The Five Faces of Algorithms

Or, How We Conceptualize The Invisible

This piece was originally published at LinkedIn Pulse.

Algorithms are everywhere. Sometimes we see traces. Once in a while, we feel the effects. Mostly, we go about our days vaguely aware of an invisible algorithmic presence.

The goal: to make invisible algorithms more visible. So, I designed challenges to provide a glimpse into everyday moments and ongoing relationships people have with algorithms. Over 100 people of diverse backgrounds from all over the country participated in activities to learn about algorithms in our lives.

Since it seemed natural for people to talk about algorithms as creepy or caring on their own, I asked them to assign personalities to the algorithms they encountered.

1. The Stalker

In the words of one of the study participants, Brittany, “This is the kind of algorithm that’s getting in my space all the time, it feels creepy.” Targeted ads were squarely in stalker territory. Even sites that remembered behaviors or preferences for too long, like recommendations, could fall into this category of algorithms that follow us a little too closely. Or the experiences that focus obsessively on one detail that we have long forgotten (or want to forget).

2. The Frenemy

“It’s tempting me to do something I don’t really want to do. It’s a little destructive.” Clickbait headlines, humble brags, and auto-play videos meant that social media feeds were often considered frenemies more than true friends.

3. The Busybody

“The suggestions are meant to be helpful, but are a little blind to my reality.” Ian aptly named this type of algorithmic presence a busybody. Recommendations, whether for an e-commerce site or a mindfulness app, can seem a little overeager.

4. The Sidekick

“Like a good sidekick, this one supports me but knows I’m the real superhero,” according to Dave. Chatbots felt the most like helpful sidekicks because of their conversation-ish advice.

5. The True Friend

“If an algorithm were to be a true friend, it would have to be OK with contradictions.” Jason makes a good point. So far, finding a true friend in an algorithm is not the norm — maybe because algorithms have a hard time growing and evolving with us.

Algorithms seem creepy when they are too simple-minded, caring when they invite participation. Rather than putting people on the defensive, the future of human-centered algorithms will create ways for us to understand and engage with them.

Read the (free) full report from Change Sciences: Living with Algorithms

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