What Are Algorithms? (a 4 min read)

Last Updated on 2 months by Usman Sheikh

For most marketers and digital nomads, algorithms are a bit like a blockchain.  Everyone understands a bit of it, but ask them to explain what and how it works – good luck or expect a long complex answer that seems to go off topic but does not really answer the question. 

You know it.  We have all been there. So what are algorithms exactly (without going off on a tangent)?

What Are Algorithms – The Official Definition:

I like BBC’s definition:

An algorithm is a sequence of instructions or a set of rules that are followed to complete a task. 
Source: BBC Bitesize

So what does that mean exactly?  Let’s demystify some of this term loosely bounced around in the context of someone who has an attention span of a 2-year-old on YouTube (yes I have a 2-year-old at home and yes he has been getting too much screen time).

It is like asking your computer to run a program with a specific goal in mind.  The algorithm’s goal can be to provide good search results that answer the query in the easiest and quickest time possible using complex data technology (if you thought of Google’s algorithm here, you get a star!)

Or it can be showing you videos on your streaming app feed for ones you have watched a lot in the past or have shown interest in (you guessed it, YouTube)

Or it can be your friends’ updates and or ads on topics you have shown interest in by browsing on their platform (Facebook, Twitter, or really any other social media platform is using an algorithm for this).

The internet runs on these algorithms. Websites have algorithms.  Search engines have algorithms. Online or mobile apps have algorithms.  GPS has algorithms. Video games have algorithms. Artificial intelligence?  Dating Sites?  Social Media sites?  Well, you get the point.

In a nutshell, this task or guidance provided to machines in a form of code is not easy to do and there will never be 100% correct results for every user, every query, or every action that takes place online.  Because of this, these algorithms must ‘optimize’ – keep trying to feed you things to ensure your satisfaction remains high (or keeps going in the right direction), so you a) spend more time on their platforms or b) come back often and or tell your friends about it.

Hopefully, you can see that algorithms aren’t as mysterious as you originally thought before starting down this post 😊. We are talking concepts here and not technical definitions, so you understand what they are designed to do and the intricacies around them.

Related: What Should Businesses Do Today To Establish Trust Online?

Related: What Is Web Development

Why algorithms have gotten a bad rep lately?

So why the heat lately?

Well, on social media – let’s take Facebook for example – it keeps giving you posts, ads, and content on topics you have shown interest in.  These algorithms track all the online behaviour of users, and slice and dice your profile to match you with ideas, products, communities that they think you will engage with well. Well, that on the surface is not bad, but it allows you to create a more tunnel vision and groupthink.  Polarized topics can form groupthink and it becomes harder for us to connect with others who may not hold our viewpoint over a period of time.

This leads a more divided society that is constantly only fed their own view point on mass (now this is getting a bit political here – so I am not going to expand here, but I think you can see what I mean by this. Hopefully).

Case in point – ever heard of mySpace and their child exploitation scandals that gave this social platform a bad reputation and lead the likes of Facebook (and others) to take its place? mySpace used algorithms and did not put checks in place to ensure bad behaviour and criminal activity is not rewarded.

Also, more research is emerging that talks about predictive analytics used in algorithms punish the poor.

So use of algorithms without proper checks and constant oversight can lead to outcomes that are less than ideal and may even be construed as “trust breaching” or ‘unethical’ to many.

Privacy Concerns 

Algorithms aren’t always perfect.  

What Are Algorithms? Code screen on black background.

Ever heard of cookies?  Well, these are pieces of code that are saved on your browser on the machine you accessed it from and are used to track your behaviour, interest, demographics online by other websites that can then advertise to you.

A lot of folks have been becoming uncomfortable with this idea of being tracked so we can be advertised at a later date.  This means online surveillance by companies is only increasing and people are starting to learn about how this impacts their behaviour including security concerns, purchasing intent, and more. 

Companies can and have taken advantage of it and some as a result may have also suffered because of it.  Take Facebook and their scandal with Cambridge Analytica where the consulting company (not the social media giant) was able to acquire personal and private data on Facebook’s platform and sold it to US election campaign officials.  This constituted a breach from Facebook (and conceded it as a “breach of trust” after being caught).  Facebook was later fined $5 billion.

We are still figuring out as a digital community, world, and society at large what impact these pieces of code have on our daily lives.  Some of it is good and some of it is not so good.

With innovation, many companies have been very accepting of adapting these tools (these algorithms) to help them stand out, deliver more with less, and find ways to get more people dependant on their platform.  If people keep coming back and keep sharing their personal and online behaviour traits, it makes it easy for these companies that use algorithms to market to them.

Our job at Web Worx Labs is to give our voice to technologies and use them ethically where possible.  We bring light to this issue as we recognize and understand the legitimate concerns many have come to express over the years with these technologies.

Have thoughts to share?  Questions or need more clarity.  Comment below or reach out at info@webworxlabs.com. Contact us via email by filling out our contact form: https://www.webworxlabs.com/contact-us/

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