Saturday, 26 August 2023
by Rose White
Internet users in the European Union are logging on to a quiet revolution on mainstream social networks today: The ability to say ‘no thanks’ to being attention hacked by AI.
Thanks to the bloc’s Digital Services Act (DSA), users of Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, ByteDance’s TikTok and Snap’s Snapchat can easily decline “personalized” content feeds based on “relevance” (i.e. tracking) — and switch to a more humble kind of news feed that’s populated with posts from your friends displayed in chronological order. And this is just the tip of the regulatory iceberg. The changes apply to major platforms in the EU but some are being rolled out globally as tech giants opt to streamline elements of their compliance.
Facebook actually got out ahead of today’s DSA compliance deadline by launching a chronological new Feeds tab last month — doing so globally, seemingly, not just in the EU. But it’s a safe bet Meta wouldn’t have made the move without the bloc passing a law that mandates mainstream platforms give users a choice to see non-personalized content.
Notably the new chronological Facebook news feed does not show any “Suggested For You” posts at all. And that total separation of tracking-based content recommendations from non-personalized content selections is absolutely down to the DSA. If Meta could injection a little AI-powered attention hacking into the humble chronological news feed it surely would. But the bloc’s law requires no crossing of these streams. Respect for user agency demands a space safe from surveilling AIs.
We’ve also recently seen YouTube announce that logged in users with the ‘watch history’ feature turned off won’t be bothered by next video recommendations based on profiling what they’ve watched before. Also, seemingly, a change it’s decided to roll out everywhere, not just in the EU — but again a development that’s clearly been driven by the DSA.
You might ask why does the ability to switch off profiling-based content recommendations matter? Isn’t it a relatively minor detail in the grand scheme of platform power? Well yes and no. The power of platforms to keep users engaged inside their walled gardens derives from a number of factors — one of which is the massive information asymmetry they can wield against our eyeballs by tracking what we click at, engage with, linger on, search for and so on.
Content choices based on this tracking don’t even have to be very sophisticated — and, indeed, the programming can feel terribly crude. Such as how, for the past many, many months, after I happened to watch a cat video on Instagram, my Home feed has been peppered with unavoidable injections of fur. And these suggested cat videos never seem to end. It’s truly been the longest tail…
How this typically went down was after scrolling through the (smaller) stack of Instagram posts from people I do actually follow (still peppered with suggested cat videos) the AI would take over — populating the rest of the feed (apparently bottomless) with what seemed like an infinite selection of cat videos. Cats being cute, cats being acrobatic, cats being funny, cats being memed, cats being rescued from dire conditions… It got to the point where I would dread logging on to Instagram because of what I would be compelled to look at.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love cats. So, naturally, I’m a fan of cute cat videos. But I sure don’t love a firehose of fur being force-injected into my eyeballs just so Mark Zuckerberg can hold me on his platform a bit longer and keep getting richer than Croesus. It’s pure manipulation and boy does that feel ick. So I have actually been counting down the days for DSA compliance to kick in — and usher in a legal end to this unavoidable algorithmic cat parade.
Today on Instagram I can report finding fur-free peace at last!
Of course the AI-selected cat videos haven’t gone very far. The home feed page now offers two choices: “Following” and “For you” — the second of which remains populated with plenty of furry felines. But at least I can now opt to see only posts from accounts I follow and actively avoid the stuff that’s been selected to try to hack my attention.
Instagram’s ‘Explore’ tab appears to default to algorithmic content selections (“For you”) but click on the down arrow next to the label and you’ll also now see a novel option: “Not personalized”. Click on that and the feed of content Meta’s AIs calculated would best grab the user’s eyeballs (in my case that’s cats and climbing videos) is replaced by a grid of images that look culled from a National Geographic-inspired stock photo selection. Frankly it looks a bit boring but I never looked at the Explore tab anyway. And boring is peaceful.
Over on Facebook, switch on the new (though actually retro) chronological news feed and it makes the platform feel — momentarily — like an entirely different product as friends whose posts would typically be buried by the algorithm as too quotidian (i.e. not engaging enough) sudden get their 15 minutes of fame and pop up right there in your eyeline.
The Facebook home page still defaults to an AI-sorted view, including personalized recommendations for Reels and Stories. But if you switch to the chronological news feed it’s a throwback to Facebook circa 2008, before the platform flipped from ranking posts in reverse chronological order to applying a popularity filter (based on engagement). And we all know what happened to the tone of social media discourse after adtech giants’ algorithms started selecting for outrage… So don’t underestimate the power of a humble news feed comprised of friends’ unsorted shower thoughts. This might be just the sort of content revolution our hyper-polarized societies need.
An ‘AI off’ switch could make even bigger splash on TikTok — where the stickiness of its content selection algorithm has been credited with driving major viral trends and powering the platform’s overall popularity. But stepping away from its AI firehose will still require users to exercise their agency — since the regulation only demands that platforms offer a choice which is not based on profiling. So it remains to be seen whether TikTok’s community will engage with the new non-personalized feeds.
They might just be horrified at how banal lots of the stuff posted to the platform can be once they step outside the AI-filtered attention bubble. While a generation of digital native social media influencers will surely flee screaming from the prospect of reduced engagement. But other users who are tired of influencer babble polluting their feeds might just be weeping with relief at the prospect of an easy toggle to remove distracting noise.
The impact of increased empowerment of users on mainstream platforms may not lead to immediate big bang change. But we should celebrate our new ability to quiet quit their algorithms. It’s long overdue.
Think of it as the start of the unbundling of platform power. The DSA, along with its sister regulation the Digital Markets Act — an ex ante competition reform which targets the most powerful intermediating digital platforms — is a substantial piece of regulation that puts many more demands on platforms than providing users with a free choice to deny personalization. Including requiring they identify and mitigate systemic risks that arise from their use of AIs; and open up their data to external researchers so independent academics can robustly study technosocial impacts, to name two.
That kind of public interest visibility atop tech giants is also long overdue. And the information asymmetry that adtech giants, especially, have exploited to fatten their bottom lines at our eyeballs’ expense has always been drastically unfair.
It’s past time they gave back. And it’s past time we had simple options to stop their content targeting systems from stealing our free time.
Quiet quitting the algorithm could be the next big trend. Just don’t expect this one to go viral.