Playing with algorithms

My play with algorithms this week was unemphatically dull. I am aware of ad changes connected with my surfing habits, particularly with Amazon, so I was expecting to see a lot more come from a controlled experiment but alas it was a bit lacklustre which I suspect is due to my online security habits. My previous job involved supporting people with their digital footprints and making them aware of their computers security and the potential risks so out of habit, I tend to have things like cookies controlled. I suspect this is why I didn’t experience as much influence of the algorithms as I was expecting. However, I chose to leave my settings as they are and look at this from my real life perspective.

I chose to look at how my actions on amazon affect the ads I see elsewhere in my internet world. I am vaguely aware that amazon shopping trips have resulted in corresponding ads on facebook in the past and also with google form search words so I aimed at deliberately spiking things to see what would happen. To do this, I had to ensure that my amazon searches were for things I would not normally search for so that I could be sure the results were to do with this experiment.

Lunch break, over a cup of tea and a sarnie, I browsed for ballet slippers on amazon (the idea came to me after chatting with Linzi who is a dancer, I am most definitely not). On first results this was unremarkable. I didn’t even see ballet slippers come up next time I logged into amazon. Epic fail.

MacBook: related searches on amazon

Again I searched for ballet slippers and this time I added pink satin to the description. I also changed behaviour, and this time I clicked on specific items that came up. This seemed to trigger the amazon algorithm which then shows relational items against your previous history (previous history, is that a real thing?). So result number one.

 

Surface Pro 4: facebook ad for amazon
Surface Pro 4: facebook ad for amazon

My expectations were that I would now see this filter through and at the very least see related advertising on things like facebook. Did I? Well a little bit of facebooking that evening and nope. There were no changes to my standard side-bar advertising on facebook, and even the featured ad for amazon wasn’t related to my searches.

 

 

 

OK so disappointing so far, but what about search engines? Surely the cookies stored on the computer would result in search engines picking up on my search,  I know this happens I’ve seen it on multiple occasions.

Nope

Surface pro 4: google search

 

 

 

 

About now I was ready to quit, I’m certain I’ve seen the searches spread across platforms so why wasn’t this working? I gave up for the night and decided to try again before work in the morning.

The next morning, sitting at my desk eating my shreddies it all clicked into place. The google bar instantly gave me pink ballet shoes in my search.

This is when the penny dropped. I was using one computer at home and a different computer at work, the algorithm seemed to be taking effect at work on my MacBook, but not at home on my surface pro 4. Cookies! As I mentioned previously, I lock down the cookies on my personal computer, but I am not in charge of the set up of my work computer so there it may be slightly more open to cookies, hence why I was seeing ballet slippers appear in google as well as amazon. Still nothing on either machine for facebook though, so it would appear that only items purchased or added to my wish list cross into facebook, but it would take more investigation to see if this works cross computers or only on the computer the purchase was made on. More investigation will be needed, but I wasn’t buying ballet slippers to test this theory out. I’m now wondering about adding mobile devices to the test…

Algorithms produce worlds rather than objectively account for them
(Knox, 2015).

 

Yup, and in this instance, the world it was creating couldn’t quite see the full picture, the algorithm knew I’d searched for ballet slippers when I was on the macbook, because it could read the cookies that were stored there but once I was home and on a different computer, with no cookies to read the algorithm didn’t recognise me as part of the world it was building around my shopping habits.

References

Knox, J. (2015)Algorithmic Cultures. Excerpt from Critical Education and Digital Cultures. In Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. M. A. Peters (ed.). DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_124-1

2 Replies to “Playing with algorithms”

  1. This is a really detailed response Eli, nice work. I very much see your point about things being ‘unemphatically dull’, and I think it does raise an important question about considering algorithms. While there certainly are cautions, there is also a danger in over-playing the significance algorithms, and presuming them to be ‘all powerful.

    If you’re looking for any more reading 🙂 there is a recent journal special issue (you should be able to get access through ease), the introduction to which talk about the ‘social power’ of algorithms (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rics20/20/1). In other words, particularly through recent media attention, there is quite a bit of ‘hype’ about their abilities.

    Tarleton Gillespie (who we read last week) also has a paper in that issue, cautioning: ‘treating the world in which the algorithmic system operates as otherwise simple, untouched, and vulnerable to manipulation. (Gillespie 2017, p64), which I think is a great point to bear in mind. You sounded pretty unconvinced about some of the algorithms you explored, and I think in general we shouldn’t assume that people will be. There is plenty of resistance! However, as you point out, much of that may be down to algorithms just not working very well..

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