Sunday, November 26, 2023

Book excerpt: People determine what the algorithms do

(This is an excerpt from drafts of my book, "Algorithms and Misinformation: Why Wisdom of the Crowds Failed the Internet and How to Fix It")

The problem is people. These algorithms are built, tuned, and optimized by people. The incentives people have determine what these algorithms do.

If what wins A/B tests is what gets the most clicks, people will optimize the algorithms to get more clicks. If a company hands out bonuses and promotions when the algorithms get more clicks, people will tune the algorithms to get more clicks.

It doesn’t matter that what gets clicks and engagement may not be good for customers or the company in the long-term. Lies, scams, and disinformation can be very engaging. Fake crowds generate a lot of clicks. None of them are real, true, and none of them help customers or the business, but look at all those click, click, clicks.

Identifying the right problem is the first step toward finding the right solutions. The problem is not algorithms. The problem is how people optimize the algorithms. Lies, scams, and disinformation thrive if people optimize for the short-term. Problems like misinformation are a symptom of a system that invites these problems.

Instead, invest in the long-term. Invest in removing fake crowds and in a good customer experience that keeps people around. Like any investment, this means lower profits in the short-term for higher profits in the long-term. Companies maximize long-term profitability by making sure teams are optimizing for customer satisfaction and retention.

It’s not the algorithm, it’s people. People are in control. People tune the algorithm to cause harm usually unintentionally and sometimes because they have incentives to ignore the harm. The algorithm does what people tell it to.

To fix why the algorithms cause harm, look to the people who build the algorithms. Fixing the harm from wisdom of the crowd algorithms requires fixing why people allow those algorithms to cause harm.

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