Big Brother in the Digital Age
Just like real life, what happens on the Internet is no coincidence. Social networks, search engines and other digital phenomena study and interpret their users in a subtle and intelligent game. Learn how to navigate each battle or turn the tables.
Text: Katherine Gallardo @kissmybit | illustration: Mathias Sielfeld
“A step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end” – that’s the literal definition of an algorithm. In practice, it’s something like an instruction manual (the kind you’d use to assemble furniture) or a flowchart that leads to the final answer. When we’re online, all the questions and commands we feed into the computer – or our favorite Website – are made possible by algorithms.
Algorithms are so crucial to modern technology that they define how we consume information and even how we (virtually) relate with our friends. And they’re nearly impossible to avoid, since every interaction we have with the digital world leads back to these formulas. Facebook recommending people you might know? Twitter suggesting who you should follow? Netflix offering movie selections? Algorithms are behind it all.
Every click we make holds an answer, and this simple process stores information about us. What part of the screen do we click on the most? What have we been searching for recently? What time of day do we tend to visit the same page? Based on all this data, Websites may recommend different alternatives.
These days, the most successful services and platforms on the Internet not only have a defined business model, plenty of users and relevant content, they also employ sophisticated – often secret and patented – algorithms.
Just check out the “Trending Topics” on Twitter. As more users post about a news item, a particular person or a given hashtag (e.g. #justdoit), there’s a greater chance that it will “trend” around the world. This buzzword is growing in popularity, and the formula dictates that only some terms qualify; they have to be new and relevant, not just popular in a general sense.
Every click holds an answer – and this simple process stores information about us – which is later translated into recommendations based on what has been “learned.”
Facebook tends to keep its 411 on the down low. Its best-known algorithm, EdgeRank, defines the content we see every time we log in. In very simple terms, it compiles past data on what we like and our recent activity – people we’ve been chatting with, for instance – to present the content we see in our newsfeed. Have you marked “I don’t want to see this” on a friend’s post or a page you find unpleasant? The algorithm records each time you make the complaint and begins to show you more of what you “like” and less of what you’ve nixed.
One of the world’s most important formulas is PageRank, patented by Google in 1999. This algorithm assigns relevance to terms and Websites that appear in your search results. How many times have you gone past page three on a search? Most people respond that they never go past the first page, so every company wants to appear at the top when someone looks up their name or a word related to their business.
Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans
Why do we associate the brand FedEx with the movie Cast Away or Ray-Ban sunglasses with Risky Business and Top Gun? It has to do with product placement and advertising within the story that attempts to enter our minds subliminally. Our lives are like movies, and the Internet, social networks and even our inboxes are packed with product placement.
Algorithms store information about our habits as consumers, so the advertising industry gains the most from this phenomenon. If we “like” a certain page, then an ad agency will suggest a related product. Rodrigo Acevedo, the director of digital content for the Chilean agency Espinaca says, “From the moment a person starts an e-mail account, they’re totally tracked as a user. We can keep metrics on them, their tastes and their behavior. If you look for information on “dark chocolate,” for example, the entire system associated with Google – Adwords, Doubleclick – will immediately understand that your tastes are leaning towards that search. The next time you visit a given Website, don’t be surprised if you see an ad for chocolate.”
Confused? Surprised? Don’t worry. The world of advertising is still very similar to the one depicted in the series Mad Men. The difference is how consumers are evaluated and approached. The ideal ad executive of today would be a combination of Don Draper and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg: someone who knows how the business works but has the innate technical skills to solve problems using computers.
Today, online marketing bridges the gap between commerce and the data provided by algorithms, but the goal remains the same: to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. in