The Five Faces of Algorithms

May 4th, 2016

  Pamela Pavliscak

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

Algorithmic Self

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, we 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.

Since people seemed to anthropomorphize algorithms, we asked them to develop it further. We asked them to describe the algorithms in their lives as people.

  1. The Stalker
  2. In the words of one of our 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 experiences that focus obsessively on one detail that we have long forgotten (or want to forget).

  3. The Frenemy
  4. “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.

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

  7. The Sidekick
  8. "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 the conversation-ish advice.

  9. The True Friend
  10. “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.

Read the (free) full report here: Living with Algorithms

Explore More: Algorithmic Living, Authenticity