Man puzzling over algorithm

For several weeks now, I have been blocked by Instagram. I can post images, but I cannot add a caption. Nor can I comment on any other person’s post. Plus I cannot “like” any photos I see. According to Instagram, I am a “potential spammer”, and therefore my account permissions have been reduced until I can prove I am not a “spammer”.

I just want to confirm, I am not any kind of social media spammer. I posted only a few times each week on Instagram, I liked other people’s postings, and I added some comments every now and then. All typical behaviour. But something in the Instagram algorithm that checks activity thinks I am a spammer. I cannot contact a human to get this sorted as there is no-one to contact. They have help “systems”, but every method of reaching out to Instagram has resulted in silence.

My only option is to wait until the “you are not a spammer” algorithm steps in and allows me to use Instagram again. Or I could just sign up with Google’s new product “Keen” which is quietly being introduced as a competitor to Pinterest and Instagram.

But if I do sign up for Google Keen, I will face another online algorithm checking my every move and making decisions which are based on assumptions rather than facts. For example, recently, while watching the news on TV I saw a case of another algorithmic error. A woman who works in cosmetic tattooing had her Facebook account switched off automatically by an algorithm because she used the word “breast” on her page. That’s because much of her work is in helping women who have received breast cancer surgery. To the Facebook algorithm, the word “breast” is a “no-no”, and it automatically leads to a ban if you use it too many times. And if you show an image of one – well, that’s the end of your page.

Meanwhile, away from the world of social media algorithms, we have witnessed in the last couple of weeks algorithmic chaos in the education sector where mathematical calculations got student exam results way out of kilter. As the comedian David Walliams said in several “Little Britain” sketches – “Computer says no”.

Algorithms control your life. Your credit score is an algorithm. Your chances of getting to Number One on Google is an algorithm. What you see on social media is not what you think is important; it is what an algorithm believes you ought to see. There is hardly a corner of your life that is not controlled or determined by an algorithm. Indeed, if you go to your doctor for a check-up, they’ll evaluate your chances of having a disease using algorithms. They punch in the data from blood pressure, weight, the amount you drink or smoke into their computer, and it will then calculate the risk of heart disease, for instance. You can do the same on several “calculators” online, only to find you will get a different result from every one of them. So, how do we know the one your doctor uses is any more accurate?

The problem with algorithms is that they make us feel as though something has been achieved. Punch data in at this end and out the other end comes a calculation and a decision. For humans to do all that work takes more time, costs more money and leads to arguments. If an algorithm produces an answer, then “it must be true”.

However, algorithms frequently get things wrong. Indeed, Google has to keep changing its search algorithm because it makes mistakes. And they’ve been doing that for more than 20 years, and it still isn’t right.

So can you beat Google or Facebook’s algorithms? Can you beat the credit scoring algorithm or the one your doctor uses to check your heart health?

It really is straightforward to do so when you don’t get “sucked in” to the algorithm world. Most businesses do not rely on search marketing, for instance. Millions of firms are doing very nicely, thank you, without being affected by the mysterious calculations of Google. So, focusing your business activities away from Google will reduce the impact of algorithms. Similarly, if you don’t need credit because you manage your finances well, then your algorithmically calculated credit score is irrelevant. And if you follow the advice on what you eat and how you move, then your heart health calculator is not that important either.

What does this all tell us? It suggests that we get sucked into reliance on algorithms when, with a little thought, there is less need.

Algorithms frequently get things wrong. You can’t get rid of them entirely. But you can re-focus your business efforts so that you don’t need them so much and don’t get affected by their inevitable mistakes.

So, what does that all mean for me and Instagram? It means that I’ll stop worrying about it and focus on other things which work instead. In fact, if you look at most Instagram accounts, the number of likes would be easier to achieve just by emailing people the image, or printing it out and posting it to the dozen people who you want to see it. The vast majority of Instagram or Facebook users get so little activity anyway, those individuals could get more attention using different methods of reaching their targets. So, don’t get “sucked in” by the wonders of the algorithm. In reality, the only people who benefit are the people who made the algorithm in the first place. I give you the evidence of the advertising income of Google and Facebook…!

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