Making sense of the algorithm: part one

An algorithm is a set of steps to perform one or multiple calculations. Back in the day, digital algorithms were used to recommend music or measure the relevance of a website.

Today, I opened TikTok and saw a trending skit (that always includes the song "Andrea" by Bad Bunny) about a group of friends from Medellin getting thrown out of a nightclub. I get the news about Gap Plagiarizing Yeezy, a guy stepping over a floor made of metal plates from Daniel Libeskind's Jewish museum. Ester Exposito at the Cannes film festival. A view of Chicago with a "Before and after" Color grade wipe effect [with the sound of the Spotify ad that plays between songs for non-Premium listeners (The "Wanna break from the ads?" meme)]. In four TikToks, the app spitted a series of videos that might seem like a meta-modernist dream created by Hunter S Thompson for you. But for me, this set of video recommendations is not only based on my user behavior. I realized these recommendations were also becoming an impactful part of my life. Does that sound dramatic? Let me ask you a question: Has 'the algorithm,' or recommendation-based feeds, taken up more of your decisions over the recent years?

There is a type of TikTok I dislike sometimes. The one where a very insistent marketing person starts briefing you on the latest TikTok/Instagram algorithm updates. I have some objections to the possibility that some people are obsessively trying to understand how to explode the algorithm for marketing purposes without having any clue or interest in understanding the effect of algorithmic recommendations on the life of consumers. So let's deconstruct and try to find more profound ways to help and connect people.

Are algorithms evil?

Consumers being the target of manipulative advertising has been normalized across our history as social animals. Take a TV ad: (some)People create them to make you feel like you need to buy a new blender right now. Ads (and content in general)are over-stimulating by design. They worm out their way to your brain.

The TikTok algorithm is based on the human psychology of choice and adaptation: They help us find relevant content and navigate the internet efficiently and easily. For example, searching for something on Google will show you results based on your past searches. This is also true when using an app like TikTok that recommends videos based on what other users are viewing at that time. While these algorithms have many benefits for both marketers—and consumers—they also have the potential to change how we behave as humans. Let’s contemplate the balance between personalization (which is good) and manipulation (which isn't):

Yes. Social media algorithms are based on human psychology, but as species, we have a genuinely scarce understanding of the workings of our minds. We only know a few things, so it is more prudent to say that social media algorithms are based on BASIC human psychology: They don't consider what people need or value. The only factors in this type of system revolve around the number of people that are willing to spend (time and money), which means that businesses get no real incentives to provide anything beyond the bare minimum.

Once we're hooked on this mediocrity game, nothing stops us from switching from one platform to another that probably has similar features just waiting for us—just like when someone gets into a bad relationship but keeps returning because he/she/they haven't found anything better yet!

This should be alarming for our industry. Brands have become so optimized in communication that they have transformed into potential identity sources for 5 billion digital consumers. Operating in the digital marketing system gives us many tools, power, and responsibilities to educate and activate consumers to make better life decisions rather than just converting them into bots coated on living skin.

My first take on how to understand algorithms and generate better outcomes from this knowledge:

A healthy way to think about algorithms is as a mean to activate communities—to bring together people with similar interests and values so that they can learn from each other and shape their understanding of the world around them. When marketers use algorithms this way, they're helping their customers make better decisions by providing them with information about things they care about (like music) and services designed specifically for their needs (like health-tracking apps).

It's up to us as marketers to decide whether we want to treat our customers to be thoughtful decision makers who choose things that help them grow or mindless consumers who buy whatever gets the most likes because it seems like a good idea at the time.

Are the algorithm benefits only as good as the content it distributes?

Have you seen Mad Men? Don Draper used to love watching some Michelangelo Antonioni movies from time to time, and if you work in the ad industry, you should definitely check them out too. One of Antonioni's most memorable quotes was “Scientific man is already on the moon, and yet we are still living with the moral concepts of Homer”. We are messed up with a culture that hasn't advanced as far as science.

Think of content as an excellent cure against this inequality and start looking up for creators that want to treat your audiences as thoughtful decision makers instead of consumers who buy whatever gets the most likes.

It’s all a loop. The future of algorithms is not only based on the social media channels developers that created them or the brands that use their tools but also on the level of conscience consumers will bring to the table. The way we use TikTok is literally a feedback loop that can't be broken. This feedback loop will provide us with an avenue to learn from our experiences and grow as individuals—if we (Developers, designers, marketers and consumers) choose to make those choices for ourselves.

About the author:

P O V : Head of content
Jorge Bekerman

• Creative strategy

• Content creation

•  Entertainment management

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