Teresa Ovalle

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Big Brother, Facebook and Algorithms

on February 16, 2014

In the book, 1984, George Orwell tells a story of a man, Winston Smith, who is being watched at every move by Big Brother, the omniscient party leader.  Those were days of old.

In the 21st century, it’s likely that Big Brother is still watching you, but surfing is his primary way to reach into your world.  He surfs algorithms of every online program with every button you push on your keyboard.  He anticipates your next move in ractions of a second with information that he has already collected from you for as long as he’s known you.  He is still omniscient, but much more powerful than he was in 1984.

Knowing that Big Brother is watching can be scary.  As Gillespie wrote, “And algorithms are made and remade in every instance of their use because ever click, every query, changes the tool incrementally.”  (pg. 7) Every piece of information we provide online allows Big Brother to collect, process and stand ready for our next keystroke.  It turns out that algorithms can be our friends.  Yes, they surf and mine our data, but they do it for us – don’t they?

Algorithms help us find an answer, solve a problem and be entertained.  They sift through millions of data to give us what we are looking for quickly and accurately, encouraging us to make a decision, to make another keystroke or to leave the page.  Whichever our choice, the algorithm helps us with the decision.

We have domesticated algorithms.  We have invited algorithms into our homes, our schools and our businesses.  We have created and discovered communities within communities with the help of algorithms.  Algorithms lead to where ever we want to go.

We are filtering ourselves, with the help of the algorithms, into content community bubbles.  As Gillespie stated, “We are led, by algorithms and our own preferences for the like-minded, into “Filter bubbles” (Pariser 2011), where we find only the news we expect and the political perspectives we already hold dear.” (pg. 22)

Technically, algorithms shouldn’t be leading us anywhere.   They should be objective.  Algorithms should be “…recognizing and accepting “what is,” without projecting our mental models, background, culture, experiences and responding thoughtfully, deliberately and effectively.” (Thornton)  I think it’s difficult for an algorithm to remain objective when, to work properly, we have to give the algorithm input and our input is biased.

So let’s assume that the algorithm starts out objective.  Big Brother is still there, but he’s neutral.  He is completely objective with no associated biases until we feed him our biases.  He does his best to guide us to the world rather than to our community bubbles.

Then we learn that Big Brother isn’t the boss.  Big Brother actually works for someone else.  We’ll call this entity Facebook.  Big Brother is enslaved to Facebook.  He must do as he is told or he will be replaced.  Although Facebook wants people to think that Big Brother is objective, Facebook has the power to change him to do as it pleases.

Unexpectedly, people notice a change in their communities.  Instead of seeing posts from family and friends in their news feed, they see advertisements.  Not random ads, but ads that are similar to the things they might buy.  People realize that Big Brother has changed, that he’s been collecting their data and is now suggesting they purchase things.  As Gillespie states, “Satisfied Facebook users today become critics tomorrow when the algorithm behind their news feed is altered in a way that feels economically motivated…” (pg. 20) I think that most people don’t want to connect with shopping, they want to connect with other people.

The paradigm has subtly shifted from family and friends connecting, to them connecting with an economic undertone.  It’s possible that many people have complained to Facebook about the algorithm shift, but we are so entwined with connecting to others in our Facebook community bubbles that we see no alternative, and decide to stay.  People get used to the shift, and then it becomes a norm.  And Facebook is laughing all the way to the bank.



Gillespie, T. (forthcoming).  The relevance of algorithms. In T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot (Eds.), Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and society.

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