It's Time To Disrupt Your Algorithm
You are a product of your environment. "So, choose the environment that will best develop you toward your objective. Analyze your life in terms of its environment. Are the things around you helping you toward success -- or are they holding you back?" We’ve heard this before in many ways. This quote, from W. Clement Stone, highlights the belief that if you surround yourself with the right people, and put yourself in the best possible environment, you maximized your chances for success. Provided that you have the opportunity and ability to do so.
When he said this, the environment that he was influenced by was the physical environment. Where you lived, where you worked or went to school, who you socialized and associated yourself with. A stark contrast to yesterday when our daughter, like so many of her peers started her school year virtually. We live in a time where many that we associate ourselves with, we have only ever met virtually, through social media or other means. In a world where often times what we see, who we are influenced by, and even who we meet is influenced heavily through algorithms that are programmed to react to how we are already consuming or behaving. For better and/or for worse.
My point - if we are going to make progress today, we need to disrupt our algorithms. Yes, I mean that both literally and figuratively.
Algorithms, cookies, & artificial intelligence don't define you. In mathematics and computer science, an algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a group of problems or to perform a specific computation. From a social and digital media perspective, algorithms are invisible pieces of code that based on information gathered, can predict a certain outcome or response. Instead of being bombarded with an entire product catalog, a brand can now tailor products and offers more to your liking. Rather than sifting through the myriad of content out there, algorithms can help predict what you will like based on your behavior and serve you what you may find more engaging.
Now, several of you are saying “you are over simplifying this” and want to break out the white board and a bunch of charts, while there is another group of you is likely thinking “OMG! This is why I want to jump off the grid!” My point here is not to start a masters class in social media algorithms. Despite my experience in marketing and various forms of media, I would be in well over my head. Instead, this is a personal reflection on how, despite my experience in this area, I was abruptly challenged on how I was running the risk of becoming, as W. Clement Stone would say, a product of my environment.
Welcome to TikTok! I previously had a Musical.ly account, mainly to monitor what my daughter posted, and it went dormant long before TikTok purchased them. When TikTok became a trend during "quarantine", I resisted the urge to jump into the fray, partially because of the security concerns, partially because I need another social platform to divert my attention like I need a hole in the head. But with its recent successes through the pandemic, I reactivated my account to see what was driving the excitement, as any curious marketer would.
One of the features that makes TikTok different is the "FYP" or For You Page, which serves you a variety content from people you may or may not be following, and then evolves quickly based on how you engage with it. When I reactivated my account, I had only twelve followers from the Musical.ly era, very few of them active. One was an individual that I have been friends with for many years and I had the privilege of working with him back in Dallas. Uber-talented, he posts funny and creative content and I repeatedly "liked" it. I guess I should mention that this particular friend happens to be gay. So, you can imagine that this influenced the content that I was initially served.
I mention this example only to illustrate that with an account that is just starting out and with little to go on, algorithms make rapid "decisions", but then quickly evolve as you do. The amount of content out there across social media is varied, and ranges from the ridiculously ridiculous to the remarkably creative. What you like is what you end up seeing more of.
A product of my environment. As a favorite person of mine often says, "let's get real." The previous example was a simple a way of showing how quickly algorithms work. As you interact more with content (or other behaviors), it becomes more sophisticated. Dare I make the comparison, but the way a friend gets to know you over time.
When the Black Lives Matter conversation reemerged into the main stream dialogue, different individuals and groups worked to influence the conversation in a variety ways. Recently, I started following Andy Allo, an actor with a leading role on the hit series Upload on Amazon Prime, and an accomplished singer & songwriter who was part of Prince's band New Power Generation in 2011. She spoke up about the movement on her social pages and why it was important to her and should be to all of us. She also did something subtle, but remarkably impactful. Every day, she would post a list of black influencers that she thought her followers might enjoy being exposed to. Each day, a different category....artists, authors, business owners, musicians, chefs. I love to cook and follow several chefs, mainly "TV" celebrities, so I clicked on a few including @SweetPotatoSoul, Jenne Claiborne. While not a vegan, I love her recipes and HIGHLY recommend her sweet potatoes and lentils!
A moment of soul searching. Until that moment in time, the only chefs that I followed happen to be white or hispanic - I grew up in Latin America and have a love of Latin food. Well, almost true, I have followed Rock Harper for years after his remarkable appearance on a reality cooking show - but remember I mentioned that my exposure to chefs had been primarily those on TV. Otherwise, despite by love of culturally diverse foods, I was not following a culturally diverse platform of chefs. This was not a conscious decision by any means, and though it would be easy to blame social media and "the algorithm", the reality is until Ms. Allo suggested it, I never really never gave it much thought. Nor had I made the effort to reach beyond what I was used to seeing. After clicking on @sweetpotatosoul and several others that she suggested, what I was being served by TikTok and other platforms began to broaden. She had succeeded in "disrupting my algorithm."
As I started following other chefs and artists that she recommended, the algorithms adjusted what I was seeing on a regular basis, introducing me to an even wider range of diversity. Now, I more actively search for new content, follow different hashtags, and making a conscious effort to connect with a variety of resources. In this example, I am referencing cooking, but this is a reality for any type of content you ingest, from the comical to the political, from daily news to world views, from...well, you get the point.
“You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear, you dig?” As a boy, I was a fan an album titled “Me and My Arrow”, by Harry Nilsson. A singer & songwriter, this album was a children’s story that in the early 70’s was illustrated for TV and narrated by his friend, Ringo Starr. In one scene, the main character of the story, Oblio, had been banished by the townspeople to the pointless forest, for not having a “point” on his head. See, in the land of point, every person had literally a single point on the top of their head that allowed them to function in specific ways, like a game of ring toss. But it also metaphorically described each person in the town as having a single point of view, and the objection of having anyone in town with alternative or multiple points.
As Oblio, and his trusted dog Arrow ventured out into the unknown, they encountered a strange rock man. They asked him if they had reached the pointless forest, and his response? "Say babe this is nuthin' pointless about this game. The thing is you see what you wanna see and you hear what you wanna hear. You dig? Did you ever see Paris?" The pair answered "No." "Did you ever see New Delhi?” Again the reply, "No." "Well that's it. You see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear." Eventually, learning that there is no single point of view but rather a diversity of points of views that make us who we are, Oblio and Arrow returned to the town and explained what they had learned to the townspeople, who embraced the new point of view. Except for the kid of the evil count, he just didn't get it. You dig?
This was an important lesson during the civil unrest in 1970's and is equally as important today. Whether as part of the people that you socialize with, the places that you travel, what you absorb on social media, you become a product of your environment, and ultimately if you aren't careful "you see what you want to see, and you hear what you want to hear." If you don't stretch beyond what you see and hear every day, the algorithms will reinforce that.
The Point. I am fascinated by the number of people who have taken this step to try and get Facebook to show more in their feed:
Simply post “Thanks for the tips to bypass FB – it WORKS!! I have a whole new news feed. I’m seeing posts from people I haven’t seen in years. Here’s how to bypass the system FB now has in place that limits posts on your news feed. Their new algorithm chooses the same few people – about 25 – who will read your posts. Therefore, Hold your finger down anywhere in this post and “copy” will pop up. Click “copy”. Then go your page, start a new post and put your finger anywhere in the blank field. “Paste” will pop up and click paste. This will bypass the system. Hi new and old friends!”
I have yet to read anything about whether or not it works, maybe it does. Or maybe, the action simply seeks to blame social and other media platforms for our own lack of diversity. My point is that if we are indeed a product of our environment, we have to challenge the environment that we choose to live within, physically and socially. As much as I have traveled, fifty states and over fifty countries, as much I strive for greater diversity, I had to do a bit of soul searching from this perspective.
In the physical world, we know we need to reach out to those we know less about, take a different path to work, travel to new places, and continue to explore that which we do not know and do not understand. In today's virtually driven, socially fueled environment, we need to take the same actions, find the "roads less traveled" in order to disrupt our algorithms by seeking a greater range diversity, rather than simply continuing to click and share what is most often served to us. You dig? Oh, and start with following @andyallo and @sweetpotatosoul. I think you will enjoy both. (You can follow me @rhoniball and connect with me at www.honiball.me. The opinions expressed are my own, and subject to change, but I will admit that they are highly influenced by my wife, daughter, and several others....)