Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Reddit and the Tyranny of Algorithms in Mass Media...

Social-media websites like Digg, Mixx, and Reddit have extremely devoted followings, and it's pretty easy to see why. We all occasionally get overwhelmed with information-overload when we're online, and thus we seem to love having all the Web's news presented before us in an easy-to-digest way. Social-media sites are fantastic at this, but there are also some trade-offs to the voting-based systems these sites use in determining what news stories to display, and it's those negative aspects that are generating an ever-increasing collective groan from users.

As this RWW article explains, people are growing frustrated with 1) "a single, all-important front page" that is too limited and unsatisfying once the community becomes larger and more diverse, and 2) that older content expires or is deemed irrelevant only hours after it is published.

As a result, things are suddenly astir in the world of social-media, as there has recently been a wave of new innovations. While each of the major websites still uses some type of voting-based system, Digg has built a recommendation engine, Mixx has released communities and an API for third-party developers, and Reddit has just gone open source.

Regardless, the core problems persist. RWW suggests that to improve this situation, social-media sites ought to take a lesson from StumbleUpon and start personalizing the news. Essentially, their proposal is to have the websites' front-pages only display "recommended" news stories that are based on what their algorithms "think" its users will like.

The future of content consumption on the social web is entirely based in personalized recommendations, and this re-conceptualization of [websites like] Reddit creates a better environment for fighting information cascades and blind voting, and ensures that you will see the content most relevant to you regardless of votes or time-stamps.

For those who have devoted large chunks of their higher education to media studies, such a proposal is extremely problematic, and even frightening.

Of course, everyone wants to only read the type of news that they're most interested in. If some people only want to read the Sports Section, that's fine, it's their choice. But if social-media sites start personalizing the news based on what their algorithms predict the user would enjoy, it would be like letting a computer decide for you which magazine subscriptions you want mailed to your house each month. But wouldn't you rather make the choice yourself?

The counter-argument is, naturally, that it's not as if information is being censored. There's certainly no shortage of other websites that people can get their information from in cyberspace, so what's the problem with tailor-suiting the news to fit people's individual preferences?

Here's the problem. A society where people only see the news they want to see is dysfunctional. Sure, people might read the same story and interpret it to fit their worldview anyway, but that's a matter of psychology. This is a matter of governance by algorithm. If Reddit's algorithm for "recommending" news stories were implemented, how many relevant and important stories would get buried and never even appear in front of the reader? What if the algorithm got someone's personal preferences wrong?

The bottom line is that individuals ought to have the choice of which stories they want to read, rather than being subservient to a mathematical formula that automatically makes those decisions for them. As social-media sites are increasingly used as a primary source of consuming information, this becomes more and more an issue of defining the public interest.


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