The digital divide typically refers to the gap between the “have and have-not’s” when it comes to a basic internet connection and access to a personal computer. Eszter Hargittai explains a second-level digital divide as a difference between the internet skill and know-how of the internet user. This second-level digital divide is really a generational divide – unlike us ‘older folk’, recent generations spent their formative years navigating a digitally mediated and connected world. Consequently, youth are commonly assumed to share an affinity for digital technologies. On top of that, the technology we use in our everyday lives is constantly evolving and becoming so much faster.

On March 15th 2017, Instagram – the popular, photo sharing and filtering mobile application – announced that they would be rolling out one of it’s biggest changes to the platform yet – a reordering of a user’s home feed displaying posts not in chronological order but rather in an optimized way. User engagement on Instagram has doubled since 2014. Instagram currently sees more than 400 million active users on their mobile app. These changes will be based on data collected from your likes, comments, shares, relationships and other activity on the app in a similar way that Facebook’s (owner of Instagram since 2012) news feed is organized. Building on its successful last few years, Instagram is hoping that the changes will help to ensure the app’s continued profitability and relevance. Twitter’s recent announcement of similar changes to it’s timeline suggests that constantly changing algorithms may be the norm with social media platforms seeking to maintain and grow an active user base.

Tarleton Gillespie defines algorithms broadly as “encoded procedures for transforming input data into a desired output, based on specified calculations”. These however, are subject to human bias and have political ramifications. These algorithms commonly used in social media software help to optimize the platform in particular ways. For many social media companies, that often means emphasizing ways that will increase profit maximization.

Changing algorithms are not helpful for those who want to benefit from social media networking and sharing but who don’t understand the rules of the game – that is how best to optimize your post. Increased optimization would make it more difficult for new users to come on board and find a following without using the most popular and trendy hashtags. If you were a new and unfamiliar user, you’d have to invest a lot of time and sometimes even money to understand how the platform work and how best to optimize it for your needs. You know who’s mostly likely to do this? Users who have the knowledge and understanding of these changes and the implications of these software changes. Days after the Instagram made the announcement, users protested against the changes flooding the newsfeed with posts reminding their followers to turn on their notifications. Many users were concerned about their loss of exposure if their followers weren’t being notified about new posts. However, as some writers report, turning on the notifications for ALL of the accounts you follow will fill your phone with constant annoying alerts. Instagram has since responded that they will not be rolling out these changes immediately. But I have some additional concerns.

Is this likely to further increase the digital divide between the have’s and have-not’s who rely on social media platforms for cheap and a more accessible way to promote their message? The internet is supposed to be decentralized and a useful tool for activists and marginalized folks to participate in and engage with; however, many users lack the skills, knowledge, resources, or time to truly understand how algorithms mediate online experiences. Instagram’s decision to reorder users’ home feeds is representative of a bigger challenge; as activists, how do we get our messages to penetrate homogenous mainstream content?

Further, should we be so easily trusting of how Instagram (Facebook) and other companies judge content? After all, we have seen how Instagram’s past interpretations have deployed throughout the app through a history of censoring women’s bodies….

Instagram says they will be listening closely to users feedback as they roll out this phase. Of course, users unhappy with the changes are free to move to other photo-sharing platforms, though it may not be such an easy decision to make for those who have put time and labour into building their Instagram communities. As companies like Instagram seek to engage users going forward, increasingly sophisticated algorithms will be employed with very little information provided as to how it all works. Underlying this seemingly innocuous assumption is the reality that not all users posses the knowledge, resources, and skills to make informed decisions about the software they are using. My worry is that those who are less likely to learn about and understand how these changes work are the ones who need to know the most.

For more reading on algorithmic culture, our friends at Social Media Collective have put together this reading list: http://socialmediacollective.org/reading-lists/critical-algorithm-studies/

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