The famous quote, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” reminds us that our realities are dependent on our perceptions. Specifically, what we consider to be “real” or what we consider to have “happened” is entirely based on if we could perceive/observe it.
Most technologies today utilize collaborative filtering algorithms, which collect data about the user and the user’s social network to filter content on their platforms. Youtube uses this to recommend content, while Instagram uses it to also prioritize a user social network’s content (or in other words, prioritize posts by certain friends/followed accounts over others), completely removing the traditional chronological feed. However, if it is true that our reality is dependent on our perceptions, then these algorithms have a direct impact on how realities since they control what we can perceive. Due to these algorithms, we are only able to see certain videos on Youtube, hear specific songs on Spotify, and see specific friends’ contents on Instagram.
Many critics have addressed this issue and pointed out that “tailored content” will directly impact people’s ability to accept new ideas and limit their world view. For example, it can be argued that our nation has become more politically polarized because of tailored content on Facebook, in which democrats only see liberal arguments and new sources and republicans only see conservative arguments and new sources. Since these users can only see specific arguments, they believe no other arguments exist and in turn, are valid. Yet, as I thought about these algorithms more I started to realize there are other effects that may be more personal.
Specifically, if Instagram is choosing which one of our friends’ content we will see first, it is directly influencing our friendships. If I only see “Sam”, “Jordan” and “Katie’s”, content I will only be able to keep up to date on their lives. My friendships with them will become stronger and my friendships with others will become weaker. If the tree falling in a forest argument is true, then slowly the friends whose content I see less will no longer be apart of my reality and in turn, I could forget about them. Thus, due to Instagram’s algorithm, I lose a significant amount of agency over my friendships. I no longer am maintaining friendships based off my own choices and personal relationships, but who I see the most on social media.
Of course, these algorithms are not pushing certain content randomly and unfortunately, the actual algorithms are not public knowledge. However, I can make a few educated guess on how Instagram’s for instance operates. I am currently in the class Internet Famous in which we discuss the reasons behind why people use social media as well as why certain people gain “fame on the internet”. It all simply comes down to the notion of alphas. Our brains our wired to enjoy looking at the faces and butts of alphas since it provides us an opportunity to learn what are the necessary traits needed to again capitol. I enjoy stalking Kim Kardashian because I must view her as an alpha (most likely because of her immense social capitol).
Algorithms are designed to keep the app popular and bring back users. If Instagram’s success is based on alphas posting content so that users will return to the app to look at the alphas, the algorithm most likely prioritizes “alpha user’s content”. It does that in one way by prioritizing the content that gets the most likes. Yet, it must do it another way: by determining which friends are the alphas in your social circle and prioritizing their content on your feed.
It is really creepy to think that Instagram has an algorithm to determine if you are an alpha or not but, it comes to no surprise. There are already algorithms that can determine if a user will be come famous on the internet years before they do. However, the obvious question rises: are these users actually alphas or is Instagram shaping them into alphas? If Instagram is creating alphas, what are the traits they are looking at and how will society change with these people attaining the most power and capitol?