What are Social Media Algorithms and How Do They Impact My Life?

Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

“The content you see on a given social media app isn’t random – it’s curated content specifically made for you. And it is curated by recommendation algorithms. These algorithms are designed to keep you on the social media app you are using for as long as possible and they do that by learning what you like and showing you more of that type of content.”
-PBS Learning Media, 2024

It is more important than ever before that people in today’s society are media savvy and have good media literacy skills, especially teachers and students. An important concept to understand in today’s Internet world is the impact of social media algorithms. Many people do not realize the level that they are being influenced by social media and the degree that their habits and influences are being tracked. The social media management site Sprout Social defines algorithms as “rules, signals and data that govern the platform’s operation.” They go on to say that “these algorithms determine how content is filtered, ranked, selected and recommended to users…algorithms influence our choices and what we see on social media.” Furthermore, The Institute for the Internet and the Just Society states that social media algorithms “influence the spread of culture and information in the digital society.” Taking the conversation a bit deeper the site offers this discussion of social media algorithms. Defining it as: 

“as technical means of sorting posts based on relevancy instead of publish time, in order to prioritize which content a user sees first according to the likelihood that they will actually engage with such content. For example, the posts which are recommended to you when you scroll through your Instagram feed, or the stories of your friends that appear first on the dashboard, are determined by algorithms. Algorithms can be written by coders who make use of machine learning. “Machine learning” means that algorithms “learn” how to carry out tasks under various levels of human oversight. Algorithms manage several tasks which would be tedious for humans to carry out, such as managing flows of content through active recommendations as well as negative shadow bans and mediating interaction with information through likes and comments to improve content discoverability. In addition, algorithms rank and filter information in ways that create incentives and conditions of interaction for content creators that are similar to markets.”

This comic, illustrated by Vreni Stollberger, is inspired by TED Radio Hour’s
episode Warped Reality.

PBS Learning Media offers tools to help students become more media literate by understanding these algorithms. In a recent post on their site, PBS Learning states “Social media content is not random – It’s curated for you by recommendation algorithms that are designed to keep you on the app for as long as possible. But is this a good thing?” Did you catch that? Algorithms are designed to keep us on the site as long as possible. This is definitely something we need to be aware of. This way people can be more responsible Internet users. You can click on the resource entitled How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You? to learn more about how all social media users are impacted by algorithms. We have also included more resources below for teachers, students and the general public to learn more.

Other Resources for Teaching and Learning about Social Media Algorithms
How Social Media Algorithms Create Echo Chambers
Mini-Lesson Plan: Websites and Social Media Algorithms -I-Civics
Social Media and Algorithms- Harvard University
Do Algorithms Influence Our Lives and Our Democracy?
Algorithms, Social Media and You (HS lesson)
For You: The Algorithm Game Lesson Plan
The Invisible Machine: Big Data and You – Equality Project

1 Comment

  1. Every time I sign on to my social media platforms the algorithm is something that always pops into my mind. Like the idea that you can talk about an event or a product and the next thing you know you are logging into Instagram and an ad or post about the thing you were just talking about is the first thing you see. I like how this article puts into perspective the background behind the algorithm. Personally, I never knew what it truly was but always knew it was a thing and having more information on the topic can prove important in today’s digital society.

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