Annoyingly Aggressive Algorithms and Apps

Spirited Reasoners have long been annoyed at the (perhaps) unintended consequences of social media algorithms—namely, the way in which these algorithms encourage us to hide within our respective echo chambers, thus amplifying our sense of tribalism and partisanship. Do you tend toward left-wing politics? Well, this oligopolistic social media company thinks you’d like to see all these similar posts. You know, the ones portraying blue states as being inhabited by snowflakes and pansies. Are you more of a right-winger? Then they’ll make sure you see all these similar posts, the ones portraying red states as filled by Bible-thumping racists toting AK-47s.

The marketing gurus employed by these social media companies have determined that we are much more likely to “engage” with posts that make us angry. Thus, we are more likely to see and read advertising connected to those posts. Thus, we are more likely to buy the products and services offered by whichever company it was that figured out that particular algorithm. Never mind that such behavior has turned us into a land of we versus them, Red versus Blue, tribe against tribe. It’s all about money.

Spirited Reasoners have long been suspicious of a certain major telephone company. This company knows full well that a handful of telemarketers have been fleecing the elderly and other vulnerable customers by claiming to offer car warranties, claiming to represent the IRS, and/or claiming to offer other nonexistent goods and services. They obviously know this fact because they offer an app for the super low price of only $3.99 per month, automatically billed to your iTunes account, which can be installed on your phone.  This service offers “automatic fraud and spam risk blocking,” thus raising the following question: If someone at this international corporation already knows which calls are fraudulent and which might involve a spam risk, then why does this corporation’s loyal customer need to download, install, and pay for an additional app?

Over the past year, I’ve noticed similar shady behavior on the part of a popular, international word game app. (Hint: it’s one I play with friends.) Although I tend to play the game with people I already know, I’ll occasionally invite a stranger to play, and vice-versa, if the other player has a similar score level, or one slightly higher than mine, so we can increase our skills. But once the algorithmic wizards at the app noticed my willingness to invite others to my game table, they were quick to push phishers at me, claiming that these players were of “similar skill level.” Being a trusting sort, and unaware of their marketing ploy, I unwittingly engaged one or two in what I thought would be an innocent game. Almost immediately, it became clear that these players knew nothing about the game. Instead, they were merely phishing for personal information about me. The phishing was bad enough, but what was worse, in my opinion, was the apparent connection between the phishers and the behind-the-scenes operators of the game app. Normally, I would simply stop playing the game; however, it remains one of the few ways I interact with a dozen or so good friends. (Decisions, decisions.)

This past week, I noticed that this same game had begun the practice of blacking out the time of day, which always used to appear in the upper left portion of the screen. My guess is that someone in the company figured I would be more likely to spend more time on the app if I didn’t know what time of day it was. The result has been exactly the opposite. Since I can’t be sure what time it is without exiting the app, I’m now more likely to exit. Then, having exited, I’m more likely to decide to spend my time more productively elsewhere.

I’m not suggesting regulation. Attempts by government to prohibit this type of behavior would probably be counterproductive. But one measure that would, IMHO, work great would be a more vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws that are already on the books. The more competition in spaces now occupied by monopolistic and oligopolistic companies, the more likely consumers will choose to shift their trust toward the good guys and away from the mobsters.