How to train your algorithm

Avoid toxicity and build a better experience

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is a cautionary phrase often used by data scientists to remind us common folk that computers process results based on whatever we feed to them, but it’s also a succinct reminder that whatever energy we put into the world is going to be the energy we get back from it.

My son is turning two and entering a behavioral phase where he is challenging his boundaries with us. He is wonderful on most days. We tend to manage through his emotions fairly well, but there can be times that are trying.

Imagine my surprise when I realized that my son, on those days where he is most intolerable, is simply matching my energy. I like to consider my disposition as a parent fairly consistent—not too tyrannical, but not fawning, either. I do have my moments on either side of the spectrum, though. My empathic son is capable of absorbing my trash energy and returning it back ten-fold. When we enter a GIGO loop, it can get nasty. He tantrums and I want to run out the door screaming (aside: I don’t. I’m a good dad).

Tools of the attention economy

Let’s pivot to algorithms. Social media content algorithms are software systems that are aided by machine learning. The objective of an algorithm is to show you content that it predicts will keep you most engaged with a service for as long as possible. Algorithms are an important tool in the attention economy because the longer you stay engaged with a service, the more adverts the service can place in front of you. Ads are currently (but probably not much longer) the main source of revenue for the most popular social media platforms. Ads are how companies keep their services free for more users to adopt and—therefore—make more money on ads.

Algorithms aren’t like living, breathing, empathetic people. They will factor all of the data about your interaction with the service to figure out what types of media it will deliver to keep you from doing something else. Often this means algorithms misinterpret our intentions when we’re writing a heated reply in a political discussion, posting a negative reaction to something happening in real time, or when we stop scrolling to react to a disturbing video.

Content can result in positive or negative experiences, but a positive experience could be perceived as a negative by the algorithm if the content causes you to exit the service prematurely. Similarly, if a negative experience keeps you engaged with the service, the algorithm might decide to serve you more negative experiences because it thinks you like it.

It’s not that we want to interact with negative attractors most of the time. Sometimes we are drawn in to react because content goes against strongly held values and beliefs. We spend an inordinate amount of attention to social spaces. We irrationally expect the people and content we encounter to conform to them.

As I mentioned in this article, we can’t explicitly tell algorithms what we like and don’t like to interact with on social feeds—just as I can’t tell my son how I expect him to behave. As I can manage my son’s energy by regulating my own, so too can we guide an algorithm.

Training the algorithm

In order to train an algorithm, we have to think like one and anticipate our reactive behaviors before we make them. Training an algorithm takes time and consistency. Any deviation could reset your hard work, so be aware of your impulses as you use a social media service. It took me two months to retrain Facebook from serving me political content.

Here are several methods you can use with Facebook specifically, and why they’re important to keep in your toolbox:

  • Hide friend for 30 days. If you have a person in your immediate network that enjoys posting inflammatory content, you can tell Facebook to not show you any of their activity for thirty days. You will stay connected, but will enjoy a quieter experience while also informing the algorithm.

  • Permanently blocking strangers. Facebook Groups can be hot beds for drawing you into a heated debate or otherwise toxic experience. Prevent it before it even starts by immediately blocking any user who attempts to bait you. The block feature might save yourself from a potentially frustrating situation.

  • Hide post / hide ad / hide all ads. This is the best way to begin training Facebook to serve you more meaningful content. Do not react, comment, share, or hover over the post for too long—doing so could be misinterpreted as interest instead of a negative visceral reaction. Instead, tap the three dots in the upper-right corner and select any of the hide content options. If possible, hide all ads from that particular advertiser if the content is a sponsored post. It’s important to note that this doesn’t reduce the overall amount of ads you see.

  • Change or delete your ad interests. In order to stop showing certain ads, I had to go in and remove myself from the themed Interest Targeting buckets Facebook had placed me in! I also pruned my followed Pages of brands and personalities I didn’t want to hear from any longer.

  • Flip scrolling. A flip scroll is an angry flip of the thumb to scroll the newsfeed extremely fast. This definitely helped me with short-term content changes over the course of a single session.

  • Newsfeed refreshing / Most Recent. When you’re at the top of the newsfeed, you can refresh the content stack by dragging down until the loading icon appears. This is a good tactic if you encounter a negative experience early on and want to express that you’d like a completely different experience. You can also turn off the algorithm by using the Most Recent feature.

  • Close the app completely. Nothing works better than denying a social media platform the privilege of serving you ads. If nothing seems to be working, shut down the app. This tactic worked for me. The more often I would close the app in response to a politically-charged post on my newsfeed, the less often they came up.

  • Grow closer to topics that interests you. Give the algorithm something to replace negative content. Follow subject matter experts in a particular topic, share and contribute posts about the topic, join Facebook Groups created around the topic, and comment on interesting on-topic posts.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Positivity in, positivity out.

The energy we put into a system is ultimately the energy that is reflected back at us. Over time, the algorithm that has pinned you into a terrible corner will relent—but you have to commit to being clear, consistent, and intentional about your actions like a father does for his toddler son.

Social media doesn’t have to be a toxic, addictive place that you have to detox from every few months. Social media can be an engaging, exciting resource and place of inspiration. Change is coming if you welcome it.