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Read the Change, Part 2: The Algorithm

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

Several people have commented on the last reading blog, Read the change you want to see in the world. Because of some of these messages, we will talk about it a little more and give it a little more meat in three steps.

First, well look briefly at the algorithm and the basics of how it works, and why it drives finance.

The second perspective will be how the interaction with an algorithm, and echo chamber it can create, drives our own thoughts. Here we will talk more about how we can escape from echo chambers, why we should want to, and more about why there is a huge difference between healthy positive debate, and click bait insults.

Lastly we will combine those two things to discuss how the small moments of our reading choices can make a bigger change in the world than we may realize. Examples of quick questions to ask yourself as you surf the web will join with how to find more positive websites.

Off we go…

1) The financial basics of internet traffic.

Let’s illustrate with an example.

Like almost every human being who has a connection to the internet, I watch YouTube for fun and educational purposes. Everyone who has noticed ad placements in the commercials of YouTube, or the direct product plugs by the larger stations will understand that at least in part, YouTube monetizes the content creators directly and indirectly. The stations which are about powerlifting and moving heavy things will advertise items related to the hobby. Makes sense.

Rogue Plates
A decent overhead weight...

I enjoy lifting weights. One of the main purveyors of weights in America is a company called Rogue. When I listen to stations about reading, and writing, which have nothing to do with weightlifting, I get advertisements from Rogue. Rogue did not pay the content creator of the writing station to advertise on the off chance of intersections of writers and powerlifters watching. YouTube knows I like to lift, and in the allotted time frames selects commercials which are tailored to me.

Similarly, on the side of my Google scroll bar there are advertisements for books, writing workshops, exercise equipment gardening supplies and bulbs to be planted. The items selected and shown to me across all the platforms I use are unique to me. If I were to go do a search on Bing, deliberately isolating all of my gardening purchases and all my garden life, Google would still advertise it, because these companies share the information about the users with one another to drive the database.

My Google, my commercials, and yours look nothing alike.

In short, traffic is all about advertisement money and driving purchases.

Map of the Internet
Internet connections are complicated...

That is a brief snap shot of me, but the companies which have all of the billions of gigabytes of data, know that about you, me, your mom, dad, sister, brother, friends, etc. They also know the patterns. If people who like ABC also statistically like XYZ the data will show this. Amazon thrives on that recommendation system. We have come to expect it, and to many of us it either operates invisibly in the background or we rely on it for finding our next favorite author.

Now let’s take that and move forward a little.

The funding of websites, and the people who do the funding, are largely automated, and even when they are not, the role the people and organizations at the hierarchy’s top are a money first algorithm.

Make. More. Money.

If 50 % of the time when you, or anyone for that matter shop for say, garden gnomes painted with red hats, you also search for “How to set fire to my neighbors pine trees, they are always dropping pine needles on my lawn.” This may lead to searches and subsequent purchase of gasoline containers and strike-anywhere-matches. (That's the strangest combination I could think of.)

Red Hat Gnome
Shifty eyed, that's why he hides them...

Two things will happen. Data association will drive advertisements on the gnome websites for the matches and containers, and the same will happen in reverse on the gasoline sites, driving an uptick in gnome sales.

I selected one very innocent thing, and one questionable thing. The funding for one website and its advertisements will spill into the other because the algorithm says if you support the website for burning down your neighbors’ woods, you will make money on gnomes. This was a silly example, but many such correlation functions exist. Your time searching and online purchases are like voting for how the algorithm works.

What you spend time reading when it is innocent, can get tied to, and fund, something that is less innocent because of your history. Even if you are behind a VPN and associations are blinded to some degree, (though many VPNs will also sell your data) total traffic still drives the money and funding to the more questionable site.

Pine Trees are Very Flammable.
Pine Trees are Very Flammable.

In an alternate world, where nobody ever visited the website “How to set fire to my neighbors pine trees, they are always dropping pine needles on my lawn,”.com, (I bet THAT domain name is free…) the site would die off except for the raw effort of the person maintaining it. (And maintaining a grudge.) No advertisement money would flow in, no search engine recommendation would push it to the top. Other people wouldn’t find it unless they knew to search for it.

If nobody ever purchased a piece of gym equipment because of YouTube advertisements, Rogue would stop advertising there. If nobody clicked on the ads on the sides of the website, people wouldn’t pay to be shown there. The constant barrage works.

Key takeaways:

What you search, and when you search, are shared between platforms. Those searches, and how long you spend on those sites are tracked, and used to drive revenue. Revenue comes in the form of traffic, like old foot traffic past a store but now it is a digital space. That traffic also gives revenue by ad clicks and future purchases. The desire to have the most eyes on your advertisement, the most clicks and time on your site, will drive the algorithms to direct traffic.


When we kick off the next reading section for this topic, we will look in more detail at the kinds of things which grab human attention, and keep it. Why this can be bad for us, and how it leads to echo chambers for both problems and solutions will lead into debate and positive site influence verses negative site influence.

See you next time. For now, remember, what you read, matters.

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Nov 05, 2023

Thanks for the reminder to mind what we click and "vote" for what we will see more of.

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