In this (probably) last instalment of experimenting with the Goodreads algorithm, I’m particularly playing with specific biases. Joy Buolamwini, in the Ted talk I just watched (and posted), says this:
Algorithmic bias, like human bias, results in unfairness.
It would be hard, I think, to really test the biases in Goodreads, and especially insufficient to draw conclusions from just one experiment, but let’s see what happens. I’ve removed from my ‘to-read’ shelf all books written by men. I’ve added, instead, 70 new books, mostly but not exclusively from lists on Goodreads of ‘feminist’ books or ‘glbt’ books [their version of the acronym, not mine]. Every single book on my ‘to-read’ shelf is written by someone who self-identifies as female.
And after a little while (processing time again), my recommendations were updated:
Of the top five recommendations, 1 is written by a man (20%); of the fifty recommendations in total, 13 are written by men (26%).
I then reversed the experiment. I cleared out the whole of the ‘to-read’ shelf, and instead added 70 books, nearly exclusively fiction, and all written by people who identify as male.
And again, a slight pause for processing, and the recommendations update. Here are my top five:
Two of the top five books recommended are written by women, and of the 50 in total 7 were by women (14%).
So when the parameters are roughly the same, and with the very big caveat that this may be a one-off, it seems that Goodreads recommends more books by men than by women. Is this bias? Or just coincidence? Probably quite difficult to tell with just one experiment, but it may be worth repeating to learn more.
Finally, one weird thing. In both experiments, there were two books that appeared on the full recommendations list. One is by Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time which, given the general gravitas of the books I added in both experiments, is fairly understandable. The other, though, is this:
Bill Cosby’s ‘easy-to-read’ story, aimed at children, is included because I added John Steinbeck’s East of Eden? Unfortunately I have no idea why it was in the women-only list, because I didn’t check at the time, but that feels like a really, really peculiar addition.