How do social media algorithms work?

1997 is the year SixDegrees was released as the pioneer of social media, it was not until 2002 where social media really took off with the release of Friendster. Friendster became the very first proper social media platform to really take the internet by storm. Friendster has over one hundred million registered users, mostly from the continent of Asia. Friendster users can discover friends and expand their networks. The idea was to safely meet new people online over the real world. However, the service was suspended to better improve its usability in 2015.

Over 20 years later, we have a myriad of social media platforms offering the same type of service to its users as Friendster, which is connecting people easily and conveniently. Social media platforms produce a large amount of content per day and this content must be served to the right people at the right time. We all know that social media platforms are businesses and most of them rely on ads for more than 90% of their revenue. This means content management is crucial if they are to keep the users on the platforms long enough to serve them an ad. No one wants to be greeted by an ad – Rather get me hooked first before making a demand.

The longer a user stays on a social media platform the more ads they are likely to be served by the platforms. Now social media platforms cannot sort through the content manually, that would be time-consuming and potentially awfully expensive as it would require manual labour. This brings us to algorithms. According to Wikipedia, algorithms can be defined as a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

With this definition, then how do these algorithms work and how do they improve our user experience on these platforms? We will focus on one platform for our discussion – Facebook.

As we discussed earlier. Social media platforms rely on ads to generate revenue and to achieve that, platforms such as Facebook will let their algorithms segment people according to their interests, attributes, online behaviour etc. all this information provides the algorithm with a clear picture of who you are and what you are likely to be interested in. Let’s break it down further in the following scenario.

Imagine you are a computer science student; you are interested in tech and you engage highly with content from your close family and friends about science and tech. Logic would suggest that you want to see content from people closer to you over the general social media audience. The algorithm will then start serving you more content related to your interests based on your past engagements, should this continue for a given time – the algorithms will start to cue extremely specific ads for you.

The whole argument about algorithms and how they work is to simply supply each and every user with what they are there for, in essence, catering to everyone personally.

These algorithms are not only there for serving you ads. They are there for a myriad of functions such as suggesting to you content you may like, improving your user experience, protecting the privacy of users on the platforms, and etc. You may simply think of an algorithm as the security guard and server of the platform.

All we have to remember is that algorithms are simply a set of rules to be followed in calculating or performing certain operations whether, in computing or mathematics, these rules are followed to improve our user experience and tailor content for us.

Sakkie Ngobeni