I thought my Instagram was all mine, until the algorithm proved me wrong

Instagram mobile 1

As a good San Franciscan millennial, my first reaction was to call a therapist.

Instagram is changing to an algorithmic feed and will order posts based largely on popularity, just as Twitter announced it would do a few weeks ago and as Facebook has been doing since 2011.

It’s a small news item, but I found it disturbing and wanted to know why.

The first reason is obvious – I’m emotionally connected to my apps and smartphone, which I see as an extension of my body.

“You create this identity for yourself, like your little secret life that interacts with other secret lives, and if that gets manipulated, it can feel disorienting,” said Lacey Noonan, a psychotherapist as Well Counseling in the heart of San Francisco’s tech-centric Potrero Hill. “It happens all the time.”

Noonan mostly counsels people in the tech world and says that the number one issue in couples counseling is people’s relationships with apps and phones. She described the phone as being like a third member of the relationship for couples and a stand-in lover for single people.

Then Noonan got down to my level. “I remember maybe four months ago I accidentally dropped my phone into a toilet I hadn’t flushed,” she said. “And I was shocked by how fast I plunged my hand into the water without thinking.”

As I mould myself into these platforms, I claw out a sense of control over what is mine – my profile, my feed. Instagram and Twitter encouraged this sense of ownership and agency. The move toward an algorithm that the company curates is a reminder of both who’s in charge and just how much of myself I’ve given to them. My apps have become so blended into my life, to skew one toward the machine is to skew them both.

Internet historian and University of Michigan professor Chuck Severance said it was “nice” I ever thought I had ownership of something like my Twitter account.

Severance teaches a popular class online called Internet History, Technology, and Security and goes by @DrChuck to his 14,000 Twitter followers.

“When a company makes your feed algorithmic, it’s the moment that you’re being squeezed as an asset,” Severance said. “In some way it’s worse than a loss of agency. It’s them reminding you that you’re not the owner, you’re the product. You do know that, right?”

Instagram figures – probably correctly – that the app’s become enormously popular and users’ feeds are flooded with too many posts; if you’re only seeing 30% of the feed it might as well be the most popular 30%. Twitter just wants to do anything to get new users. But when an app become a curated feed, its developers are saying my choices aren’t as good as theirs – that I don’t really want to see all my friends’ vacation pictures, only the best ones.

It means we no longer have a mainstream space on the internet that’s not curated by engineers. Every platform now gives us information through stained glass. We’ve been close to have choice subsumed by platforms for a while, and now, very quietly, it is done.

Severance said I was starting to understand just how much of my life was subsumed by these companies. But that it’s already too late.

“Technological change happens slowly,” he said. “It’s like a warming up and by the time you realize it’s hot, you’ve melted.”

This article was written by Nellie Bowles, for theguardian.com on Thursday 17th March 2016 13.00 Europe/London

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