When sites that involve any kind of ranking change their algorithm, there’ll probably be a spectacle worth watching. When Google made some changes to their search algorithms in 2005, the company was sued by KinderStart.com (a search engine for kids, talk about irony) who went from PageRank riches to rags and lost 70% of their traffic in a day (the case was dismissed in 2007). When Digg finally gave in to a lot of criticism about organized front page hijacking and changed the way story promotion works to include a measure of “diversity”, the regulars were vocally hurt and unhappy. What I find fascinating about the latter case was the technical problem-solving approach that implied the programming of nothing less that diversity. It’s not that hard to understand how such a thing works (think “anti-recommendation system” or “un-collaborative filtering”), but still, one has to sit back and appreciate the idea. We are talking about social engineering done by software engineers. Social problem = design problem.
The very real-world effects of algorithms are quite baffling and since I started to read this book, I truly appreciate the ingenuity and complex simplicity that cannot be reduced to a pure “this is what I want to achieve and so I do it” narrative. There is a delta between the “want” and the “can” and the final system will be the result of a complex negotiation that will have changed both sides of the story in the end. Programming diversity means to give the elusive concept of diversity an analytical core, to formalize it and to turn it into a machine. The “politics” of a ranking algorithm is not only about the values and the project (make story promotion more diverse) but also a matter – to put it bluntly – of the state of knowledge in computer science. This means, in my opinion, that the politics of systems must be discussed in the larger context of an examination of computer science / engineering / design as in itself an already oriented project, based on yet another layer of “want” and “can”.
Thanks to Joris for pointing out that my blog was hacked. Damn you spammers.