What are Algorithms and Why do They need to Change?
Instagram (IG) announced last week that it will change the way it serves up your feed. Instead of showing the most recent images first from people you follow, a new ‘algorithm’ will show you what IG thinks you like. The algorithm is what techies like to call ‘intellectual property’ (IP) — unless you work as a software engineer at IG, you will probably never see it.
All the hype that started on March 15 about IG algorithm this, algorithm that, blah blah, … made my head spin. So I asked some ‘non-techie’ IGers if they knew what an algorithm was. They didn’t have a clue. Let’s try to clear this up with a couple of examples. Here is one of my favourite algorithms.
Woke up, fell out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup
And looking up I noticed I was late
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream
— The Beatles
An algorithm is a fancy word for a set of steps or instructions to do something. Everything we do from when we get out of bed until we fall asleep at night is one big algorithm or a series of smaller algorithms. A bit anticlimactic, right? So tomorrow morning, think about every day algorithms like your brush-my-teeth, tie-my-shoes, or make-my-coffee algorithms. Extra credit: for one of your algorithms, write down each step involved (note: this extra credit assignment is an algorithm in itself). You might notice that listing out clear, concise steps is easier said than done.
Computer algorithms are a little more specialized. In general, these types of algorithms take a set of inputs and produce a set of outputs in a mostly predictable or deterministic fashion. Essentially, computer algorithms are the problem-solving skills that you learned in elementary school but written down in a computer programming language (e.g. Java, PHP, C#, etc.). Here’s an example of a computer algorithm written in a quasi-like programming language (aka pseudocode). Problem to solve here: determine if a word is a palindrome (a word that is the same if read forwards and backwards). Inputs: words. Outputs: yes, it’s an palindrome or no, it’s not.
Start with the first and last letters and work inwards (loop to compare two letters at a time)
Compare the two letters
If they are not the same, then this word is not a palindrome so quit now there is no need to continue
If there are no more letters to compare and you haven’t quit yet, then you have a palindrome — all done
— A simplified algorithm that determines if a word such as ‘Abba’ is a palindrome.
Simple algorithms similar to the palindrome code, don’t need to change much. Complex algorithms can be in a constant state of change due to many factors: changes in laws, definitions, ecosystems, usage, requirements, market demands, etc.
‘You Can’t Always Get What you Want’ — The Rolling Stones
Instagram is using an algorithm right now to display your feed in chronological order. Using an algorithm is not a big deal as the hype leads us to believe. The big deal for me is that IG wants to determine what I get to see. I’m not so thrilled about this, yet this approach is nothing new. Facebook (the owner of IG) and Twitter already use proprietary software algorithms to determine what to serve you. In fact, you might recall back in June 2015 that IG switched algorithms for the ‘Explore Posts’ feature. I like the IG Explore Posts much better now. The fact remains — I don’t get much of a choice of what I want to see in my feed. That’s what I don’t like. It turns out I’m not the only one that feels this way.
Is this something that the community really wants? After what happened when Facebook switched to algorithm-based feeds, it’s certainly not something that small business’ will want! At the very least, shouldn’t the community be able to opt-in, rather than having it mandated that this is how we will now see our feed? — Sara Heard’s #keepinstagramchronological petition on Change.org.
Like other apps that have contracted the algorithm-based contagion, IG cites maturity as a big reason for the change.
“On average, people miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed,” Kevin Systrom, co-founder and chief executive of Instagram, said in an interview. “What this is about is making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible.” — From Mike Isaac’s piece in the New York Times
Critics like Sara Heard claim this change will hurt small businesses. Others like PetaPixel assert IG needs to do something as its $1.5 billion revenue begins to show signs of waning. Perhaps, with the reverse chronological order algorithm out of the way, businesses can start paying to boost visibility of their IG posts the same way it’s done on Facebook?
At the time of this writing, 211,000 signed the #keepinstagramchronological petition. There are currently over 400 million people on Instagram. Only 0.05% are upset enough to protest the change. Facebook has over 1.5 billion users.
The word algorithm comes from the name Al-Kwarizmi. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi was a 9th century Muslim mathematician.
Lead photo location: Ubud, Bali from my Bali-nality series shot on 35mm film.