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Blame It On The Algorithm: Defining The Word That's Giving Instagrammers Fits


And now it's time for our regular segment Words You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand stories we'll be hearing more about by parsing some of the words associated with those stories. Today, we're going to talk a word that's been inspiring Aa lot of angst in the online community. The word is algorithm. It's something you started to learn in - I don't know, fifth grade? But now you're hearing it a lot if you pay attention to Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram.

Algorithms are the key to what we see and don't see on our social media streams. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, just announced that it will begin testing a new algorithm that will decide what content we see first instead of displaying posts in reverse chronological order. We wanted to find out more about how algorithms are put together and why social media companies use them, so we called Kurt Wagner, who is a tech journalist at Re/code. And he's with us now. Kurt, thanks much for joining us.

KURT WAGNER: Yeah, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first, for those of us who haven't been in fifth grade for a while, can you define what an algorithm is and then tell us what it does?

WAGNER: Well, an algorithm in this sense is - it's kind of an equation that pulls in a lot of your personal tastes and preferences and then creates a, you know, personalized feed or stream for you, the user.

MARTIN: So Instagram has been pretty successful. Why do this now?

WAGNER: You know, it's a good question because they have more than 400 million users. They're the fastest-growing social app. So it is - it's a (laughter) it's an interesting move because why mess with something that seems to really be working?

But I think the idea is that, you know, they said when they came out with the algorithm that people only see 30 percent of the things in their feed that they could see on Instagram. So you're actually missing 70 percent of the photos that your friends are sharing. And so this way, if they're using an algorithm, the idea is that you're no longer going to miss any of the good photos that you really want to see, and therefore the app's going to be more useful to you.

MARTIN: I was going to ask that. What's the business rationale for this? How does this help the business? Is the argument that if you see - if they better anticipate what you really want to see you'll use it more often? Is it something like that?

WAGNER: Oh, yeah. So these companies all make the vast, vast majority of their revenue through advertising. And not just advertising but very targeted advertising. So these ads are pretty valuable because they are so specific. And therefore it can go to an advertiser and say hey, you know, we can make sure that your ad gets seen by the exact demographic you want it to. And therefore, you know, the more often you're opening the app, the more ads you're going to see and the more money the company can make.

MARTIN: You know, interestingly - you know, a lot of users have not in recent years been pleased when they are A, reminded that the companies are kind of messing around in their personal information.

WAGNER: Right.

MARTIN: That's thing one. And, you know, when they change the way they receive information, I was just wondering whether there has been any reaction to this. And is there way to opt out if you just - if you like things the way they are?

WAGNER: So yes, people do not like when these companies tinker with the products that they use every day. I think there's something like 175,000 - maybe more at this point - folks who have signed a petition on change.org to say hey, you know, Instagram, cut this out. We want our reverse chronological feed the way it was.

As of right now, they're going to test this feature, and then it should be turned on probably for everyone in a few weeks. But we don't really know if they're going to give you the option to opt out. Facebook, for example, does not give you that option. Twitter is kind of tinkering around whether or not they're going to give you an option to opt out. So I think it's too soon to say. But again, this is something that they've been testing a long time. So I hope that they get it right because there's 400 million people who are going to be pretty angry otherwise.

MARTIN: That's tech journalist Kurt Wagner. We caught up with him in Denver. Kurt, thanks so much for speaking with us.

WAGNER: Yes, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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