Designing around Algorithm Sensemaking in Social Media


Algorithms curate everyday online content by prioritizing, classifying, associating, and filtering information. Through this curation, they exert power to shape the users' experiences and the evolution of the system as a whole. Curation algorithms, however, are often housed in black boxes [12, 43, 20]. While this opaqueness usually exists to protect intellectual property and to prevent malicious users from gaming the system, it also stems in part from the merits of "seamless" design, where designers hide details from users to make interactions effortless. However, although the lack of users' awareness about these hidden processes can sometimes indicate a successful design, in some cases this invisibility can cause problems. A clear example of this can be seen in Morris's study of social network use by new mothers. She questioned the common complaint that new mothers exclusively posted photos of their babies. She found that the Facebook News Feed curation algorithm created this misperception because it prioritizes posts that receive likes and comments - photos of babies often received attention from a large audience. Because users lack knowledge about the News Feed algorithm, they may have an inaccurate picture of how their and others' actions influence their personal feeds. Such issues along with the power of opaque algorithms in shaping users' online experiences further raise questions about how knowledgeable users are and should be about these algorithms.


Figure: FeedVis:Content View

We have investigated users' awareness of their algorithmic Facebook News Feed curation, and uncovered an extensive lack of awareness about the presence of this algorithmic process among users. To understand the reasons behind this unawareness, we have explored users' Facebook usage patterns and found that those who were aware of the presence of this algorithmic process were more actively engaged with their Facebook News Feed than the unaware ones. To provide users with a higher level of awareness about the algorithm, we have built a seamful design, FeedVis, that incorporates "seams," visibility hints, into the opaque algorithmic feed curation process. Investigating users' interaction with this design shows that adding visibility to the Facebook's opaque feed curation algorithm helps users quickly develop theories about how the algorithm works, leads them to more active engagement with their algorithmically-curated feed, and bolsters overall feelings of control on the site.


M. Eslami, K. Karahalios, C. Sandvig, K. Vaccaro, A. Rickman, K. Hamilton, and A. Kirlik. First I "like" it, then I hide it: Folk Theories of Social Feeds . Human Factors in Computing Systems Conference (CHI), 2016. pdf video

M. Eslami, A. Rickman, K. Vaccaro, A. Aleyasen, A. Vuong, K. Karahalios, K. Hamilton, and C. Sandvig. "I always assumed that I wasn't really that close to [her]": Reasoning about invisible algorithms in the news feed . Human Factors in Computing Systems Conference (CHI), 2015. Best Paper Award pdf


Motahhare Eslami