what would your answer be?

I would explain a very simple algorithm that takes care of content selection on the web. Most simply, it would involve two pieces of news items. If I want to know which one to show to you, I would estimate, one way or another, which of those you are more likely to click on. That is often what companies try to optimise for. If I have no information about you or the articles whatsoever, a way to estimate which of the two you are most likely to click on is just to randomly show either article A or B to a bunch of people. After doing this for a while I look to see whether A was clicked more than B. If it was, then I’ll show A to the next person. That’s an algorithm.

Maurits Kaptein

Dr. Maurits Kaptein is an assistant professor of statistics at Tilburg University. Previously, Maurits was a researcher at the University of Eindhoven and the Aalto School of Business, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. Maurits explores statistical methods for content personalization. His work has been published in leading journals such as Behavior Research Methods, Bayesian Analysis, and the Journal of Interactive Marketing.