How Do Social Media Feed Algorithms Work?

These days, it seems you can’t get far into the internet without hearing the word algorithm crop up. Now we know that algorithms are just sets of instructions, so we’re going to take a look at social media algorithms.

Whether you’ve watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix and are now reaching for your tinfoil hat, or whether you’re just curious–we’re going to look at everything you need to know about social media feed algorithms.

When we refer to social media algorithms, we’re talking about the feed algorithms that decide what posts show up in your feed. Social media companies probably have lots of algorithms at play, so it’s important to distinguish the ones we’re looking at.

Essentially, feed algorithms use machine learning to predict what posts you’ll like, and it shows those to you in your feed. Most social media platforms, with the notable exception of Instagram, give you a choice between an algorithmic feed or a chronological feed.

A comparison between chronological and algorithmic feeds on Twitter.

With algorithmic feeds, you see posts in the order that the algorithm thinks is best. Chronological feeds, on the other hand, organize posts based on their timestamps. So your Instagram feed might show a post from an account it thinks you’ll like before a post from a couple of minutes ago by someone you don’t interact with much.

To achieve this, social media platforms take data from posts you’ve interacted with in the past, posts currently trending well, and sponsored posts. But the data these algorithms study is immense.

Platforms can collect information based on what posts your friends like, your search history on other sites, and even how long you look at posts. By combining all of this data, the algorithm can predict what posts you’re likely to be interested in.

Related: How to Disable Algorithmic Feeds on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

Social media platforms use algorithms for one simple reason–to keep you on the platform. If you’re seeing posts you’re interested in, you’re going to keep scrolling to see more. That’s basic human instinct.

But why are social media platforms interested in keeping you on the platform? It comes down to the primary goal of any business–money.

The longer you spend scrolling through a social media platform, the more ads it can show you. Think about it. If you see an ad every third Instagram post, the longer you keep scrolling and the more posts you see, the more ads you also see.

Screenshot of ad engagements in Instagram.

Every time you see an ad on social media, the platform makes money. Just looking at the ad is called an impression. Social media platforms charge advertisers by impressions. So, every time you see an ad, the social media platform earns money. These charges go up when you engage with an ad by clicking on it.

There’s also another primary reason to keep you scrolling, and that’s long-term use. Social media platforms want you to keep using their apps. Yes, it’s so they can continue to make ad revenue from you in the long run, but it’s also a little more complicated than that.

Social media companies want you to keep coming back to the platform because it means it can count you as an active user. The active user figure is vital for social media companies. They use this figure to set advertising rates, seek investment, and measure success.

Related: How to Reduce Targeted Ads on Social Media

As you can see, it all boils back down to keeping your eyes on posts, and keeping you scrolling through the app,

Are Companies Really Controlling What Posts You See?

It’s important to make the distinction that social media companies aren’t strictly controlling what content you see.

Each platform’s algorithm was designed to show you relevant content, and make the platform money.

The algorithm will evolve by itself—that’s the machine learning part. It chooses what posts to show you, without any human oversight. There’s nobody at any social media company sitting at a desk, and choosing who sees what. While each platform creates its algorithm and gives it a goal, the company can’t choose the content it displays.

Related: What Are Machine Learning Algorithms? Here’s How They Work

Algorithmic feeds also won’t cause you to miss any content. Both Twitter and Instagram have explained their algorithms only affect the order of the posts.

That means it doesn’t hide or delete any content. So, while posts considered interesting will be shown at the top, if you keep scrolling you’ll still see every new post since you last used the app.

There is one major problem with algorithms, and that’s addiction. Social media is a prime example of an addictive habit, and it can also lead to mental health problems. It’s unproven, but many people believe social media algorithms exacerbate this problem by enforcing the feedback loop that keeps people scrolling.

Read More: What Is Social Media Addiction?

Meanwhile, algorithms have also been accused of creating echo chambers, directing people towards extremist content and fake news, and incentivizing sensationalization.

Clearly, there’s a fine balance of keeping you on the social media app. That’s exactly why advanced algorithms are working it out rather than people.

Of course, algorithms aren’t perfect at predicting what we want to see on social media–they’re computers, not our brains. There are times the algorithm will get its predictions wrong, and just end up annoying you with content you’re not all that interested in.

Algorithms do have their problems, but they often achieve the aims that social networks want. Otherwise, social media companies wouldn’t be using them.

But when it comes to whether or not you want to participate in these algorithms, at least you have the choice–usually.

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