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Why 2016 Was the Year of the Algorithmic Timeline

2016 was the year that the likes of Instagram and Twitter decided they knew better than you what content you wanted to see in your feeds.

Roisin Kiberd

Roisin Kiberd

Image: Andrew Mager/Flickr

2016 was the year of "post fact" news, but it was also the year of post-new news. 2016 was the year of the algorithmic timeline, in which tech companies dismantled the concept of time entirely.

This year saw Facebook, Twitter and Instagram occupy the role of mainstream media publishers, whether or not they chose to admit it. Each platform instituted similar changes: their "timeline" would no longer display the most recent story at the top, but would use algorithms to decide on what individual users most wanted to see. Depending on our friendships and actions, the system might deliver old news, biased news, or news which had already been disproven. In many cases what we saw was speculation and rumor; stories which weren't really news at all.

A (chronological) timeline of these changes would include:

  • Facebook's News Feed has never been a straightforward chronological record of events—in the 12 years since its launch, the company has redesigned and refined it in a bid to balance posts from friends, family, advertisers and media outlets. Early in 2016 Facebook announced several further updates to the feed, including measures against clickbait and prioritization of content featuring "friends, family or other core values," content which, it guessed, you're more likely to interact with.
  • In March, Twitter launched its algorithmic timeline, a radical break with the site's role in delivering real-time information (users were given the chance to opt out if they preferred).
  • Finally in June Instagram announced their algorithmic timeline. Rather than displaying a pictures in backwards chronological order, the feed would show pictures it guessed you're most interested in at the top.

Not long ago social media was lauded for granting access to information, building connections and "making the world more open and connected." But now machines pre-empt our impulses, herding us into habits and repetition.

2016 was the year of politicians telling us what we should believe, but it was also the year of machines telling us what we should want.

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In the world of Instagram, some things will always be current: organic breakfasts, taut "bikini bodies" and tiny adorable dogs among them. But even with a prolific following and a popular niche, creators are at the mercy of Instagram's rules.

I spoke to several well-known Instagram creators, drawing on Motherboard's ties to the Instagram corgi underworld. "Followers have drastically declined," Jeri Yoshizu told me in an email, the anonymous custodian of the wildly popular Three Corgis account, which has 146,000 Instagram followers. "We used to get 1,000 a week, now it's half that." Keeping up with changes is a full-time job: "They've done a good job of getting rid of crazy spammers, but it does come with a price of lower engagement."

Khoa Phan is "corgdad" to Lilo (31,500 followers). He said he has experienced similar issues: "I think my posts are a bit buried among all of the other photos. People either have to get notified that I've posted a new photo, or they have to go to the profile directly. I used to have a regular time when I would post my photos. Now that Instagram doesn't display photos chronologically, that approach seems pointless." The only way to insure your posts gain notice is to bombard the feed and hope that some stick, which risks comprising on quality and annoying people.

Varsha Sreekumar looks after Elvis Pawsley, a dog with "short legs" and "big dreams." She saw the changes as contradictory to Instagram's "insta" nature, driving users to like content only if they know they'll want more of the same in future. "I enjoyed the freedom of engaging with a piece of content without any sort of ripple effect. It really limits the discovery and exploration potential of the app."

Sreekumar added: "Interestingly enough, the change was made after Instagram opened the doors to brands to run ads." But even once they pay for visibility, a brand under pressure to remain engaging: "Playing devil's advocate for a second here: All the money in the world cannot transform shitty content into good content."

What happens when users realize they're trapped in a loop? By then, will automated "good taste" be more sophisticated?

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There is a bizarre hubris to altering time, as if a person—or company—believes they are greater than physics.

The mark of the despot is to rewrite the clock and calendar: in 2002 Turkmenistan renamed the months according to the will of Saparmurat Niyazov, its "President for Life" (January was named for the leader himself, April was named after his mother). Last year North Korea reverted to "Pyongyang Time," pushing clocks forward by thirty minutes in defiance of Japan. Finally, there are those who reinvent time as a commercial venture: Swatch decision in 1999 to launch a decimalized, centralized unit of time they called the ".beat." intended to serve as a universal "internet time," or chronological Esperanto.

Today these examples are regarded as laughable. But social media's "New Time" is more tenacious, because it is less obviously a break with normality. It disorients the reader, and distracts them with endless, timeless content. Today sites do not even hide their filter bubble effect: Instagram's announcement of it's newly atemporal feed, titled "See the Moments You Care About First," was a masterpiece of presumptive thinking. Apparently we "care," on an emotional level, about the app. Apparently we trust it to select what we see.

It makes sense that social media sites would want you to forget linear time, because the more time you spend on these sites, the more you are worth to them (in this way social media is like a casino, where they change your money "chips" to keep you from noticing when you lose it). Time is flattened into a slideshow, a sentimental carousel.

This moves us into a different sense of time, an achronological "lame infinity." A place where the present is filtered to look old while the old renews itself constantly. Where rumors are powerful than news because they keep coming back until they're disproven.

Speaking to me by email, Carl Miller, Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (part of cross-party British think tank Demos), highlighted the power of these algorithms as gatekeepers of—and even replacements for—traditional media: "The Facebook news algorithm is more powerful than any newspaper editor in the world. It may become more powerful than every newspaper editor in the world." Capable of spreading lies just as quickly as they spread knowledge, can algorithms really be trusted with forming the worldview of social media users? Miller warned, "The concern is that they can't resign, and don't play by professional standards; we don't even really know—as outsiders —how they work."

Where does this leave us, creators and consumers alike, gazing headlong into 2017? Perhaps soon we will get used to the algorithmic timeline, and stop expecting our news to be current. Perhaps soon we'll stop looking to consume news at all and happily continue, trapped in Throwback Thursday for the rest of (nonlinear) time.