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A Breakdown of the Algorithms that are Running Your Life


If you’ve ever seen Social Network, there is a memorable scene where Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg asks his friend, Eduardo Saverin, played by Andrew Garfield, for the algorithm he needs to code Facemash (later named Facebook). Eduardo then writes the algorithm on their Harvard dorm room window.

It turns out that the algorithm Eduardo, Mark, and their friends scratched out on their dorm room windows somehow ended up becoming ingrained in all of our modern lives. 

For those of us who didn’t exactly ace our math tests in school, the concept of an algorithm may seem far-removed and hard to wrap your head around. Is it code? No. You use code to tell a computer what to do. Before you write code you need an algorithm.

This is a simple explanation of what an algorithm as well as a breakdown of the algorithms that are running your life. 

Algorithms are instructions for solving a problem or completing a task. Recipes are algorithms, as are math equations. Computer code is algorithmic. The internet runs on algorithms and all online searching is accomplished through them.

The use of algorithms is spreading as massive amounts of data are being created, captured, and analyzed by businesses and governments. Some are calling this the Age of Algorithms and predicting that the future of algorithms is tied to the machine learning and deep learning of the future. 

Dating Apps

How desirable are you on Tinder? You might not realize it, but anyone who’s swiped left or right looking for love (or whatever) is assigned an internal rating. This is a score calculated by the company that ranks the most (and least) desirable people using the app. The scores are not available to the public, but they determine whose face pops up when you open the app.

Referred to inside the company as an “Elo score,” a term the chess world uses to rank player skill levels, Tinder’s rating system helps it parse its user base in order to facilitate better matches. Using the system, Tinder could, say, surface more potential dates based on score compatibility. 

Hinge, unlike Tinder, claims to be better geared towards helping users find a long-term partner. In fact, they bill themselves as the dating app “designed to be deleted,” So what is the algorithm that helps a person find their soulmate?

According to Logan Ury, director of relationship science at Hinge, they use a Nobel prize-winning algorithm called the Gale-Shapley algorithm [a formula created by economists Lloyd Shapley and Alvin Roth that finds optimal matches between people “trading” in commodities]. It’s not just based on who you are likely to like, it’s also based on who is likely to like you back. It’s all about pairing people who are likely to mutually like one another. 

Over time, the app notes who you like, who you send comments to, and who you having conversations with. This allows Hinge to not only see who you’re looking at, but who you are actually engaging with.

You may be wondering: 

Does this math really work to help people mate for life? According to the wedding site, since its relaunch in 2016, Hinge facilitated over 550 million matches and more than 22 million dates for members around the world.

And though it may have a reputation for hookups, according to The Knot 2020 Jewelry and Engagement Study, Tinder was responsible for pairing 26% of newlyweds who met online, solidifying its spot as the most popular dating app. 

Social Media

With 2.8 billion monthly users, Facebook and that algorithm Eduardo Savarin and Mark Zuckerberg scrawled on their window has become part of many of our everyday lives. Coders have worked for the last 18 years honing a system that decides a post’s position on the news feed based on predictions about each user’s preferences and tendencies

The details of its design determine what sorts of content thrive on the world’s largest social network, and what types languish — which in turn shapes the posts we all create and the ways we interact on its platform.

When we speak of the “Facebook algorithm,” we’re actually referring to dozens of pieces of software that are based on a range of technologies and are constantly being tweaked. 

The top post on a Facebook user’s news feed, shown as the biggest box, is a calculation of data points related to the user and post itself, such as the poster, reactions, and comments.

Since 2018, the algorithm has elevated posts that encourage interaction, such as ones popular with friends. This broadly prioritizes posts by friends and family and viral memes, but also divisive content.

Are you ever creeped out by the Facebook ads that magically appear in your feed? How did they know you were searching for a pair of Lucky skinny jeans with a shredded hem? Well, those ads are no accident. Facebook ads are targeted to users based on their location, demographic, and profile information. And whether you’re creeped out or not, the reality is that during a September 2020 survey fielded in the United States, 51 percent of respondents stated that their purchasing decisions were influenced by social media ads. 

Twitter, a platform that started out as an online news and social networking app, has grown to a platform currently used by 400 million people. Therefore, Twitter algorithms are kind of unavoidable. 

From Topics to Trends to the Explore tab to recommended accounts, algorithms always show users’ personalized recommendations. Twitter itself says machine learning (aka algorithms) “can impact hundreds of millions of Tweets per day.”

And like most social media algorithms, Twitter’s algorithms are all about personalization. Here’s how Twitter itself describes the algorithmic Home timeline:

“A stream of Tweets from accounts you have chosen to follow on Twitter, as well as recommendations of other content we think you might be interested in based on accounts you interact with frequently, Tweets you engage with, and more.”

Rideshare apps

Do you ever wonder what the behind-the-scenes process is when you open up your rideshare app? Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft have a huge database of drivers so as soon as you request a car, the app’s algorithm goes right to work – in 15 seconds or less, it matches you with the driver closest to you. 

In the background, they are storing data for every trip taken — even when the driver has no passengers. All of this data is stored and leveraged to predict supply and demand, as well as setting fares. Uber also looks at how transportation is handled across cities and tries to adjust for bottlenecks and other common issues.

All of this data is collected, crunched, analyzed, and used to predict everything from how long you will wait for a ride to allowing drivers to position themselves to take advantage of the best fares and most passengers. This information is implemented in real-time for both drivers and passengers alike.

Algorithms are a crystalized example of how sophisticated and advanced technology has gotten just in the last few decades. When we pull a smartphone from our back pocket, we have at our fingertips a pretty amazing world of connectivity and possibilities. So whether you’re looking for love or a new pair of UGG slippers, there’s an algorithm for that. 

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