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Algorithms, what’s that?!

June 11, 2024

All our online activities are shaped by algorithms. From the content we see on social media to the recommendations we get on streaming services, algorithms play a crucial role in our digital lives. But how do they actually work? Let's dive in.

How they work 👷🚧
Basically, algorithms are ‘sets of instructions designed to perform specific tasks’. In the case of our online activities, these tasks often involve analysing vast amounts of data to deliver personalised content. Have you ever wondered why it is that when you do a search, you are always shown what suits you best? That, then, is algorithms in action. Here's how they work:
1. Collecting data: online platforms (e-commerce websites, social media, streaming services...) collect data about your online behaviour, such as what you like, share, react to and watch.
2. Analysing: they analyse this data to identify patterns and preferences.
3. Ranking content: based on the analysis, the algorithm ranks available content. Factors such as how recent the content is, how much interaction it gets and your relationship with the content creator are taken into account.
4. Personalising: the ranked content is then used to create a personalised feed for you.
5. Continuous learning: algorithms continuously learn from new data to improve their predictions and keep you engaged on the platform.

Algorithms in the wild 👀
Algorithms are everywhere and have an invisible but powerful influence on our daily lives. They determine which search results are most relevant to your query in search engines, they personalise news feeds in news media, they provide targeted online ads and they display content that matches your previous interactions and preferences on social media. Their influence does extend beyond entertainment; algorithms are also applied to self-driving cars or to predict crime.

Almost every major online platform uses algorithms to improve user experience. Some examples:

  • Facebook: uses algorithms to prioritise posts, ads and news stories in your feed.
  • Instagram: shows posts, stories and ads based on your interactions and interests.
  • Twitter: compiles tweets in your timeline, highlighting what it thinks you find most interesting.
  • TikTok: uses a highly sophisticated algorithm to show videos tailored to your viewing behaviour and engagement.
  • YouTube: recommends videos based on your viewing history and interactions.
  • Netflix en Spotify: suggest films, series and music you might like based on your previous preferences.
  • Google: uses algorithms to show relevant ads based on your browsing history and interactions.

  • Your digital frenemy 🫂
    Algorithms have advantages and disadvantages, and bring challenges and risks. They offer many advantages, such as personalisation, tailoring content to your preferences and making your online experience more relevant and enjoyable. Algorithms also ensure efficiency by quickly filtering huge amounts of data so that you see the most relevant information. They also help discover vnew content and content creators that match your interests.

    But algorithms are also very much a double-edged sword. Personalised content can create filter bubbles in which you only see views similar to yours, limiting your view of diverse perspectives. Algorithms can also be misused to spread disinformation or even manipulate usage behaviour. The data collection required for algorithms also raises significant privacy issues, as platforms track extensive details about your behaviour. In this way, they can also reinforce unintended prejudices and contribute to discrimination.

    Privacy mode: on
    There are several things you can do to ensure that your privacy is still protected, without having to give up your personalised content:
  • Adjust the privacy settings: most platforms let you control which data they collect. Review and adjust your privacy settings to limit unnecessary data collection.
  • Pay attention to consent: be careful about the consent you give to apps. Only allow access to what is necessary.
  • Clear your browser history: regularly clear your cookies and browser history to limit the amount of data platforms can collect about your online activities.
  • Use privacy tools: consider using tools and extensions that improve your online privacy, such as adblockers and privacy-focused browsers ( e.g. Firefox, Epic, Brave...).
  • Stay up to date: keep a close eye on the privacy policies of platforms you use. Staying well-informed helps you make better decisions about your online activities.

  • Algorithms are powerful tools that largely shape our digital experiences. They act as guides in our digital world by personalising content and increasing engagement, making our online activities easier and more enjoyable. But they also bring challenges in terms of privacy and information diversity. By understanding how algorithms work and taking the right steps to protect your privacy, you can browse the digital world more safely and enjoy it more. If you think carefully about how you use algorithms, you can reap their benefits while being careful about the risks involved. Work smart, not hard. 😉