How I Tried to Defy the Facebook Algorithm

Wachiwit/Shutterstock.com

The social network is predictable and dreary. My quest to make it random and fun.

Facebook is often sarcastically described as a platform for sharing baby pictures. When I log in, I do see some of those—but many of the babies in my feed are baby rats.

The story of how these hairless pups started populating my News Feed began when a friend told me about a Facebook group—a lively forum for discussing baby names—that had captivated her. I joined too, and soon afterward my timeline was peppered with requests for “a strong Irish name” or “a name similar to Everly which we unfortunately can’t use.”

I’m not currently in the market for a baby name, but the novelty was welcome. So I sought out more: I joined groups or liked pages for wine lovers, slow runners, appreciators of dinosaurs, southeastern-Michigan snow obsessives. Eventually, I found Everything Rat Breeding.

Before I started this experiment in joinerism, using Facebook felt like watching an algorithmically conducted parade of the lifestyles, accomplishments, and worldviews of my peers. The experience seemed calculated to produce envy and insecurity. But the pictures of dinosaur fossils and reviews of wines with “masculine fruit” transformed that procession into a bizarre and occasionally delightful show, affording me glimpses of all the things there are to care about beyond what preoccupies my particular social circle.

I liked the variety; it made browsing feel less competitive. And witnessing strangers go on about some mundane subject that mattered deeply to them was oddly engrossing. The new occupants of my News Feed were giving me a break from personalization that I didn’t know I needed.

According to Ethan Zuckerman, the director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, most of today’s social networks are predicated on bringing people’s offline relationships online. And since offline networks are shaped by homophily—people’s tendency to cluster with others who are like them—social networks, too, tend to surround users with the types of people they already know. Homophily is an ancient human instinct, but Facebook’s algorithm reinforces it with industrial efficiency.

What I was trying to do, then, was stop Facebook from doing what it is inherently good at, and hack it to give me the reverse: serendipity, surprise, heterophily. Soon I started to wonder: Were there other, better ways to do this?

Throwing the algorithm off my scent got easier when I enlisted the help of other algorithms. I did this with a tool called Noisify, which populates one’s Facebook search bar with random words. Cathy Deng, a programmer in San Francisco, built Noisify after the 2016 election, when people she knew seemed obsessed with political “filter bubbles.” “It feels very limiting to be like, ‘The entire world exists on this axis of left-versus-right,’ ” she told me. “The way I was seeing it was: The world is so much richer than that.”

Installing Noisify supercharged my pursuit of novelty. The tool has directed me to corners of Facebook that feel like mini-vacations from the usual onslaught of life updates and political news: pages devoted to intellectual-property rights, items for sale in small-town Maryland, and the apparently beloved 20th-century organist Virgil Fox.

This approach to browsing can work on other social-media platforms, too. “Every month or so,” says Crystal Abidin, an anthropologist who researches internet culture, “I selectively follow a bunch of accounts—sometimes to do with a specific country or demographic of people or culture—on Instagram, in a bid to change up my feed.” To achieve the same effect on YouTube, she’ll binge-watch random videos.

Abidin’s browsing is often for research purposes, and she wants to be able to survey a wide swath of the digital landscape instead of just the slice of it that social-media platforms tailor to her personal characteristics. She finds it useful to scroll through images on Instagram with hashtags that “are basically not very viable, because there are too many posts archived in them,” like #japan or #babies. She says it’s “bewildering, sometimes fun, but also really scary that there’s just so much out there I would never be able to discover.”

Max Hawkins, a 28-year-old programmer, elevated the goal of subverting algorithms to a way of life. After graduating from college in 2013 and getting a job at Google, Hawkins grew restless and sought ways to make his life more interesting. He built a tool that had Uber drop him off at random locations around the Bay Area. Then he built a tool that picked random publicly listed Facebook events for him to attend.

Hawkins found the variety refreshing, and after two years, he left his job. Every few months, he let a computer pick the city he would live in, based on airfare, cost-of-living estimates, and his projected income as a freelance programmer. He tried listening to music picked randomly by Spotify, wearing clothes bought randomly on Amazon, growing out random styles of facial hair, and arranging phone calls with friends on randomly selected topics.

Hawkins even chose to get a random tattoo based on a random image search. His commitment to the experiment was steadfast and somewhat terrifying. “I was really worried it was going to be anime porn or something,” he said, “and I’d be stuck with it for the rest of my life.” But the computer’s selection was an abstract illustration of a parent and child. “I super lucked out,” he said. (Other outcomes of his experiments were, perhaps inevitably, less positive—like the time the computer told him to grow a soul patch.)

Hawkins was living out a sort of algorithmic jujitsu, using his own code to redirect recommendation engines toward the unexpected. “The nice thing about randomness is that it can give you something that is completely outside of what you would even imagine,” he told me. “And one place that computers can benefit us is that they have such a wider range of things that they can be aware of.”

Unlike Hawkins, I couldn’t fathom letting randomness rule my life. But when he put it like that, I felt a bit sad. In the greater scheme of things, so little computing power is harnessed to promote variety—and so much is channeled toward predictability.

Facebook’s algorithm didn’t seem to know what to make of my newfound penchant for randomness. Once, I joined a group for python fanatics, and Facebook recommended that I check out Reptile Connection. I joined Dinosaurs, and the site suggested Paleo World. At times, my quest felt like pushing together two magnets of the same charge; I sought something different, but was steered toward more of what I’d already seen.

Facebook, Instagram, and other personalized platforms simply aren’t built for what Deng, Abidin, Hawkins, and I were doing. Their business model—targeting advertisements based on users’ demonstrated preferences—depends on anticipating what will be relevant to people and using that information to entice them to buy products and services. Showcasing random interests wouldn’t serve that goal.

The web hasn’t always been structured like this. In the 1980s and ’90s, Zuckerman told me, before platforms like MySpace and Friendster began to map the internet around our preexisting social lives, networks were usually organized by topic, with no algorithm steering you to what it thought you’d like. This older internet, he noted, was homophilous as well, with a highly educated, demographically narrow user base. But it was typical, say, for three cat lovers to have a conversation across three different continents. People frequently had meaningful interactions with strangers.

Among today’s major platforms, Reddit seems like the most direct heir to these early-internet networks, oriented as it is toward serendipitous and surprising niches. Facebook’s groups seem like a throwback in that sense, too. Jennifer Dulski, the head of Facebook Groups, told me, “When people join groups and they meet other people who care about the same things that they do—maybe they live in the same neighborhood, or they’re both military parents, or they both love mountain climbing, or they both own a corgi; the list goes on—it’s like they’re finding their hidden soulmates.”

Every time I joined a group, however, Facebook inferred that my new groupmates were “people like me”—that I shared their interests, in other words, rather than being interested in them precisely because I do not. Even in its groups, Facebook is not designed to expand your social horizons; as Zuckerman noted, it’s designed to surface things that are relevant to you and your offline peers. Groups are just another way of signaling what those things might be.

The more one pushes back against personalization, the closer one gets to Max Hawkins’s unfiltered, randomized extreme, and all the delight, danger, and drudgery it entails. This can be inefficient and exhausting: There’s a reason Chatroulette, the video-chat app that connects users to random strangers, doesn’t have the same market share as Skype.

My fellow serendipity seekers had started to feel that exhaustion, it turns out, before I even met them. While Abidin still pursues variety as part of her job, Deng now spends less time on social media, and Hawkins has given up the platforms altogether. He says he’s more interested in building his own networks than tinkering with others’.

It’s certainly possible to battle the algorithms and discover new vistas from which to assess one’s life—but the fight becomes wearying. After a while, the baby rats start to look like, well, baby rats.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.